For the incarcerated, walking through the justice system can be a daunting task. Less discussed is the effect on families of the incarcerated – who often feel the same, if not more, heightened confusion and disappointment.
Juanita Shanks discovered this firsthand in 2004 when her son was incarcerated. Overwhelmed by emotions, Shanks felt called to do something to make the experience slightly more bearable for other families in the Fredericksburg area experiencing the same thing.
FailSafe-ERA – which stands for Families affected by incarcerated loved-ones, Sincere and forward-thinking exhorters–Education, Rehabilitation, Adaptation – started as a support group for family members of inmates. However, even though there were thousands of families who could benefit from the services, few people were coming to group meetings.
It was then that FailSafe-ERA expanded to what it is today: an organization dedicated to helping both incarcerated people, those returning to society (called returning citizens) and their families.
Each Step of the Way
FailSafe-ERA provides support through all steps of the criminal justice process. Its various programs offer education, emotional support and tools for the incarcerated and their families to unite and work toward a successful reentry to society.
For example, the Right Road Reentry program features cognitive therapy to assist with changing behavior and building positive relationships. Through journaling and other evidence-based techniques taught through five-to-seven-week classes, inmates develop the “transformative, empowered life skills” like emotional intelligence, resilience, brain health and entrepreneurship skills to help heal from trauma. FailSafe-ERA also connects inmates with employment, through companies like Good Will, short- and long-term housing and a case manager who provides one-on-one support.
Preventing Generational Incarceration (PGI) focuses on youth and building social and emotional competencies. After seeing a rise in youth crime, FailSafe-ERA implemented several programs to introduce cognitive behavioral therapeutic techniques to children impacted by incarceration, giving them the tools to cope with their parents’ arrest rather than follow in their footsteps.
The final cornerstone is Caring Connections, a community outreach-based program that centers on strengthening familial relationships and providing families with the tools they need to complete the reunification process. It includes a monthly support group for family members and educates them in a nonjudgmental environment on how to properly grieve someone, survive the justice system and avoid enabling behaviors once the returning citizen is home. Through Caring Connections, families in need also receive access to personal hygiene products and a Christmas Shop, where parents can get free Christmas gifts for their children and holiday meals.
Turning Stigma to Hope
Despite negative preconceived notions, Shanks is steadfast in her belief that all people, regardless of their incarceration history, deserve an equal chance at making it in the world.
“Unfortunately, the community only sees them as criminals,” Shanks said. “Many think we shouldn’t be wasting our time or resources on them, because they’re not going to change.”
But Shanks knows that isn’t the case.
Through FailSafe-ERA, countless formerly incarcerated individuals turn their lives around every year, and their families are empowered to be a part of the rehabilitation process.
“People don’t realize, unless you’ve been there, what that struggle looks like,” Shanks said. “Sometimes they’re institutionalized. They come out into the communities and it’s hard. And the communities make it even harder because there is nothing for them. No housing and no jobs… those former inmates deserve that second chance. They made a bad decision; they made a mistake but that shouldn’t cost them the rest of their lives.”
It’s hard work to undertake, but Shanks has big hopes for the organization’s future. She wants FailSafe-ERA to be a “one-stop shop,” where returning citizens can get everything they need whether that be therapy, job opportunities, Christmas gifts for their families or just a little bit of hope and community.
To provide its services, FailSafe-ERA is always looking for second-chance employers and landlords willing to rent to felons. You can get involved by making a donation, supporting fundraisers or volunteering.