Around 7:30 a.m., inside a brick house on the corner of Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues on the far South Side of Chicago, Colleen Brinkmeier gathers at a table with Debra on a recent Tuesday, just as they do every morning.
They pull out their Bibles, and each has brought with them a devotional, from which they’ll share a passage with one another.
A block away, 87th Street bustles with a Cash 4 Gold store, a seafood shop and a deli. Several blocks west of the house in this city of neighborhoods lies Chatham and several blocks east stands South Chicago. Both Chatham and South Chicago have reputations as two of the more notorious areas of Chicago’s South Side.
But here in Marynook, a tiny hamlet nestled within the Avalon Park community, there are houses like this modest brick one-story home, most of them built in the post-World War II-era. The streets stay quiet and tranquil.
This, after the tumult of Colleen’s life before a four-year stay in prison, is exactly what she wants right now. This is Bridge to Freedom.
The house on Kenwood contrasts the old Bridge to Freedom apartment in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on the West Side, which records the most violence per capita in the whole city. In the organization’s apartment there, on Central Avenue, noise prevailed at all hours. A bullet once flew in and lodged itself in the bathroom wall while Colleen was home. The police said they preferred to leave the bullet in the wall.
Bridge to Freedom, founded by Mica Garrett, a Navigator who was herself twice incarcerated, functions exactly as the name sounds: It’s a link for the formerly incarcerated between prison and total freedom. It’s not a halfway house, though. It’s completely voluntary; applicants go through a process to get accepted and agree to an all-encompassing faith component that includes morning devotions and weekly church attendance.
The first floor of the Marynook home contains three bedrooms and two bathrooms for the women in the program, and the basement level is laid out the same way for the men. A tone of respect laces through everyone’s language as they address each other: Ms. Mica, Ms. Debra, Ms. Colleen, Mr. James, Ms. Julie, Mr. Henry, Mr. Peter.
Born in 1962, Colleen grew up on a large farm in a small town called Fairdale in rural Illinois, about 90 minutes outside of downtown Chicago. Her closest neighbors lived a half-mile to a mile away.
“We had all the animals,” she says. “I knew how to do it all.”
The fourth of five kids, Colleen and her family raised beef cows, dairy cows, pigs, and chickens. They plowed. They grew corn and peas and wheat.
But in 1999, the jail and prison sentences for Colleen began. They started out short, in connection to things like stealing and petty theft.
She talks about being stuck in a rough, two decades-long relationship with the father of her two sons. They lived in Rockford, about 90 miles outside of Chicago. In the beginning of the relationship, she says he grew verbally and emotionally abusive. Toward the end, the abuse got physical.
In the middle of their time together, Colleen says she got caught stealing something for her boys, Joey, now 26, and BJ, now 31, and served a six-month jail sentence. Later in her relationship with her kids’ father, Colleen suffered a miscarriage so severe she needed a total hysterectomy.
During her stay at the hospital, Colleen says, her ex-boyfriend “literally moved me out of the house.” He found her an apartment, paid one month’s rent and left her and the boys on their own.
It didn’t turn out well. In the next several years, Colleen was caught committing public aid fraud and spent three more stints in jail. Things got really bad around a decade ago, when, she says, “I got caught up with the wrong people.”
The group in Rockford would steal checks and cavort around suburban Chicago, visiting big box stores like Walmart, K-Mart, and Home Depot, writing stolen checks for merchandise and re-selling the goods.
In September 2009, she told the group she would write one final check for one more batch of stolen Walmart merchandise, and there would be no more.
“I just had that feeling,” she says. “I was done with the group.”
And yet. Five months later, she got a call from her ex, saying the police had shown up looking for her. It turns out the check she wrote at Walmart was stolen from a judge’s wife; police had caught Colleen forging the stolen check on video surveillance.
Colleen got scared. She ran. She left Rockford, heading to Springfield for five months and staying with a friend. Another friend convinced her to head to Las Vegas, but to do so, she had to go back through Rockford. She booked a bus ticket that took her through Rockford, texted her best friend she was heading over, and she says when she showed up at the bus station, “police were everywhere you could imagine.”
She was sent to Logan Correctional Center for a year, and then spent three and a half years at Decatur Correctional Center. At the same time, her two sons had received a prison sentence for arson. Her whole family was incarcerated at once.
Her inmate number—R36357—followed Colleen around from prison to prison.
At the time, Colleen says, “I was still rebellious. I was still mad.”
Life at Decatur, she says, felt so hard. For health reasons—a hernia and respiratory issues—she couldn’t perform a job. She received $14.70 a month. She heard from her sons over the phone every couple of weeks. Sometimes, they wrote her letters. Some women in the prison treated her with kindness, every so often offering her an extra bag of noodles.
One day, a few weeks after arriving at Logan, she read in the newspaper that a 67-year-old man had been killed in a home invasion. Later that day, she got a call from the jail staff asking her how to reach Jim, the man she had been dating at the time. She realized the murdered man had been Jim.
She was shocked. She immediately went into grieving, helped by a counselor at the prison.
“Some say it was a blessing that I was incarcerated [at the time of the home invasion] because who knows what would have happened if I would have been there, too,” she says.
Jim’s death also ruled out one of Colleen’s options for where to go after she finished serving her sentence.
As she processed his death, figuring out how to occupy her time in prison took the largest toll on Colleen.
She attended a church service every other Saturday. She joined a few Bible studies. She signed up for Bible classes in the mail. And in those long stretches during the day, she got curious about the Bible itself.
She would take a Bible into the day room of the prison for three to four hours at a time. Colleen had a system: Write down the first verse of a book of the Bible. Flip to the last chapter of the book. Write down the first verse of the last chapter in the book. For single-chapter books like I John, Jude, and Philemon, she devised a different method of writing verses. She wrote down verses for every single book, even obscure ones in Nahum and Numbers.
When she finished, she would start with the first verse of the second chapter of a Bible book. A prison guard there who also served as a chaplain challenged Colleen to memorize Romans 8:28, his favorite verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).
So she wrote it down, and when they saw each other, she recited it.
In November 2014, at a semi-annual re-entry summit at Decatur, Colleen met Mica, the Bridge to Freedom founder, and Debra, who served as the program director for Bridge to Freedom for the last seven years and also lived with the women in the house.
A friend Colleen had met in prison, plus the prison counselor, pushed her toward them, reminding Colleen she’d be on the outside in three months with no place to go. Nearly everyone else told her not to go to Bridge to Freedom.
“You don’t want to go there,” she says they told her. “It’s a cult.”
Before they left for the day, Mica handed Colleen an application and asked her to fill it out.
“You’re coming to our place,” Mica told Colleen.
Colleen says her prison unit wasn’t happy about it, but she felt relief she had a place to go and wouldn’t be back in Rockford.
Then, in February 2015, for the first time in years, she changed out of her prison-issue blue pants and long-sleeved white shirt. For the first time in her life, she took a train, a Metra from Decatur to Union Station in Chicago, where Debra met her. She would become the first female graduate of Bridge to Freedom.
She looks back at her life then and now realizes how hard she made things for Debra and Mica.
“When I first came, I was a mess,” she says. “I took them through stages where they didn’t know what to do.”
She and Mica visited a doctor on the West Side who diagnosed Colleen with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. At one point, says Mica, who went with Colleen to all of her psychiatric appointments, Colleen’s doctor said she would need to be institutionalized.
“He said she was too far gone,” Mica says. “If he could see her now…”
Every Sunday, when they’d go to church, Colleen would dress in short skirts and shirts showing off her cleavage.
“They were too short for the place where we were going,” says Debra, “and I would catch her at the door and say, ‘No ma’am. You can’t wear that. We got to bring it down. Bring it down.’”
Three years later, everything has changed. Colleen sits on a couch at the Bridge to Freedom house’s living room dressed in a lavender blouse flattering for her shape.
“Now, she dresses very fashionable,” Debra says. “It’s beautiful.”
Her blonde hair falls around her shoulders, and her bangs have been neatly trimmed. She’s had a pedicure and her fingernails painted, indulgences she makes sure to enjoy regularly.
Of course, the changes go far beyond her appearance.
In spring 2015, Colleen had been riding to a picnic when she got sick. Really sick.
The driver had to stop and open the van door so she could throw up.
Doctors later told her she had been having a heart attack.
Several months later, in December 2015, she underwent a triple bypass heart surgery. Three months later, she was still at Rush University Medical Center, recovering. When she tried to go home once, she got an infection in her legs.
At one point, she medicated herself on prescription pain pills. It just hurt too much.
“I was in so much pain,” Colleen says. “Nothing was working. I was in so much pain, I even asked God to take my life.”
She watched television. She slept—a lot. She kept taking prescription pills.
“I didn’t really care,” she says. Then, “I went to Ms. Deb, and I said, ‘I need help. You need to take this medicine.’ Because it was taking over.”
God used those months, her darkest, weakest, most pain-filled moments, to draw Colleen close to Him.
Later that summer, Colleen got baptized at her church, Apostolic Faith Church in Indiana.
She’s still growing, still having morning devotions. On a recent morning, one study centered on exalting and praising God and another on doing small things with great love.
Bridge to Freedom funds itself in part by cooking and catering events, and Colleen helps cook for those. She also makes mac and cheese and scalloped potatoes and ham for her housemates on occasion.
On a couple of weekdays this January, Colleen headed with Debra, Mica, and Ella, who joined the house in December, to North Park University on the city’s North Side, dishing out the rolls, chicken, and lasagna they had prepared for a conference on Christianity and mysticism.
Like her, Colleen’s two boys are out of prison now, and she sometimes visits them in Rockford. Her dynamic with them, now that they’re both out and no longer on parole, remains a bit stilted.
“I’m still figuring out where I fit in,” she says.
In Bridge to Freedom, her role is clear: family. She considers Julie Beland, her roommate and former prison-mate—they served as peer educators at Decatur together, discussing health and hygiene with other inmates—her sister.
Colleen and Julie will stay up late, sometimes ‘til 1 a.m., just talking.
“She’s a wonderful person,” Julie says. “She’s my heart. She’s my best friend.”
Colleen has been at Bridge to Freedom for three years now. She graduated from the program last year, and she envisions someday renting or owning her own place or staying to serve others who come through Bridge to Freedom.
Colleen had looked at Debra like an older sister, gentle, wise and in many senses, her navigator.
And then, when Debra left Bridge to Freedom in February, Colleen started leading the morning devotions.
“Colleen has probably grown more than anyone at Bridge to Freedom,” Mica says. “She’s grown the most—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”
When Colleen first came to Bridge to Freedom, according to Mica, she couldn’t write a complete sentence. Then, Sierra Neuharth, the daughter of Jay Neuharth, the director of The Navigators in Chicago, began tutoring Colleen, and now she’s writing papers and studying for a bachelor’s degree.
Colleen, now 55 years old, has a dream for the rest of her life: She wants to become a prison counselor. When she and Julie left Decatur, they said there was one counselor for every 400 inmates.
Colleen wants to help right-size that overwhelming ratio, and she’s taking classes so she can go back to prisons like Decatur to counsel the women there. She has a couple of more years of her schooling left, but can already visualize her return through the barbed wire.
“When we go into prison, you’re always going through the back door,” Colleen says. “I don’t ever want to do that again. I want to be proud to walk through a front door and say I’m walking out that same door I came in on that same day.”
Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.