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Peer support brings hope after release from jail, prison

July 14, 2018

Born and raised in Madison, the man was robbed and began carrying a gun for protection when he was 16. But he had never been in serious trouble until shooting at a group that was harassing his family at their South Side home last year.

He was charged with five counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety and use of a dangerous weapon, pled guilty to one of the counts and served nine months in the Dane County Jail and the county’s work-release Huber Center, with five years of probation.

Now 27, he’s back in the community with a felony on his record. The streets present the same temptations and dangers. But there’s a big difference now, and his name is Demell Glenn.

Glenn, 45, was once a drug dealer, who, in 1996, shot at a group of people who had attacked him. He was convicted of first-degree recklessly endangering safety and served four years of a nine-year prison sentence.

These days, Glenn is a truck driver and peer support specialist for Madison-area Urban Ministry, offering his experience and insights to help offenders like the 27-year-old re-enter the community and create a better future.

“It’s great to have a person like that,” said the man, who shared his story on condition he not be identified to protect his career prospects. “Most people don’t have no support to help them.”

Madison-area Urban Ministry, or MUM, founded in 1997, is housed in a nondescript, cream-colored building at 2115 S. Park St. on the South Side. But its array of services for individuals and families affected by crime or poverty changes lives, from pairing those re-entering the community after incarceration with a group of trained community volunteers to working with the children of incarcerated parents.

MUM, which has long had a policy of including people who have been incarcerated on its board of directors and staff, was well positioned to help when the city sought partners for a long-term peer support initiative last year following an increase in shootings and homicides.

Peer support specialists, who help those caught up in cycles of violence, have experience in recovering from mental health problems or substance abuse, and in this case, have been incarcerated.

“A lot of people don’t have a lot of hope,” MUM executive director Linda Ketcham said. “There’s trauma that comes with systemic racism and injustice — housing, employment, credit. The peers show there’s a way they can get out of it. There’s hope there.”

The city pursued two programs: crisis-focused peer support for 24-hour emergency response and services to those who’ve experienced or been involved in acts of violence, and re-entry peer support to provide services to those previously incarcerated and deemed at risk of re-offending or engaging in behaviors that could lead to re-incarceration. The efforts were to focus on those 16 to 35 years old.

MUM got the latter contract, up to $150,000 for the last two months of 2017 and $200,000 for 2018. It has 2.25 full-time-equivalent employees dedicated to peer support under the city contract, and as an agency has six certified peer support specialists and one other staff member awaiting test results.

In the first quarter of the year, MUM has matched peer support specialists with 19 clients under the city contract, including 10 considered to be of high risk and nine of medium risk of re-offending, Ketcham said.

“We have in-reach into the jail and prison to connect with people pre-release,” she said. “We also meet with potential referral sources like jail staff, DOC and other agencies and let them know about the program. On a weekly basis, people just walk through our doors after having been released.”

Vulnerable population

James Morgan, 59, who spent 24 years in prison for sexual assault, is MUM’s lone, full-time peer support specialist and is committed to the possibilities of empathy and new beginnings.

Often, incarceration can create a deep dependency, posing day-to-day challenges after release, from getting and preparing food, housing, advocating for one’s self in the community, responding to a potential employer and rebuilding relationships with family, Morgan said.

“Incarceration for many instills a sense of dehumanization, hopelessness, and belief that they’re destined for failure in virtually every sphere of human interaction,” he said.

MUM has several partners, including Access to Independence, Access Housing, Vision Beyond Bars, Neighborhood Food Solutions, the Employment and Training Association, and Jesse Crawford Recovery Center, Ketcham said.

“Because we’ve been around and doing this for a fairly long time, we have a whole network of community organizations with whom we work,” she said, adding it also provides vocational training through its Just Bakery, which trains people with employment barriers to work in commercial bakeries.

The special connector is the peer support specialist.

“We are dealing with a population who are most vulnerable. We’re dealing with people who are homeless. We are dealing with people who have been perpetrators and the victims of various levels of violence,” Morgan said. “It’s a companionship. It’s a relationship. We don’t tell them; we walk with them.”

Skirting the line

The 27-year-old with the felony conviction who is working with Glenn shares a story common among some of Madison’s youth and young adults.

His father was often incarcerated and his mother raised seven children by herself, moving frequently among the city’s poorer neighborhoods. The children changed schools often, and the neighborhoods grew more dangerous as he reached his mid-teens.

“A lot of gangs were trying to make their mark up here,” he said. “People would just start drama with friends I was hanging out with, mug you for no reason or try to get you to join them.” He started rapping about politics and street life when he was about 14.

At 16, a group surrounded him at the Metro Transit South Transfer Point, threatening him and taking his cellphone and hat. His mother later intervened and recovered the items, but the incident had a profound impact.

“My whole mindset changed,” he said. “I felt real revengeful after that. That’s when the gun part started coming in.”

Some people told him not to retaliate. Others advised, “Do what you got to do but whatever you do, don’t get caught.” He and about 10 friends went looking for the other group but didn’t find them.

Despite his new outlook, he did OK in school but was often in the office for poor behavior. He’d play basketball, hang out with friends and go to house parties, but he said he didn’t steal cars or sell drugs. “We did more fun stuff than negative stuff,” he said.

He also became a father, but his baby boy died of a heart condition and pneumonia at just 2½ months. In 2016, he enrolled in the Los Angeles Film School, which offers associate and bachelor’s degrees in majors relating to the entertainment industry, but he dropped out and returned to Madison in April 2017, living with his child’s mother’s family.

After his return, he said, a group began to threaten his family and “I wasn’t having any of it,” he said.

‘I’ll just scare them’

One day, the group, including people he used to hang out with, was on his mother’s back porch and “one thing led to another,” he said.

“You can have a person who’s cool with you, but he’s not cool with the person you’re hanging out with, whether you grew up together or not,” he said.

He got his gun and fired at them.

“I wasn’t trying to hit them. I was trying to scare them,” he said. “I wanted to (hit them), but in my conscience (I thought), ‘No, not this time. I’ll just scare them.’ ”

But his actions exacted a heavy price anyway: Nine months in jail.

In March, he met Glenn, and he was released on May 4. He’s been staying with his child’s mother but having no success finding a job. He hopes to complete film school and run his own studio with his own recording label.

Glenn is with him often.

“It’s not going to be easy. You have to rebuild,” Glenn said of return to the community. “(But) it’s easier for a person to relate to someone who has been through it.”

The 27-year-old agreed.

“He gives me insight into where I’m at mentally, the routes I can take,” he said.

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