Offender Alumni Association


Support for the formerly incarcerated.    

By Max Rykov

It is the height of absurdity and cruelty that a person as kind and loving as Dena Dickerson could possibly be sentenced to 114 years in prison. For a non-violent offense.

Every time I see Dena, her face lights up with an enormous smile. She gives me a big hug and tells me she loves me. I’m not that special—she’s like that with everyone. It’s the sort of disposition you’d expect from a saint or a yogi, not someone who’s spent significant time incarcerated.

A decade before her 114-year sentence, she had served five months for another non-violent drug offense. Fortunately for the rest of humankind, Dena didn’t end up serving 114 years, but rather 10.

After she was released, Dena was introduced to Deborah Daniels of Prison Fellowship, who invited her to be a part of a group of former offenders who were meeting to help encourage one other in an informal support network.

Deborah was inspired to start this group after working with Drayton Nabers, Jr. (the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court) on a program at Bibb Correctional Facility. It became clear to the pair that the same sort of bond the men made on the inside during the Prison Fellowship program would be immensely useful once they got out as well.

Dena started coming to the meetings diligently, and the members began to mimic how an Alcoholics Anonymous group would operate—electing executive officers and establishing an initial structure. Eventually, they decided to file the paperwork to become their own 501c3 non-profit organization, and Dena, the most loyal member of the group, was selected to serve as a bona fide executive director. They came up with the name “Offender Alumni Association” (OAA), not shying away from their past, while signaling the establishment of a network of people with a common heritage and purpose.

The organization is certainly inspired by the AA and NA models—groups of people with a similar troubled pasts who inspire one other to be the best versions of themselves they can be. It’s a model that’s proven to be successful worldwide, but what’s so radical about OAA is that former offenders are generally not encouraged to spend time with one another. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; they’re discouraged from being around others who were formerly incarcerated.

The underlying assumption behind that mindset is that people who were in prison are somehow tainted, destined to be habitual criminals with no desire to better themselves. With AA and NA, the supposition is the opposite. It’s understood that the people who join those groups have acknowledged their mistakes, and are on a positive trajectory in their lives moving forward.

The organization fills a much-needed gap in the nationwide quest to alleviate recidivism by providing those released from prison the emotional support and understanding that can only be given by someone who has been in the same situation.

Case in point, Stephanie Hicks.

In March 2016, Stephanie was on administrative leave from her job at the VA because she had been convicted of embezzlement. Between the time she was charged and before she served six months in a federal prison, she sent an email to the Firehouse Shelter, inquiring about volunteer opportunities. There she met Dena Dickerson, who still works for the Firehouse.

Dena introduced Stephanie to OAA, and she started going to meetings before she was incarcerated. During her time in prison, Stephanie was able to have video calls with the group, which helped her through the process.

Three days after she was released, Stephanie was going through a crisis while staying at her sister’s house. She didn’t even know what she felt; it was a maelstrom of emotions—the sort of unrest that has led others to recidivate. Fortunately, Dena was there to get Stephanie out of the house and provide emotional and mental support. From her own experience, she knew what Stephanie was feeling and was able to serve as a calming force.

Stephanie now serves alongside Dena as the administrative director of the Offender Alumni Association. Together, along with other OAA members, they help facilitate several weekly support groups for former offenders, in addition to leading community clean-up efforts and even going into prisons to inspire inmates and offer hope.

The organization is growing—a chapter has been established in Atlanta and received the support of a Georgia state grant. It’s a beautifully replicable model, and one that has the potential to have as big of an impact on recidivism as AA has on alcoholism.

To learn more about the Offender Alumni Association, and to offer your support, visit their website: www.offenderalumniassociation.org

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