An ex-offender’s second chance through Catholic Charities

Photo by Mary McCusker
Kisanna Owens, prison re-entry coordinator (left), works with those who are incarcerated at institutions in South Jersey during the period of their imprisonment and beyond. The Re-Entry program aims to help those leaving the criminal justice system get back on their feet and avoid the cycle of recidivism.

When Samira Wade sat in Salem County Prison in July 2017, she received an unexpected visitor — Kisanna Owens, prison re-entry coordinator at Catholic Charities.

“I was getting close to my release date. I was told that [Owens] was there to help me transition to life outside of prison,” Wade said.

She spoke about her initial, skeptical reaction to receiving help. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way anyone can actually help me.’ I sat there, Ms. Owens described the support and assistance she could provide once I was released. But I didn’t believe her and didn’t listen. I was so stubborn and doubtful.”

But that encounter, she explained tearfully one year later, was one that ultimately changed her life. “I just didn’t realize that at the time.”

Upon being released, life outside of the walls proved to be much more challenging than Wade expected.

After spending six months in prison, Wade tried to start over alone. “I just kept hitting roadblock after roadblock,” she recalled.

Eventually, feeling lost and isolated, Wade hit her rock bottom. As a recovering addict, she found herself wanting to use again.

Owens explained that the urge to turn to drugs is a common struggle with those who have been recently released from incarceration. “The struggle of wanting to turn to drugs is a struggle I see a lot with clients who have been released. Often times, they’re isolated from their family, they have no housing or job prospects. So they figure that getting high is easier, and they end up on the street,” she said. “They need professional support so that doesn’t end up happening.”

Luckily, Wade still had Owens’ phone number and decided to call her. “Ms. Owens remembered me. I couldn’t believe that, she remembered me, and she still wanted to give me a chance even after I refused her help at first.”

The two began meeting regularly, and Owens immediately took action, providing Wade with much-needed counseling and support.

As Wade described the process of getting her life back on track while remaining clean, she noted, “There were times when I wanted to relapse so badly. There were times when I wanted to just go back to my old ways and do bad things. But the one thing that I held onto, and the one thing that kept me going… was the thought of letting Ms. Owens down. She was the first person to ever believe in me, and the only thing worse than going back to my old ways would be disappointing her. She was truly my motivation.”

With the help of Owens’ guidance and counseling, Wade was able to look at her life with a clear mind. “Ms. Owens kept me focused. She would check in on me, she’d encourage me, keep me on track. … She’d talk to me about next steps like finding a job and a stable place to live. She took time out of her personal schedule and personal life to make sure that I stayed on track with my goals.”

Pausing, she added, “But she pushed me, and in a way that I needed. There were times when I got really impatient and would make excuses, but she saw right through that, and didn’t accept it. It made me work harder.”

Almost exactly one year following her prison release, it was Wade who called in to check up on Owens — and to thank her.

Wade has remained sober, and is currently studying to be a medical assistant. When she called Owens, she was taking a break from studying.

“I spend most of my time studying. I have a test or two every week, and the nationals is a two-day test. I study every single day because I’m determined to succeed,” she said confidently. “I just finished applying for several jobs, I’m so eager to get back to work.”

Owens was quick to praise Wade’s motivated attitude. “She truly wanted to get better. When she told me that, I could see it in her eyes. It wasn’t an easy journey, but she’s made it through and is on her way. … To know that she’s sober, working, going to school … that means so much to hear.”

According to Wade, “I never in a million years thought that my life could change so drastically in one year. I’ve come a long way and still have work to do. But none of this would be possible without Ms. Owens.”

The Prison Re-Entry Program at Catholic Charities is a growing spectrum of services that involves outreach to those who are incarcerated within the Diocese of Camden during the period of their imprisonment and beyond. The Re-Entry Program aims to help those leaving the criminal justice system get back on their feet and avoid the cycle of recidivism. To learn more, visit: