Angela House Meets the Unique
Needs of Women After Incarceration
- by Lori Golaszewski

It is estimated that more than 1,000 women are released from jails and prisons each year in the Houston area. Yet, fewer than 100 beds are available in residential facilities to help these women re-establish themselves and get back on their feet.

Sister Maureen O'Connell

Heeding the call to fill that void, Maureen O'Connell, OP, founded Angela House, a residential facility for women exiting prison, in July 2001. Angela House is supported by the Adrian Dominican Ministry Trust and is a special work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Galveston-Houston.

The mission of Angela House is to meet the unique needs of women after incarceration, and to provide a safe place where they can live, grow and become the kind of people they want to be. "Women who are attempting to change their lives and keep from returning to jail need a safe place that supports and encourages that desire," Sister Maureen, the executive director of Angela House, explained. "Few, if any, residential facilities provide the broad array of services that we do here at Angela House."

A maximum of 16 women, without regard to race or religion, reside at Angela House where their basic needs of shelter, food and clothing are met. Residents receive emotional and spiritual support, individual and group counseling, and educational and vocational training, and are encouraged to set realistic goals for the future. The women are also provided the means to regain their sobriety through participation in 12-step programs. Most of Angela House's clients have alcohol or drug addictions that caused them to engage in behaviors that led to their incarceration, Sister Maureen noted.

Angela House residents are supported in their quest to make positive changes in their lives.

"It is our hope that women can learn to live in a healthy community that will support their sobriety and empower them to make the choices they have been unable to make in the past," Sister Maureen said. "We expect that they find a church home, a job to support themselves, and have enough money in their trust account to allow them to leave the program with a sense of security. Unfortunately, our society is not always willing to give women a second chance, and we work hard to prepare the women for disappointments."

Initially, the women make a four-month commitment to Angela House with the understanding that they can extend their time in order to accomplish their goals and successfully reintegrate into society. One of the first steps for residents is to acquire a new form of identification, such as a birth certificate or library card, to replace the ID card the women received upon their release from prison. Those cards label the women as "ex-offenders" and oftentimes are not accepted as appropriate identification. Sister Maureen said she encourages the women to understand that although they served time in jail or prison, they shouldn't be stigmatized for having committed a crime, especially now that they are working to make positive changes in their lives.

Since the first resident arrived in April 2002, 55 women have been served at Angela House and have re-entered the community with newfound hope for leading productive lives. One former resident, for example, is employed as a chef with the Westin Resort in St. Thomas. Other former residents are working as administrative assistants, providing home health care or working as nurses' aides, while another has started college, and another is training to become a court reporter.

Sister Maureen takes heart when community members, especially students, volunteer at Angela House.

"It is important to remember that most of these women are working hard to maintain their sobriety and participate in 12-step programs in addition to attempting to reconnect with family, improving educational and vocational skills, and maintaining employment," Sister Maureen noted. "For many of our residents, this is the first time they have had the opportunity to learn about their disease and to have the community support necessary to stay clean and sober."

Partnering with Angela House are community members who participate in volunteer activities which provide an opportunity for all involved to walk in solidarity with women after incarceration as they struggle to turn their lives around and reduce their chance of returning to prison. "The hearts of community members are changed by the experience of putting a face to those we refer to as ex-offenders," Sister Maureen said.

She, too, has been positively affected by the residents of Angela House who continually teach her what it means to overcome great adversity. "I am awed by the resiliency of these women, who, in spite of physical or sexual abuse, dreams made and dreams lost, are willing to struggle to make their lives different," Sister Maureen said. "I am touched by the women who readily admit long histories of bad choices but just as readily ask how they can learn to make better choices."

"These women are for me the stuff of our Vision. Every day they allow me the opportunity to walk in solidarity with them as we struggle to confront the systems and structures that oppress those who have been excluded."