Roxana High School graduate Dar Bryant, who controls stage operations at the River of Life Church at 3401 Fosterburg Road in Alton, has sucessfully turned his life around and plans to help others do the same.
ALTON — Dar Bryant wanted to change.
The East Alton area native was serving a three-year prison sentence at an Arizona facility for manufacturing dangerous drugs, forgery and theft, but he was also working toward a better life upon release. While in prison, Bryant, a now recovered drug addict, participated in a substance abuse treatment program, earned his associate’s degree and finished his sentence early for good behavior. He was, so he thought, a changed man.
“I came out with a very positive attitude,” said Bryant. “I was determined to make it.”
But it wasn’t enough. Five years after his release, Bryant took drugs again in a moment of weakness. A year and a half later, he once again found himself behind bars.
Bryant is one of thousands who relapse into criminal behavior after serving time. In his 2015 executive order aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said nearly half of the state’s adult inmates are re-incarcerated within three years of release. Of the 49,000 people in prison in Illinois, 97 percent will eventually be released into the community, the governor also said in his executive order.
To review Illinois’ overpopulated and costly prison system, Rauner created the state Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, a group of more than two dozen experts tasked with making recommendations on how to achieve a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025.
As offenders are diverted from prison back to society, community-based services will become increasingly important, the commission found, saying “incarceration may do more harm to public safety than good” in part because ex-convicts are often released into the community without a sufficient support network.
But gridlock in Springfield — not to mention a lack of data-driven evidence on program effectiveness — means lawmakers can’t agree on how to fund community-based services. As a result, some services in the state, including Alton’s prisoner re-entry program through Lutheran Social Services, are being forced to close their doors.
Care after prison
The program, operated by coordinator Mike Pallagi, offers assistance in food, clothing, housing, transportation, family reunification, employment skills education, and employment, among other services to “returning citizens,” a term for former inmates who are returning to the community.
Pallagi, who did time in prison himself, accepts returning citizens no matter the reason for their incarceration. He meets with them one-on-one to create an “action plan” for re-entry into the community, and follows their progress closely.
Lutheran Social Services announced Pallagi’s program would be shut down by the end of February, but Pallagi says he will continue to assist the program’s 218 clients through the end of the month and beyond.
“I can’t leave them,” Pallagi said of returning citizens, a population “not too many people want to deal with.” He said services will continue to be offered through River of Life Family Church in Alton after the re-entry program is shuttered.
Community-based programs like Pallagi’s are essential to preventing re-incarceration, or recidivism, according to a 2014 article in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. Recovering drug addicts like Bryant are especially at-risk. Drug addiction “often leads to relapses that require repeated interventions” after a stint in prison, said David Olson and Arthur Lurigio, authors of the article. Hence the importance of community-based services for continuing care.
Bryant credits the drug abuse treatment program he completed in prison for his initial success after his first release.
But Bryant, then in his 30s, came from a long line of addiction and drug use that started when he was just 14. It was the addiction that landed him in prison the second time around. In a moment of weakness about five years into his first release, he took drugs again. He immediately went back to his old habits, and a year and a half later, he was re-incarcerated.
Community-based services are meant to help people like Bryant stay off of drugs and out of prison after release, but in-prison drug abuse treatment programs are also essential to preventing recidivism.
From day one, each inmate at the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center (SWICC) in East St. Louis participates in a substance abuse treatment program.
Inmates of the all-male prison stay for a maximum of three years at the minimum-security facility. There are about 725 inmates in the prison, which can house up to 731 individuals, and all of them are classified as substance abusers. They attend 15 hours of counseling per week in addition to vocational, educational and work programs.
Prison staff, counselors and parole officers become involved in a post-release plan when inmates are 120 days away from release. Inmates might be recommended to a halfway house, outpatient counseling or a community-based service like Pallagi’s. All this creates a “pretty smooth” transition for returning citizens, Warden Ron Vitale said.
Vitale said he believes his facility’s recidivism numbers would likely be lower than the roughly 50 percent rate cited by the governor, due in large part to the treatment program and efforts to ensure prisoners have the skills they will need on the outside.
But Vitale can’t be certain about his facility’s recidivism rates. The Illinois Department of Corrections lacks the resources to track recidivism numbers, SWICC included.
Feelings of enormous pressure, self-deprecation and paranoia are common after being released from prison, said Bryant, the East-Alton ex-convict, now a production manager at the River of Life Family Church. Even in the grocery store, he said he felt people knew he was an ex-convict.
“The stigma is daunting. You feel like everybody knows you just got out of prison, like nobody trusts you. You’re scared to death,” Bryant said. “I had every opportunity to get better, but I was so busy being mad and angry at God. God never did anything for me except let me down, but I didn’t have the strength of my own.”
It was a renewed faith in God, the church-based prison ministry program at River of Life, and an emotionally and financially supportive family that finally instilled in him a true change of both mind and spirit, Bryant said.
He eventually shared his story with fellow churchgoers (including Pallagi), and soon, people who had been in prison came out of the woodwork to talk about their experiences. To reach out to people who need ongoing help, Bryant and Pallagi are teaming up to re-energize the prison ministry program at their church.
Whether it’s a belief in a higher spirit or simply being surrounded by healthy minds, being part of a community is essential to rehabilitation, said Mark Church, pastor at River of Life.
“When you connect with other people, you can take off the mask in a safe environment in a group of people that are there for each other. We need each other for this process. It’s not a lone-ranger thing,” Church said.
The state’s cuts have made that mission harder, though Rauner’s mandates have made community-based services more necessary. Without the support of a network and basic necessities, Bryant said, getting out of prison is liberation in name only.
“Freedom with nothing is not freedom at all,” Bryant said.
For more information on River of Life Family Church’s re-entry program, call Mike Pallagi at 618-433-8200 or call the church at 618-465-4000.
Reporter Kelsey Landis can be reached at 618-208-6460, Ext. 1396 or on Twitter @kelseylandis.