Mikie Bobzin bounced up the steps to Robert Fristoe’s apartment to give him a ride to a dermatologist appointment. Since she arrived early, they chatted on the porch. Though the face mask she wore due to the COVID-19 outbreak hid her smile, Bobzin’s bright eyes, laughter and effervescence showed through.
Bobzin is a case manager with the Criminal Justice Ministry, an agency funded by the Annual Catholic Appeal. She approaches her job that way — as a ministry — and she uses her personal experiences and education to get through to her clients. The Criminal Justice Ministry’s mission is to improve communities by supporting and empowering those impacted by incarceration. She’s assisted Fristoe with clothing, food, housing, paperwork and more in the couple months he’s been out since serving 21 years and five months in prison.
Bobzin is a recovered alcoholic and addict who spent time in jail on felony charges, which helps her understand some of the experiences and hurdles her clients have. She also leans on her Catholic faith. “I love my Catholic religion, and I’m very proud to say that. Because of God’s grace, I’ve been able to rebuild my life. I want to help other people do that,” she said.
Bobzin, a St. Theresa parishioner in Belleville, Illinois, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work and is obtaining a master’s degree, said that the Bible and her faith teach her that no matter what another person has been through, “we don’t judge them for that. What we can do is try to help them. We’re all children of God.”
She tells of a client, now in his 60s, who went to prison at age 25 for kidnapping and rape. He suffers from mental health issues. When released, he couldn’t cope and was hounded by his victim’s family. He committed a robbery with the intention of getting caught. Released after many years, this time he received help from the Criminal Justice Ministry and now has housing, an income, medicine and help navigating society. “He was so used to being incarcerated, and that’s where he found comfort,” Bobzin said. “But now, he’s been able to re-acclimate to society.”
Tom Casey began as executive director of the Criminal Justice Ministry in July. “We have a motto of ‘To serve and not to judge,’” Casey said. “We try to make Jesus’ love apparent to them through the work we’re doing to welcome them.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has halted the effort for now, ministry volunteers visit various prisons and jails in the archdiocese, including providing classes and assisting family members’ visits. The Let’s Start program for women and their families merged with the Criminal Justice Ministry last year and includes a women’s support group that meets virtually now due to the pandemic. The First Services program helps men and women recently released from prison with IDs, food, bus passes, clothing and hygiene and other basic items.
Casey praised the Annual Catholic Appeal for its help. The funding is essential because it provides backing for efforts that are hard to fund through other sources. Volunteer support and emergency services are two examples of work that continues due to the ACA, Casey said.
Staff and volunteers find their work is “grounded in how they live their faith,” Casey said. “We are called to visit the imprisoned. We are called to go and help those who are marginalized. Think of the challenges that face someone coming out of long-term incarceration to get back into the community — finding housing, employment and more. Our hope and effort is to help them do that because it’s part of the dignity of and respect for human life. And it avoids having them again consider engaging in criminal activity because of desperation.”
Housing and more
Under the previous executive director, Anthony D’Agostino, the Criminal Justice Ministry purchased properties to house people returning from prison who otherwise would be homeless. Units also are rented as affordable housing to low-income residents.
Tom Casey, executive director, said, “For years, our approach has been ‘housing first,’ the idea that people coming out of incarceration need a secure place to live, and then you can deal with other issues. It’s easier to apply for a job, reconciliation with families, dealing with addictions, if you have a safe place to live.”
The ministry also has landlords who are good partners. Parishes and others have supplied help in renovating buildings. Parishes also are part of a Christmas program in prison and jails by providing cookies.
“You see this broader connection across the (archdiocese) in which parishes find ways to be involved,” Casey said. “You also find a lot of people who choose to be a pen pal for people who are incarcerated. There are a lot of ways to become engaged.”
For information on volunteer opportunities or other ways to support the Criminal Justice Ministry, visit www.cjmstlouis.org or call (314) 652-8062.