In the middle of the night, with no money and no one waiting to pick them up, inmates who leave prison in California’s Orange County receive what the Lights On the group of volunteers calls a coffee and a hug to light their way home
Ex-cons leaving the Central Men’s & Women’s Jails in the city of Santa Ana receive more than something to eat and the use of a phone to call family or friends.
“The project was started after two young women left this prison and were raped and murdered,” Lights On founder Vashkin Koshkerian told EFE about a fatal incident that happened 12 years ago.
Orange “is the only county in the United States that frees people from 10:00 at night to 3:00 in the morning, which led me to think we had to help,” said the American born in the former Soviet Union.
Before Lights On existed, about the only people waiting to greet those being freed were street gang delinquents and drug traffickers, according to this retired businessman who in 2004 created the non-profit organization Micah’s Way, which helps the poor and the homeless as well as students in Southern California.
“We’re here to make sure the former inmates return home safely – we give them a cup of coffee, some clothes, bus tickets and whatever else we can help them with,” he said about the Kinship program, a joint initiative of Micah’s with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The program also provides information about employment, job training plus food and healthcare assistance in order to provide the newly released with “a fresh start.”
Days after the ex-cons leave prison, the organization does a “follow-up” to see if they’re safe and doing well with their attempts to get back into society.
“Go home safe and sound, stay calm and never ever come back to this prison,” Koshkerian advises the approximately 50 convicts that leave prison every night.
The young woman Alejandra R., arrested for “a traffic violation,” was set free at 11:00 pm and had a coffee with bread while some young gangbanger types prowled the area.
“Stay here until your mom comes to get you,” Koshkerian said in a tone that sounded like he was admonishing his own daughter.
Frank Valles, released a year ago, told EFE he recalls with affection “the hot coffee and really good bread” he received when leaving the prison.
“Once we’re let out of prison, a lot of us don’t have anywhere to go,” Valles recalled about the “opportunity” provided by the Lights On volunteers to “get back on the right track.”