Chicago program helps women get their lives back on track after prison

FOX 32 NEWS - Much of the crime in Chicago is committed by offenders who have already spent time in prison, but find themselves returning to their old habits.

At Grace House on Chicago's Near West Side, the women who live there take part in a seminar on "critical thinking." The women also all have one thing in common. In recent years, their "thinking" had landed them in prison.

The 18 women living at Grace House are hoping to transition from lives of crime and incarceration to productive lives with stability and families.

Program director Holly Christian says she starts by letting the women know they're no longer inmates, they are "participants."

“I call them participants, because they know what they want. I help them to develop that. And then, we take a look at it, how does this look? And then we tweak it, sort of, try this, substance abuse, mental health, we have on- site job readiness skills. Help them get employed. Ultimate goal? Get your own housing,” Christian said.

The housing, meals and counseling are provided at no cost.  That's been the philosophy since Grace House was opened in 1994 by St. Leonard's Ministries, which already had a larger program for men leaving prison.

“The women come broken. I'm not sure they were broken in prison, many were broken before then went into prison, but they certainly come out of prison with all the same problems that caused them to go to prison in the first place,” said Erwin Mayer, Executive Director of St Leonard’s ministries.

That includes health issues. Tina Houston had a mastectomy while in prison, and Grace House is helping with her recovery.

“I tap into a lot of things that I haven't tapped into before. Like singing, and yoga classes, and exercises classes, I never did nothing like that before,” Houston said.

Valerie Nash says after prison, she was unable to handle simple tasks, like putting together a resume.

Valerie Nash/ Grace House Resident: “I lost touch with all those things because I had been out so long, out of touch with it. So they're teaching me how to live life all over again, only better,” Nash said.

The residents at Grace House have their own bedrooms with locks for privacy. There's also access to computers and sewing classes.

“Grace House is giving me the opportunity to get everything I need back to where I need it,” said Jennifer Gabriel.

“I know that if I just stay on course and follow the path that they have laid out, then I know that it's a miracle at the end,” Sharon Nelson said.

The recidivism rate for all women released from Illinois prisons averages around 30 percent. Saint Leonard’s says for women who go through Grace House, it’s just 5 percent.