Prison families find 'Friends Outside'

Seated around a table in a small, wood-paneled room, nine women share a plate of peanut butter cookies and their lives -- the frustrations and fears of being separated from their husbands, the pride and concern they feel for their children.

heir husbands are in jail or prison, and in some cases the women themselves are ex-offenders.

"I'm glad I'm able to talk with somebody," Pauline Flores says later. Spea king of her four-year-old son, James, she adds, "We don't have a man around, so it's hard for him."

She and the others have come together in the small offices of "Friends Outs ide," a group that quietly has been making a big difference in how this community treats inmates and their family members.

With just five full-time employees and 600 volunteers, this private nonprofit agency last year helped 7,000 people. In some cases, it was basic necessities that were needed -- a pair of shoes for a young man released from custody barefoot, a place to sleep for a family that had been living in its car, a copy of Roget's Thesaurusm for a young prison poet.

Friends Outside also has a legal clinic (to which local attorneys donate time), tutors, and big brothers/sisters for children, counseling and courses for wives and mothers. In the wake of Proposition 13 summer school cutbacks, the group last year started a breakfast, reading, and swimming program for more than 400 youngsters. It is expected to double in size this year.

For prisoners themselves, the "Friends" provide a library service, and volunteers help inmates straighten bureaucratic tangles, reestablish contact with family members, and find employment when released. The group set up a child-care facility at the Santa Clara County Jail for families waiting to visit an inmate.

All of this is done with the blessing and full assistance of law enforcement and social service officials.

"When I came here 15 years ago, there wasn't much understanding or trust, but they tolerated us," recalls Friends Outside executive director Margaret' Muirhead. Now, these volunteers have almost complete access to the county's jails.

"Friends Outside is providing resources to us that we desperately need," says Capt. Donald Tamm, patrol commander for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department. "It's an integral part of our jail system."

Mrs. Muirhead now is asked to speak to every class of new department deputies. "I think they're beginning to realize that they're front-line social workers, despite the fact that they loathe the word," she says.

Robert Beresford, a former San Jose municipal judge who has worked with the group for 15 years, says the help provided an inmate's family "can make the difference between success in rehabilitation and failure.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this kind of approach has national significance," says Judge Beresford, who has received awards from the American Bar Association for establishing innovative judicial programs here.

Friends Outside's advisory board includes judges, law enforcement officials, and members of the clergy. But, Mrs. Muirhead says, "The meat of the organization is the volunteers."

Many, she says, are women who once called on the group for help.

The idea, as a young juvenile hall chaplain who works with the group puts it, is to "reduce the number of victims a crime has . . . minimize the impact on wives and kids."

It is not only the immediate wounds that need binding, says Jesuit priest Tom Finsterbach, but the longer range effects on the family that need tending to. The hope is that the "heritage of being in trouble" can be broken.

One such success involves Josie Alvarez, who left her life as a migrant laborer in Texas 17 years ago to find a better home for her four children.

"I found myself without friends," she recalls. "But then I came to Friends Outside, and I felt alive again. . . . They helped us keep our life together.

Mrs. Alvarez now is one of the group's most active volunteers, and her children are proof that trouble does not have to be inherited. Maria is a probation officer at San Jose juvenile hall, Tony is a police sergeant, and Albert counsels school dropouts in the city.

Friends Outside still is relatively unique in the United States. Compared to the $4 billion spent yearly on 5,000 penal institutions in the US, some might call it a drop in the bucket.

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