Human Interest

Program helping ex-cons reinsert into society

By Ruth E. Hernandez Beltran

New York, Mar 23 (EFE).- A program in New York is transforming the lives of ex-inmates who want to leave their past behind, offering them the chance to have a career, find housing and spiritual support as they study to forge a future for themselves after spending years behind bars.

Although the “Thrive for Life” program is supported by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, specific religious belief is not demanded of those who enter the program and there’s no minimum or maximum age for participants.

Nobody judges them, in a society where having served prison time remains a stigma. The only thing that matters is wanting to change and making a commitment to achieving goals, after which the participants continue their lives independently.

“This place is the only one in the country with housing with this format for ex-prisoners” with studies and support, Jesuit Priest Zach Presutti, who founded the program in 2017, told EFE.

In 2019, he opened the first Ignacio House in The Bronx with 13 ex-cons who decided to begin a new life through education and with scholarships from well-known universities.

A key figure at Ignacio House is Katie Sitja y Balbastro, a nun with the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) order. From Argentina originally, she has dedicated herself to serving one of the most marginalized groups in society and at present she is supervising the remodeling of the new Ignacio House location, which has space to house 15 former inmates.

Roberto is one of those former convicted felons and came to New York just a month ago. He was incarcerated for 26 years, serving a portion of a 45-year sentence handed down against him in California, where he was tried as an adult at age 15. He was a gangmember and was convicted of the death of a person murdered by his gang.

It was in prison that he got to know Father Presutti, who he considered to be “a brother” and who invited him to New York.

“I was a gangmember and California sentenced me as an adult. It was a very dangerous life. I was in the hole (solitary confinement) for 20 years because I did very bad things. They told me I’d die in prison,” he told EFE at Ignacio House.

He recalled that a film he saw in prison about the life of Jesus made him reflect on his own life, but that also created problems for him with his gang.

“When I saw the film it changed me. I (thought about the fact) that all the things I had done were bad … I heard a voice … but I was a gangmember, I didn’t know how to do anything else,” said Roberto, who was always interested in painting, the only activity – he said – that ensured that he didn’t go crazy in prison.

Lacking materials, he clipped his hair, out of which he made a paintbrush and, with great patience, he removed the ink coloring from the pages of a magazine and from candy wrappers to use as paint.

At age 41, in 2021 he was released from prison but he had to confront his old gang, which did not accept the fact that he wanted “to be independent” of them.

“They wanted to kill me because I said ‘I don’t want any more of this.’ I was with them since I was a kid,” he said, adding that his life turned around when he got to Ignacio House, where they bought him art supplies.

Now, he’s hoping to receive a scholarship because he wants to be an art teacher, get a job and bring his girlfriend to New York to be with him.

Italo Sanchez was also in a gang and got out of prison in 2015. He was one of the first to benefit from the Ignacio House, where he now lives permanently and is in charge of its maintenance while he holds down a construction job.

He said that with the support he received his life “changed a lot,” and now he wants to study counseling so that he can help other ex-cons.

“I want to help people who are getting out of prison, and I hope that one day I can change their lives, too,” he said.

“Remaking their lives is a long process of pain and healing and some traumas are very strong. It’s difficult to process it,” Sister Katie told EFE, working like a busy bee at Ignacio House in jeans and a shortsleeve shirt as she oversees the restoration work.

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