Sister Mary Sean Hodges gives ex-convicts a second chance

After visiting prisons to pray with inmates, she began to offer former convicts a place to live and a program to deal with their social, practical, and spiritual needs.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Sister Mary Sean Hodges talks with a former inmate that volunteers at the Office of Restorative Justice for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

In the soft light of early evening, the smell of curried chilies wafts through the screen door of this two-story, Craftsman-style house in a tidy section of South Los Angeles. As bicycle bells jingle and ice-cream trucks pass by, four men sit in rockers, telling their stories of life in prison to a visiting journalist.

All four spent 30 to 35 years in prison for murder. All four have been released to this halfway house to get their bearings before moving on with their lives. All four identify strongly with the character of Brooks Hatlen in the 1994 movie "The Shawshank Redemption": a man who is paroled after more than three decades behind bars and is so disoriented by the prospect of starting a new life in a world he no longer understands that he commits suicide.

And all four credit a woman sitting on the wide porch alongside them, Sister Mary Sean Hodges, for why they won't follow in Brooks's footsteps. Each has a gratitude and regard that wells up from deep within for the Roman Catholic nun with mercury-colored hair.

"If it weren't for Sister Mary Sean, I wouldn't be here," says Tom (not his real name). Tom heard about Sister Hodges when she visited Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, where he was serving a sentence for shooting a man in a bar in 1981.

Tom had just received a letter from his sister, who told him to stop asking her for money. Eyes tearing up, he tells of how Hodges immediately filled the spiritual gap he was feeling with calming words about the grace of God. The two began a written correspondence that culminated with his arrival here just weeks before.

The house is clean and well appointed: nice bathrooms, a large kitchen, and a small yard out back with a vegetable garden. Tom is one of 15 men living here now, courtesy of a program begun by Hodges.

The house is one of five she operates in South Los Angeles. Altogether, the program shelters 60 men.

This moment has grown from a story that started seven years ago, when Hodges began offering former inmates – specifically sex offenders – a place to live in an old warehouse near downtown Los Angeles that had once been an adult bookstore. Hodges had been visiting prisons to pray with inmates, and what she learned led her to design a program to deal with their social, practical, and spiritual needs.

"My faith and belief in Christ Jesus teaches me that all persons are redeemed and redeemable," she says.

Hodges has advocated in front of parole boards and written more than 1,000 letters on behalf of "lifers" to support their parole. Her reentry program has been the only one in the state that has provided a letter of support for housing and employment for former lifers while they were still incarcerated.

"If you walk into any one of California's 33 prisons, you will find someone that has been benefited by Sister Hodges," says Javier Stauring, codirector of the Office of Restorative Justice for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She tours prisons, giving talks about her program and meeting groups of men.

"When she sees that there is a need, she just responds to it," Mr. Stauring says. "That's how she started out with the houses.... She had no experience in what it takes to run a house, much less purchase one. She just knew there was a need and responded. Now there are five of them. And I think she's on the lookout for more houses all the time."

Hodges had come from a 40-year teaching career, first at an elementary school and later at a high school teaching math, science, and religion. At age 60 she decided she wanted to go on working but not as a teacher. "I took a year off to explore what to do," she says.

Hodges, one of nine children who grew up in southern California, has a younger brother who is an alcoholic. She watched him lose his construction business and become homeless, go into alcohol-recovery programs, get better, and then slide back.

"It became clear to me that he would sober up and then return home to his dysfunctional family, and the drinking behavior would return because he didn't have any support structure to maintain the new behaviors he had painstakingly learned," Hodges says.

This is the kind of cycle prison officials say is largely responsible for the high recidivism in US prisons; there's a lack of support to help ex-cons maintain gains made during rehabilitation.

Hodges applied for an opening at the archdiocese's Office of Restorative Justice – a group of laypeople and clergy who work together to provide community services. "I liked the idea that they see crime as an indicator of what needs to be healed rather than punished, which is how the prison system sees it," she says.

She developed a mentoring program for addicts about to be released from prison. She organized workers from other parishes and began helping parolees find apartments when they left prison. She often helped with their rent.

And she started a program called PREP: Partnership for Re-entry Program.

Noticing that hundreds of parolees were being turned down by parole boards because they felt that the prisoners had not progressed sufficiently, Hodges developed an "insight" program designed specifically to address the causes of criminal behavior.

Faith is key. A lot of men have never faced up to the behavior that got them imprisoned, she says. "When the parole board asks them about it, they don't know what to say."

"What I got better at was going to church in prison," says Robert (not his real name). "I definitely found the guidance of God while there, and now I pray to him every day."

PREP provides a mentor to accompany a parolee to many of the places he will need to go upon release: the Department of Motor Vehicles, general relief offices, the Social Security office, and the employment office. (It is now run by Sister Teresa Groth, although Hodges is sometimes the one who accompanies them.)

Most of the men will stay in the house from six to 18 months. Each man's rent, about $300 a month, is paid through a combination of their own earnings, donations, and grants.

The men here say they look for work but that the jobs are few: Men with prison records are the last to be hired. Often they go out in the morning and stand with other prospective day laborers at nearby parking lots. "Employers and homeowners of all kinds drive by and need people for everything from trimming trees to putting up drywall," Robert says.

Lack of housing is one of the biggest reasons for high recidivism among parolees.

"It is often very difficult for persons coming out of prison to find housing because public housing is off limits for those with arrest records," says Michael Seng, a professor and co-executive director of the Fair Housing Legal Support Center at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"Municipalities often make it difficult for landlords to rent to those with records, and many private landlords are ... denying leases to those with records," he says.

"Without [PREP], I would have come out of prison with $200 and would be looking for a bridge to sleep under," says Robert, who was in prison for murder from 1981 until this year. Now he has a good bed, three meals a day, and other men living with him who are also trying to learn things they missed while in prison, such as how to use the Internet and how to apply for jobs.

If it weren't for what he learned in Hodges's insight project, Robert says, he never would have made parole in the first place.

"I was turned down 11 straight times for parole because I could not convince the board that I had changed and was no longer a threat to society," he says.

"After talking to Sister Mary Sean, I realized the pattern of why I had done what I had done. Now I've vowed to never repeat that kind of behavior and am gaining the confidence to move ahead with my life."

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