Of the nearly 18,000 people incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail at any given time, 10 to 12,000 will be released and re-incarcerated within three years. That is 60 to 70 percent of all inmates, according to 2009 data from the Allegheny County Jail.
The Hopeshot Aftercare Jail and Prison Ministry of Allegheny Center Alliance Church has been working hard for the past year to reduce that number by supporting inmates after they are released and connecting them with the services they need.
Program Facilitator Lindsay Hargrove, a recovering addict of 18 years, said that having a support group and resources is essential for returning inmates, many of whom have been in jail for years and have nowhere to go upon their release.
“If [ex-offenders’] needs are not addressed, it’s very easy for them to go back to old people, old places, old things,” Hargrove said.
Hopeshot addresses those needs in four ways. The first is referring ex-offenders to other organizations that can help them with transportation, job skills, clothing, shelter, food and anything else they might need.
Hopeshot volunteers also mentor ex-offenders and help keep them on the straight and narrow, and ACAC provides counseling services, or refers them to other counseling resources. Ex-offenders are paired up one-on-one with one of Hopeshot’s mentors, who will call to check in on them throughout the week.
The fourth component of the ministry is its Christ-centered support group that meets every Saturday at 801 Union Place. The support group provides a place for ex-offenders and their families to come and share their experiences with others who have been through similar situations.
During the week, ex-offenders are encouraged to call each other to check in and give each other a few kind words to help them through what is usually a rough transition to life outside of jail.
Most ex-offenders that come through Hopeshot committed crimes related to drugs and alcohol, like theft, assault or possession, Hargrove said.
Hopeshot Ministries has a relationship with the Hope Program operated inside Allegheny County Jail by Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The Hope Program works with inmates in the time leading up to their release and refers them to various Christian aftercare support groups like Hopeshot.
“Many people struggle,” he said. “Relapse is a reality. We deal with the practical side of addiction, but we also deal with the evangelical side of sin.”
Co-facilitator Rodney Cuspard, another ex-offender who recently celebrated his seventh anniversary of sobriety, said that Hopeshot helps former inmates and recovering addicts change their mindset, a critical step in breaking the incarceration cycle.
“You come back and the only place you have to live is where you got arrested at most of the time,” Cuspard said.
Cuspard was in and out of jail more than 30 times before he met Hargrove and went through a 12-step program. With Hargrove’s help navigating the program, Cuspard turned his life around and like Hargrove, has dedicated himself to helping other ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
Hargrove said stories like Cuspards are, unfortunately, rare, but that Hopeshot’s goal is to make them less rare. After a year, he estimates that 60 percent of the people Hopeshot has helped are back in the workforce and living sober.
“Staying clean and sober is hard work. It’s not easy. … We’re very pleased with what God has done with the ministry,” Hargrove said.