Life was going well for Leticia Ferguson, 48. She had a home, a job and a loving family. She knew she probably drank a little too much, but it didn’t seem to have much of an effect on her life.
Until a series of poor choices and a DUI resulted in a six month sentence in the Salem County Jail.
“I lost everything — my home, my family, my job,” Ferguson explained.
While serving her sentence, Leticia had a visitor — Kisanna Owens, Prison Re-entry coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden.
“When I first met Ms. Owens, I didn’t know why she was there or why she, or anyone at all, would want to help me. I committed a crime. But she explained that she was there to help me get my life back together once I was released. And it was like an angel appeared,” Ferguson said. “I cry every time I think about it.”
Over the course of the next several months, Owens met regularly with Ferguson in jail. They discussed the challenges and opportunities that were ahead upon transitioning from life on the inside to life on the outside.
Explained Ferguson, “Ms. Owens has a way about her. … I didn’t feel judged by her. But she made me stronger. I looked forward to her visits. She kept me focused, and she explained my options, how she can help, and the steps that I would need to take once I was released. We would talk about my goals, and she kept me determined.”
Without doubt, Ferguson would need a lot of focus and determination to succeed with her reintegration into the community. Statistics show that roughly half of all ex-offenders return to prison within five years of their release. Many former prisoners have inadequate education and job skills, and few housing options. They often struggle with drug addictions and debt.
But studies also show that when incarcerated individuals participate in programs like the Catholic Charities Re-entry program, they are more likely to beat the odds and successfully return back to the community. And services that support the reintegration of former offenders into society are far less costly than re-incarceration.
Owens explained the process she goes through with inmates.
“The warden makes sure that I receive a list of new and current inmates, and I sift through the list to see who is being released between three to six months. Often times, that is the scariest time for them. They know that they’ll be released soon and are looking forward to it, but they also know that their return to the community is a huge challenge.”
She continued, “During my initial conversations with the inmates, I let them know that the Catholic Charities Prison Re-entry program is voluntary. If they choose to partake, I talk to them about their charges. I focus on their goals and things that they may not have going for them upon being released so they’re prepared to address things like schooling, employment and housing. I ask about their children. I ask if they have had a history of drug problems. And we figure out how to develop a plan to combat these issues once they’re released.”
On the day Ferguson was released from jail, Owens met her at the transportation center with a bus pass. The former inmate wasted no time and used the pass immediately to look for work.
“That was her sole focus,” noted Owens. “And she found a job quickly.”
In her first challenge on the outside, Ferguson defied the statistics. Less than 50 percent of formerly incarcerated men and women find work within their first year after release.
With steady employment, Ferguson set her sights on the next hurdle — finding a home. Catholic Charities was able to assist her with a security deposit which enabled Ferguson to move into stable housing more quickly.
With a job and a place of her own, Ferguson was ready to achieve her most important re-entry goal — having her 17-year old son move back in with her.
Now reunited with her son, Ferguson reflected on her journey from incarceration to freedom and redemption. “This has made me stronger and more careful. I made a huge mistake, there’s no doubt about that, and paid the price. But it made me stronger. And more than anything, it has humbled me. When you go from having a home, a family, a job, security … when you go from having everything to losing it all in the blink of an eye, you are humbled.”
Owens was quick to praise her client’s unwavering determination. “The most incredible thing about Leticia is that she absolutely refused to let her time in jail define her. … She didn’t dwell on the fact that she had been charged — and that’s not the case for many people who have been locked up. She recognized her mistake. And she used that, and her time in jail, as motivation to get her life back together.”
A new chapter has begun in Leticia’s life. “I was decorating my new place with my son, and suddenly he paused, looked at me and said, ‘Mom … everything, it’s like back to normal again’”.
“I have a home again. My son is living with me again and he’s doing really well. I’m employed with a rewarding job. I have my license back. I have my life back,” she said, “and I would not have been able to do it without Ms. Owens.”
Catholic Charities is supported by the House of Charity.