Prison embraces effort to stop domestic abuse

There are men at the Rush City Prison of various ages and backgrounds who have been affected by domestic violence.

Some were perpetrators, others victims.

And there are those who had to stand by and watch it happen to those they love.

Often times, the emotions these prisoners have about the domestic violence they’ve inflicted, experienced or witnessed is walled off deep within the confines of their minds.

The Refuge Network, a multi-community organization whose primary purpose is to provide supportive services for people who are currently involved or have been involved in an abusive relationship, has been working with Rush City Prison inmates for the past two years to unearth the hurt surrounding domestic violence and hopefully put a stop to future incidents of abuse.

The program, called Domestic Violence and Family Awareness, came to being after the prison approached the Refuge Network seeking a partnership.

Roxie Karelis, the executive director of the Refuge Network, said her organization had already been thinking of doing something with the prison when prison staff approached the Refuge Network.

Subsequently, staff from the Refuge Network went to speak to prisoners six times, and after those sessions it was clear a weekly program at the jail would be of value.

An evolving program

When the DVFA course started, it was a 12-week program.

Now it has evolved into a 20-week course with a 20-week aftercare support group.

A total of 14 participants at a time can enroll in the course, and there’s a three-year waiting list for the program at the prison.

Staff from the Refuge Network only have the resources to offer the program once a week for about two hours, but Karelis said some inmates have become very involved and are now like in-house teachers.

Those men – three in total – are available to the other inmates who have voluntarily enrolled in the DVFA program during and after the group sessions.

Karelis added other prisons have asked the Refuge Network to host the program at their facilities, but the nonprofit organization would need to obtain more funding to make expansion of the DVFA course a reality.

‘Light bulb’ moments

Karelis said she sat through many sessions during the first two DVFA courses, and it was amazing to see the transformation inmates made.

She noted she’s seen inmates in all the groups have “light bulb” moments where they come to an understanding about domestic violence.

In particular, Karelis mentioned one inmate – one of the co-facilitators of the group – who murdered his sister’s abuser.

“He said in group he didn’t know there was any other way (to stop the abuse),” she said. “He didn’t know abusers could ever stop abusing because that had never been his experience. In hindsight, he wishes he would have known abusers can change because he might have done things differently.”

Karelis added, “I don’t know if some guys have ever heard domestic abuse is not acceptable.”

She explained many of the inmates grew up in homes with violent parents or caretakers, so domestic abuse was something they essentially deemed to be normal.

Karelis said changing that viewpoint can take some time, but she believes the DVFA program has been integral to helping the prisoners change the learned behavior of abuse.

Not a waste of resources

Shellene Johnson, the associate director of the Refuge Network, acknowledged there are those who will read about the DVFA program and label it a waste of money and time.

She sought to dispel that viewpoint.

“Even though they are people sitting in a prison, they are individuals,” she said. “They are connected to people. They’re going to have an impact and an influence in people’s lives – both people within and outside the prison. They have an impact way beyond those prison walls.”

Karelis noted that having prisoners educated about domestic violence when they reenter society would likely lead to a reduction in repeat offenses.

“I don’t know what the cost per day is to incarcerate someone,” she said. “I would think it would be better to have men coming out of prison healthier, rather than them perpetrating other crimes and then (society) is paying to incarcerate them again.”

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