WAUKESHA — At the time of its inception six years ago, the St. Dismas women’s jail aftercare program, which meets once a week at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Waukesha, gave themselves the name “Joyful Souls.”

The St. Dismas women’s jail aftercare program meets weekly at the St. Vincent de Paul Store in Waukesha. Mentor Glori Kurth hugs Sally during a meeting last March. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Joy is a hard-won virtue for the group’s members, many of whom have spent time incarcerated or have experienced drug addiction, abuse and poverty.

The Joyful Souls vary in size depending on the week – according to the group’s creator Linda Pischke, there are about six to 10 regular attendees who gather every Friday evening at the headquarters of the Waukesha SVDP, which sponsors the St. Dismas ministry as a whole.

On one Friday evening last March, the women of the Joyful Souls – a dozen or so, ranging in age from 10 to almost 90 – met to assemble Easter baskets for inmates at the Waukesha County Jail.

Many of the women have spent time in that facility and others like it. They know that, to the recipients of these baskets, the gift will mean much more than its contents – a dyed egg, cookie, candy, a piece of stationery and one stamp.

“I can tell you what it meant to me,” said one attendee, Tesa, who like the rest of the group’s members asked to be identified only by her first name. She was incarcerated for 22 months before her release in 2007. While in jail, she missed the birth of her granddaughter. “It was a sense of hope. That somebody…”

Here she began to weep. “That we weren’t forgotten. That somebody cares.”

Group provides “unconditional love, lack of judgment”

The group was formed by Pischke in 2011 as a support system for former jail inmates – nonviolent female offenders. A nursing home social worker and author, Pischke had been active in the St. Dismas jail ministry program for 10 years and was discouraged by the recidivism rate of the women with whom she worked.[su_pullquote align=”right”]For more information on the St. Dismas jail ministry or about Linda Pischke and “The Women of Block 12,” visit lindapischke.com. [/su_pullquote]

“So many of the women were recycling through, and they had nothing (to do) on Friday nights,” she said. “They didn’t have friendships that weren’t drugs, alcohol, abuse. I never heard them talk about their girlfriends. It was always my pimp, my abusive boyfriend. I thought, OK, let’s try this.”

She got together a few of her former mentees with whom she had kept in touch, and they began meeting on Friday nights at the Waukesha SVDP store.

Mentor Kay Styza, with glasses, hugs Sandra, a former inmate at the Waukesha County Jail, during a meeting last March of the Joyful Souls St. Vincent de Paul jail aftercare program. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

“It’s a slow-moving group. A lot of people that come out are afraid to try something new,” she said. St. Dismas volunteers regularly advertise the group when they minister to inmates at the Waukesha County Jail and Huber Facilities. Most who attend are brought by a friend, and later bring a friend in turn.

Their activities vary – some weeks feature yoga or line dancing, some offer Bible study or volunteer projects.

Recently, Jennifer Huck, a professor from Carroll University, has begun attending the meetings to conduct research on prison aftercare and services (or lack thereof) made available to released inmates.

At each meeting, the main event is the fellowship shared over a common struggle.

During the Easter basket assembly event, the women greeted one another with the warmth and enthusiasm of long-lost friends. Choruses of “There she is!” and “Look who’s here!” mingled with “You made it!” and the occasional personal inquiry. “What have you brought for food?” “Are the tires on your car better?” Though its mission is to provide a support system for former offenders and most members have served time, everyone is welcome and several women have never been incarcerated.

“They feel accepted, and each of them has a situation in the community where they don’t feel welcome,” said Pischke.

It is, after all, a group who understands what it is to be an outsider.

“I think the primary attraction (to the group) is that unconditional love and the lack of judgment,” said one member, Thea. “There’s so much shame around all those despicable things that you’ve done that landed you in jail … (but) they see your divinity rather than the human error or screwed-up part and look past that and don’t place conditions on whether or not they’re going to love you.”

Thea credits the group with saving her life after her release from prison.

“I was intent on drinking myself to death, and these women took me to the hospital and forced me to look at how crazy I was, and I haven’t had a drink since…. I am alive because of these women, and I will never forget it,” she said.

Tesa has a similar story. “I was at my wit’s end, and I called Linda and I said, I think I may need to go to the hospital … she stayed there with me the whole entire time. Even when I wanted her to leave, she said, I’m not going anywhere.

“If no one was there to support me I probably wouldn’t have went, at all, period. I don’t think I have anyone else that would go with me or walk with me or talk with me or nurture me, comfort me.”

Someone to count on

Before this group, there weren’t many people in her life she could count on, Tesa said.

“Only people that were my friends were the guys I bought from, associates that I used with – there wasn’t anyone that I could truly call a friend. I didn’t even know how to be a friend, actually,” she said. Now, Tesa brings her 10-year-old granddaughter with her to the Joyful Souls because she wants her to be surrounded by positive role models. “The support – I don’t get it anywhere else. My mother’s deceased, and so it’s just myself and my daughter and my granddaughter. (I get) direction – (Linda) is sort of tough on us. I had been unemployed for a minute, and she was just like, did you apply for the job? Did you apply for the job? Did you apply for the job? She pushed me and pushed me, and now I have the job.”

“I consider a lot of these women here more of a family than my own family. Physically, mentally, emotionally, they’re more supportive than my family’s ever been toward me,” said Brenda, a young mother who attends the meetings with her three children. “I had problems with using drugs, and I ended up quitting, but the people that I get with, and that I was surrounding myself with, are horrible, to say the least. (The group) never judged me. I get so afraid of a lot of people because so many people do judge you. None of them do here. Linda I consider more of a mom than my own mom.”

Sandra began attending meetings about two and a half years ago, but she said the group had made a positive impact in her life well before that.

“When I was in jail again, all these beautiful ladies sent me a lot of cards,” she said. “I did not know any of them, and getting cards from someone that you don’t know and it’s giving you words of encouragement and sending you prayers. And it’s something that you needed at the time, you need something to hold on to and know that there is more than just being in pain or suffering.”

One of the group’s mentors, Kay, described how the friendship she found in the Joyful Souls got her through a particularly dark period in her life.

“I came here to be a mentor, because I thought the ladies needed assistance, because I do jail ministry. And I came here thinking that I’ll be able to help them,” she said. “But what happened was, a few months after we started the group, I became unemployed. And these ladies ended up supporting me. And they were praying for me, encouraging me – six months of uncertainty ended up being a huge blessing.”

“If someone’s missing, we ask about them, inquire about them, try to give them a call,” said Tesa. “Definitely pray for them. Oh, we got a prayer chain out of this world. We work magic.”

‘He is their Jesus, too’

The St. Dismas jail ministry has 55 members, said Pischke, who provide a variety of services to the inmates at the Waukesha County Jail and Huber Facilities. The SVDP-run conference has volunteers who go into the jail for one-on-one visits; run Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) groups, creative writing and Bible study classes; provide Sunday services in English and Spanish; and send volunteer optometrists to provide eye exams to inmates and volunteer barbers to give them haircuts. St. Dismas also makes financial support available as the inmates are released and reintegrate into society.

Several times a year, Pischke and Tesa visit churches or universities to present on issues facing women offenders. They hope to increase awareness of the group and of the plight of nonviolent women offenders in general.

“We’re not all a lost cause,” said Tesa. “With the right direction, everyone’s teachable. Behaviors are learned. Just like we learned how to be out in the street, we can learn how to interact in the community.”

The same year the Joyful Souls got their start, Pischke wrote the book “The Women of Block 12: Voices from a Jail Ministry,” an account of her experiences working with the incarcerated. The book includes the personal narratives of many of the women who attend the Joyful Souls meetings.

Pischke, a Lutheran who attends Christ the Servant Church in Waukesha, has been a Vincentian since 2001. A mother of two, she stumbled upon the jail ministry almost by accident through a jail chaplain who spoke at her day job. In “The Women of Block 12,” she writes that she was a “lukewarm Christian” who didn’t much concern herself with the well-being of incarcerated offenders and told herself she would make time for meaningful volunteer work “someday when I’m not so busy.”

Her life was changed by the friendship of the jail chaplain, who enlisted her help in publishing a newsletter for the inmates. From there, she began teaching a writing class to the female prisoners.

“I began my ministry believing it was my job to take Jesus to the jail and introduce him to the inmates, but he was already there waiting for me,” she writes in the preface to the book. “Yes, my Jesus was there with the drug addicts and prostitutes waiting for me to visit him, and I discovered he is their Jesus, too.”