makeshift family

makeshift family

Re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated.



That week, I found myself sitting in an unusual place off near the left side of the heavy wooden desk in the office of my internship supervisor, rather symbolically halfway between where he sat and where sat the client across from him. Since beginning my internship at Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), a non-profit that offers re-entry services to former inmates returning to the community from prison, I had sat in that office too many times to count, but often I sat where that client was then, across the desk, a visitor. These times were different – the power differential was altered by the client’s presence. I was now promoted to being my supervisor’s right-hand man – or, rather, left-hand woman.

One of MUM’s most renowned services is its Circles of Support, a program which puts a group of volunteers in a “circle” around a client in order to provide friendship, compassion, stability, trust, and – most importantly – support. In a world aptly named the Information Age and interrupted incessantly with facts, statistics, graphs, and polls, often the importance of emotional health and well-being falls to the wayside to make room for more percentages of recidivism and more statistics on the number of people incarcerated, for how long, and why. Having support is too intangible, too “soft,” to be deemed important by a prison industrial complex run on politicized funds and mass incarceration. No one can deny that people need food, housing, a job; yet, it is difficult to grasp these needs and rise above one’s mistakes and one’s lot in life entirely alone. MUM uniquely catered to this most intangible of social needs. It was for support that the client came to MUM that week.

He was an African-American man in his early 40’s, sitting in his chair as if he wanted to melt into it and disappear. He had recently been released from prison after serving five years for assault, his first offense. He hardly made eye contact while he spoke, but, before he uttered anything, I often saw him look nervously at me – a young, white, female face in the room between an older ex-offender black male supervisor and an older ex-offender black male client. Beyond the fact that he was clearly uncomfortable in my presence, he was uncomfortable with the entire situation: his story was punctuated with him muttering “I don’t like to talk about myself,” he gave the shortest answers possible to any question asked, and everything about his body language, from his flickering eyes to his clasped hands, loudly screamed nervousness, overpowering his quiet voice. He was here because my supervisor had insisted upon it. The client suffered from serious health problems that prevented him from being able to work, which rendered him unable to get into programs that could have helped with his government aid and housing situations because so many require that a client be actively searching for a job. His family was unsupportive and fractured. Essentially, he held very little power; he was at the mercy of MUM, an organization with many programs that may be able to benefit him if he could become officially associated.

My supervisor suggested that he get a Circle of Support in order to talk about these issues. “I like to solve my own problems,” the client mumbled, a strangely unreceptive candidate for an entirely optional program. At this point, as I recall this story in my head, I imagine my supervisor nervously looking towards the handwritten note from his supervisor that I know he had received earlier that week. It stated that if a significant number of new circles were not created within the next two months, the program’s funding was in serious jeopardy. My supervisor then said, “Everybody needs to talk about their problems. When can you start?” We organized a circle around him. It consisted of three white women and one white man.


MUM is an organization run with the best intentions by excellent people – I can confirm this, having spent a significant amount of time with them. Unfortunately, it exists in a world where there are limited resources – money, time, and volunteers. These limited resources make it difficult for MUM or any social work-based nonprofit to perform their services to the maximum level that they could.

When my supervisor insisted upon giving the client a Circle of Support, I was struck by how forcefully he did it. While surely the client did not know about the agency’s funding issues, I knew and my supervisor knew, and I could not help but feel as though the client was being used more as a means to an end than as an end himself. This is in no way to say that my supervisor did not care about him or that he was using him 100%; I think my supervisor truly believed a Circle could help in some way. However, for a Circle to be effective, the client being encircled has to want it, and the client sitting across from us that day did not seem ready to want it yet. However, he was in a position where it was hard to say no – a shy, embarrassed recent ex-inmate sitting across from two figures of authority in a small office, seeking help in any way but finding many programs unable to do so. It is odd to think that in this case I too was a figure of authority; perhaps in this way I played an unwitting part in his becoming a Circles client.

It is unusual too to think of how the fact that I look different than the clients in my race, gender, and age affected how effectively I could provide MUM’s services to them. In the case above, it was fairly obvious that the client was noticing all these differences before he said anything, especially any sensitive information regarding his crime or family. Perhaps the right phrase is not that I was not taken seriously, but that is often how it felt; rather, I think many of the clients thought (and probably rightly so) that I could not possibly really, truly, deeply understand what they were going through and found it difficult to open up to me. Granted, I am young, inexperienced, and privileged; I am not insulted by their reaction. However, it is a reaction I very naively had never really considered before beginning my internship. I often felt as though I was being perceived as some condescending white person who just wanted to help the poor black people, and I would be lying if I did not sometimes feel that way about myself a little bit. While there are many people of color and ex-offenders working at MUM, there are many white people, especially women, with no criminal history whatsoever. It was clear that there was a color imbalance between the authority figures and the clients. Was I just another white authority figure to them?

These musings become especially interesting when I reflect upon the Circles program in itself. I think the idea of the program is excellent and I think that support is an important aspect of the human social world that cannot be forgotten when it comes to healing a hurt person. However, the Circle volunteers are almost all white and are overwhelmingly women. These women certainly have the best intentions, but I wonder just how effectively a group of white middle-aged women can truly offer support and understanding to the young black male ex-offender. If we had more people of color, more men, more variance in criminal history and personal history, the service would probably be taken to a whole new level of effectiveness. If I were a client in a situation in which I was the only one who came from my socioeconomic background and who had done what I had done, I would find it difficult to open up and difficult to not feel like some charity case myself. However, as mentioned before, all non-profit agencies rely on whatever resources they can get. We needed volunteers and we genuinely appreciated them for all that they did (and continue to do); however, the racial inequalities, I think, may degrade the quality of the service more than anyone is willing to talk about.

Upon reflection, I have realized how difficult it is to implement the services that MUM provides. There is such an inexactness associated with a person’s emotional well-being – it is not something that can be quantified. Therefore, it is hard to measure success and impossible to have mathematical precision when it comes to who would benefit from the services. It is difficult to place any sort of blame on the agencies that attempt to help those who find themselves without support if their programs are less than perfect. I see these problems – the whitewashed volunteers, clients who are skeptical about the program, funding issues – and I too cannot think of any better ways to run Circles of Support. If there is one overarching and general lesson that I took from my experience, it is that offering Circles of Support (or any similar program) is a complex endeavor. There are seemingly limitless factors that can affect all the different players who come together to eventually make the program happen. Life is complicated, for clients especially, but also the volunteers and the program coordinators. It is actually quite amazing that for an hour and a half once a week, all of these separate complex lives come together for a single purpose: supporting another person along their personal life journey.

A few weeks after the client’s circle began, I was in the MUM office working on the computer. I had not been in to see the circle that was occurring that day. When the hour and a half or so was up, the volunteers exited the room, laughing. The client left last, a smile on his face that was much larger and much more genuine than anything I had seen from him before. One of the volunteers touched his arm, remarking: “You are so funny!” The group seemed as if they were all old friends who had met for dinner, not part of a volunteer program which had begun only a few weeks prior. I was a little surprised and very pleased to see such cohesion and the beginnings of what clearly was a lot more than four volunteers taking on a charity case. It seemed as though friendship was blooming. Most importantly, the client seemed, for the first time, at home in his surroundings. In the weeks that followed this turning point, which happened far more quickly than I ever would have predicted, the group transformed into a group of friends. Although brought together by unusual circumstances, they appeared to be real friends, people with a true connection to each other. The client seemed to have forgotten his previous skepticism.

Throughout all of this, my supervisor seemed pleased in a quiet, knowing way. Perhaps he just got lucky that the client took to the circle so much better than I, at least, had predicted; maybe there is something to be said for the experience my supervisor had surely acquired through years of working at MUM. Either way, that same group still meets each week, coming together in the back room of the MUM office to discuss their weekends, future plans, hopes, dreams, fears, problems. For all of the program’s imperfections, for all of the cultural and social issues that come to the surface when it comes to the inequalities of the criminal justice system, there is a sort of perfection that can come of it when all of the factors align just right. Only time can tell what will happen from the client’s participation in a circle of support, but perhaps, despite his initial reluctance and my initial predictions, he will get the family he needed more than he knew.

Images: anonymous