The Benedict Center is an interfaith, nonprofit criminal justice agency that works with victims, offenders and the community to achieve a system of justice that is fair and treats everyone with dignity and respect.
In 1974, Margi Flanagan, a community activist, and Sister Rita Martin, a Racine Dominican, teamed up with Father Al Veik at St. Benedict the Moor and others committed to justice to found the Benedict Center as an educational alternative to jail for women. The new program was incorporated as the nonprofit, Citizen and Offender Programs in Education, or COPE. The following year, the agency became the Benedict Center for Criminal Justice, and in 1990 the agency shortened its name to the Benedict Center.
Opening its doors and hearts to women in conflict with the law, the small upstart agency also offered chaplaincy services to help accused men, women and youth of all faiths find strength in their own personal spirituality in the Milwaukee County jail.
At its inception in 1974, the Benedict Center began the COPE “Citizen and Offender Programs in Education” as an individualized education program in the Milwaukee County Women’s Jail. With a team of seven part-time teachers, two part-time educational counselors and a cadre of 35-50 unpaid staff members began assisting female inmates on a one-to-one basis.
In addition to adult basic education, classes included communication skills, family living, sewing, needlecrafts, yoga, child development, typing and shorthand, assertiveness training and Choices for Change. When sentenced women moved to the House of Corrections in Franklin in 1976, COPE began offering programming there as well. The first high school graduation ceremony ever was held in the Milwaukee County Jail in1978 when two women earned their diploma from Pius XI High School through the school’s Adult Learning Center in cooperation with the Benedict Center.
The Benedict Center provides a myriad of programs and services to women who are or have been in conflict with the law including: the Women’s Harm Reduction Program; community advocacy for fundamental systemic change in the criminal justice system; outreach programming to men and women in conflict with the law in the community through Restorative Community Service at the Community Justice Day Reporting Center; and street outreach to women involved in drugs and prostitution through the Sisters Project. The Benedict Center also provides spiritual support to those who are incarcerated through the interfaith Jail Chaplain Program.
Over the years, there have been many changes to the Benedict Center – including its name, location, leadership. But one thing remains unchanged–The Benedict Center’s mission is to work with victims, offenders and the community to achieve a system of justice that is fair and treats every one with dignity and respect.
And, for its commitment to serving an often-forgotten and neglected population, the Milwaukee Community Journal honors The Benedict Center for helping put the ‘neighbor’ back into the hood.
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