Sunday, June 18, 2017

Circles of Support Calls for Volunteers to Build Compassionate Community

It is increasingly common knowledge that our criminal justice system is deeply problematic and harmful to people in our society and our community. Currently over 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in the United States. Legislation and executive action to militarize police departments over the past three decades particularly targeted poor people and people of color, who are incarcerated at alarming rates. People who are incarcerated are often forced into labor, as the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." Many face solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, and violence. Most people in the criminal justice system are struggling with substance use disorders and other mental health issues. They need treatment--not more trauma.

When released from incarceration, people often have little to no support. They are shunned by employers and landlords. They may be ostracized from family and friends. They are often only welcomed back by others who are in active addiction. The larger community generally pretends they don't exist. Our inadequate community response contributes to the high incidents of recidivism (though it's important to note that massive revision to racist and classist laws and policies is also needed). In Wisconsin, 3-year recidivism rates are over 30%; this means that nearly one in three individuals leaving Wisconsin correctional facilities will be locked up again within three years. When it comes to how we respond to incarcerated people, we have to do better.

Circles of Support is a local attempt to put those words into action. Circles of Support is a community support program in La Crosse that helps individuals rejoin the community upon leaving incarceration. This endeavor "offers community members the opportunity to experience transformative relationships that build compassion into our community and empower those who have fallen out of community to bring their strengths, talents, and unique gifts back into play as productive citizens." And they are looking for volunteers!

Each circle consists of one core member and four or five other community members who meet for one hour a week for at least six months. A core member is a person who is returning from incarceration and demonstrates commitment to working recovery. Other community members are any adults who are able to be consistent and are committed to offering nonjudgmental, compassionate support to a fellow human being in their time of struggle. Each circle meets once a week for one hour, which serves as both a casual hang out and check-in with the core member on their progress in making decisions towards their goals and well-being. Friendships and trust develop over time, and the circle becomes a source of stability, support, and community. This is not a place for professional support, but inviting people to be present with one another and allow healing to occur naturally through community relationships.

My husband and I decided to form a circle with a couple of our friends. We filled out applications a few weeks ago and last week attended a training. In the next week or two, we will start meeting for a weekly cup of coffee and conversation with a core member selected for the program. We are greatly looking forward to the opportunity to build community and be a part of the change our community needs.

I welcome you all to consider if this is an effort you'd like to be a part of. If it's not a good fit for you, please still spread the word. Maybe someone you know will start the next circle or pass along the application to someone whose loved one is incarcerated and could benefit from this opportunity. For applications and more information, check out or contact the Program Coordinator at or 608-519-3850.

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