A warm Friday morning in late August.

When Sister Mary Sean Hodges parks her metallic blue Prius in front of the aging three-story Victorian-like mansion a little before 8 o’clock, six men are already inside the front room working. The former “lifers” and long-serving prisoners are part of the Partnership for Re-Entry Program (PREP), which the Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose started in May 2002.

“Good morning, Sister Mary,” says Tim, sitting at the front desk opening an envelope. The stuffy room with the old-house smell was not made for six work stations plus a copy machine and small refrigerator.

Looking up, the other five men, who are at computers, chime in greetings. They sound like boys at a parochial school greeting the principal who happens into their seventh-grade classroom. In fact, the 74-year-old woman religious, who is wearing a modern-art-patterned brown dress that falls almost to her ankles, did work in California Catholic elementary schools for almost 30 years, 13 as principal. She also taught religion and math in Catholic high schools for another 10.

Sister Mary Sean says, “Good morning, good morning,” before spotting the arrangement. “Flowers? This is going to be a good day,” she adds with a chuckle before walking over to a middle-age man. She bends down to almost whisper something in his ear.

“Great,” he says.

Slowly, the former LA Marathoner walks back to her corner desk and turns on her computer.

Life lessons

Sister Mary Sean Hodges says PREP tries hard to live up to its name.

The ministry’s goal is to reintegrate lifers, three-strikers and other prison inmates serving long sentences back into society. And it does this not through the flavor-of-the-week psychological method or self-help plan, but by paper-and-pencil correspondence courses delivered and received through the U.S. mail.

That’s what was going on in PREP’s cramped office this morning: opening envelopes, sorting out completed lessons by course, prison and inmate, checking written answers along with sending back new lessons and certificates for courses completed. Who passed what and when is logged into computers. But most of the rest of the processing is done by hand, offering badly needed paid employment to ex-lifers and other long-serving former inmates.

“Turning Point” I and II provide 80 individual lessons on life skills, offering practical tools to help change criminal thinking and behavior. “Anger Management” shows how to deal with daily stresses and problems nonviolently. “Domestic Violence” zeroes in on relationships in the home, workplace and with friends.

“Insight” prepares inmates for their parole hearings. The core question to be answered is “Who I was when I committed my crime and who I am now?” Plus there’s practical guidance about gathering psych reports, previous parole board hearings and other needed documents.

“Gang Awareness Recovery” just started in July. It looks at the destructive lifestyle of gangs. Already, close to 100 inmates have signed up for it.

“It’s good for the guys who are out of prison as well as those still in,” says Sister Mary Sean. “And we’re very careful. We want quality of lessons. So if they don’t give us quality, we reject the work and we send them a note saying, ‘You have to do this over.’”

The Dominican religious is taking a break from what her workers call the “mail room,” with its self-imposed weekday pressure to turnaround incoming letters ASAP — nearly 100 just today. She’s sitting in a white plastic chair out on the porch, explaining things to a visitor.

She greets the men who come in and out with at least a smile. Some of them stop to chat like Curt. Others ask if they can talk later on.

“Curt, thank you, thank you,” she says to a man coming out the barred screen door. “I’m glad we talked. I feel better.”

The guy pivots. “Yeah, I feel better, too,” he says in a gravel voice.

“OK, all right. Then I’ll be in touch with you. I hope to see you Monday. I’m going to go do the prisons next week, so I won’t be here. I’ll be here Monday.”

Curt says, “I’ll come by.” And then, “I appreciate it. Thank you, God bless you.” He turns back to step down from the porch to the hardpan ground.

She says, “Love you,” raising her voice a bit. “I’ll write it down on my calendar. Stay safe and stay well.”

Something different’

Sister Mary Sean points out that the men still working away inside the aging mansion don’t live there. In fact, the place is owned by a woman who lives upstairs and has generously provided space for PREP for years. But a few do live at the Martin Home, which she and a local Protestant pastor partnered to open nearby this summer. The home, however, can only accommodate 14 men.

So most of the lifters PREP helps to get “out” live in residential programs, including Francisco Homes that she started in 2007. Five years later, Sister Teresa Goth, a member of the Daughters of Mary and Joseph, was named executive director of the five Francisco Homes under the auspices of Starfish Stories, Inc., a faith-based nonprofit.

Although the two agencies provide what a lifer desperately needs to be paroled — a six-month residential program and the skills needed for employment — they have been separate for three years.

“After 39 years as a teacher and principal, I wanted to do something different,” explains Sister Mary Sean. “I was 60 and figured I’d better stop now.”

She took a sabbatical, enrolling in a spirituality program on Long Island outside New York City. There she met a woman religious who had a prison ministry, which intrigued her. So she tagged along on a prison visit, then another.

“It was like almost an automatic thing,” she recalls. “I didn’t go to New York knowing what I wanted to do. I want to say it just happened.”

Soon after she returned to Los Angeles, Sister Suzanne Jabro, CSJ, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice at the time, offered her a job putting together a “re-entry” program for former prisoners. By November of 2002, she had a whole mentoring plan, modelled after one she visited in Chicago, written up and ready to go.

It sounded great. Volunteers from parishes would help ex-cons adjust. But it didn’t work. Parishioners were simply afraid to be with a parolee alone.

Meanwhile, Sister Mary Sean had been going to prisons in California and getting to know lifers through Catholic chaplains. She found out most were denied parole because the parole board felt they first needed anger management, life-skills and other self-help programs not being offered by state prisons.

So in 2005, the former educator started putting together correspondence courses suggested, and written, by inmates for inmates. Her job was to edit them and develop programs by reaching out to prisons and penal institutions. And her first career came in really handy.

“I’m very grateful for all my years of teaching, because teaching skills are essential for everything we do,” she says. “I couldn’t have put together those programs without that background of how to do it. I couldn’t have.”

Different world

Today, almost 15 years later, PREP is in 34 California prisons plus another 10 in other states because of Sister Mary Sean. Sitting on the porch, she simply calls it a “blessing” to work with lifers. But coming from a strict Irish-German family with nine children hasn’t made it easy.

“My whole background is a different world,” she reports from the front porch. “And my expectations, my desires, my dreams are on different pages. I always want more, and I expect more. Even running this office, I think I’m more demanding. My expectations are running a more efficient office, turning around the mail we get faster.

“I want that,” she says, “and it isn’t going to happen. It is not.”

The melancholy tone in her voice doesn’t last, however.

“I like to see the difference in the men, from where they were to who they are,” she says. “Because of being in prison that long, they come to a point where they have to decide: ‘I’m going to stick with the prison-type life, or I’m going to change my life?’ Some of them do it sooner, some later. To mature.

“I learned a whole lot more, and it is humbling to work with this group of people. And I truly, truly see that these men are the redeemed men. But I also see that anybody in prison is redeemed. It’s a matter of them knowing it. And these guys know it.”

Sister Mary Sean Hodges is looking for someone to replace her as director of PREP so she can concentrate on visiting prisons.