The sense of freedom was overwhelming.
Drugs had landed Niles Hall in legal trouble, resulting in numerous jail sentences over the course of six years. He had been on house arrest for 1½ years and was on probation. But Hall was ready to move on and improve his life.
The problem was, he needed help doing it. He didn’t know where to look for a job, where to get help applying to college, where to find a place to stay.
“When someone gets out (of prison), they have no idea what to do next,” he said.
But Hall was able to find help. For ex-criminal offenders looking to piece together a new life after prison, Project HOPE offers support to prevent them from going back to jail.
The Bloomington-based organization teaches former inmates how to create a resume, how to dress for an interview and how to own up to their past without scaring away potential employers.
They help people get certification for jobs in food service or specialized trades. If someone needs a ride to an interview, the group provides transportation.
‘Enhances the community’
Behind the leadership of New Whiteland resident and executive director Jennifer Fillmore, the group has helped more than 190 ex-offenders get jobs, an education or simply remain out of jail.
“To me, it enhances the community. We’re keeping them out of prison, helping them get jobs to pay taxes, pay child support, reconnect with their family,” Fillmore said. “They’re becoming integrated and not staying on the fringe, which eventually leads people back.”
HOPE stands for Helping Offenders through Partnership and Employment and is a project of Centerstone of Indiana, a not-for-profit organization that provides behavioral and mental health care.
The program was funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant. The main goal is to help ex-offenders who have been released from prison in the past six months get a job, Fillmore said.
To connect clients to potential jobs, Project HOPE has specialists who work with area employers. They find out what kind of hiring requirements the business has and if there is a chance for an ex-offender to get hired.
“A lot of folks will literally get the door slammed in their face whenever anyone finds out they have any kind of a felony conviction,” Fillmore said. “It’s the kiss of death for people trying to find a job.”
Fillmore has been working with people with substance-use problems and mental health issues for 20 years. Recently, she worked for the state of Indiana writing grants for programs that would help ex-offenders re-enter society.
The experience led her to Centerstone, which was working more on a one-on-one level with offenders who were struggling outside of jail, Fillmore said.
“What makes HOPE unique is that a lot of employment programs will only meet people in the action phase, when they’re ready to get a job. But we take everybody,” Fillmore said.
“Sometimes, people will come to us who want a job, but they’re addicted to alcohol or drugs.
We can provide those wrap-around recovery services for them.”
From an office in Bloomington, Project HOPE officials can direct their clients to dozens of public agencies that can help them in their situation.
If they’re homeless, they can help them find government-supported housing. If they are facing addiction, Centerstone can provide rehab counseling. Hoosier Hills Food Bank can help hungry clients.
“We can’t provide everything that people want or need. But we’re getting really good at finding out where those services exist,” said Hall, a peer re-covery specialist with Project HOPE.
Before he came to work for the group, Hall was a client of Centerstone. He had struggled with drug addiction for years before finding help through the agency.
When he was released in 2011, he became interested in programs to help offenders re-enter society. Hall was accepted into a program through Centerstone, which was similar to what would become Project HOPE.
“I discovered there was somebody who was willing not only to help ex-offenders, but willing to speak up for and advocate for us in a level I’d never seen before,” Hall said.
Of particular interest was what led people to return to jail or prison. He had heard often while incarcerated that it was much more likely that he would be sent back to prison, rather than remain free. That bothered Hall.
“I don’t like to see people go to prison or jail needlessly. So I started volunteering time to Centerstone,” he said.
In time, the agency hired him to work with other offenders who came to the group. When Centerstone received the grant to start Project HOPE, it seemed like a good fit to place him.
“I’m every bit as flawed as our clients, but I know for a fact they don’t have to keep going back and doing the same things over and over again,” Hall said.
The program is funded through the next year. Fillmore and Centerstone are working to find new funding to keep it going.
In Indiana, 36 percent of ex-offenders return to jail within three years of being released. For Bloomington, that recidivism rate is almost 50 percent.
That’s why Project HOPE is established in the city. But the need exists in all counties, Fillmore said. In Johnson County, 33 percent of ex-offenders return to jail.
Fillmore has offered up her services to area officials, letting them know that she can help them set up a similar program in their communities.
“The model can be duplicated. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to anybody to see what can be done to enhance what they’re doing,” Fillmore said. “Everybody deserves a chance. We can help them with that.”
What: A program designed to reduce the challenges individuals face upon release from prison and return to the community
Who: The program operates through Centerstone of Indiana, a behavioral and mental health organization
Executive director: New Whiteland resident Jennifer Fillmore
Programs: Job readiness and training; career assessments; employer support; certificate, associate’s and bachelor’s degree attainment assistance; transportation; interview and work clothing assistance; providing personal care products; help finding housing
Who It helps
Eighth grade and lower
Ninth to 12th grade
High school diploma or GED
Four years of college or more
Rent or own a home
Staying at someone’s house
Average number of post-release days
Average number of years in prison
Entered skills training
Received ServSafe certification
Receiving post-secondary education
Rearrested of a new crime