ST. LOUIS – Three years ago, Danny Ludeman (featured) received a letter from Candace O’Connor, a chairwoman of an organization called Project COPE. Ludeman had just retired after decades of work in the financial sector, including 15 years as the CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors. He stepped away from his professional life to do devote the rest of his life to giving back to the St. Louis community.
“I just had more of a desire to do something else, more direct service to help people,” he said.
He had applied and received admission to the Covenant Seminary to pursue the teachings of the Bible and become a preacher, but the letter from O’Connor gave him another offer. She asked him to become the executive director of Project COPE.
The organization served recently released convicts and felons by matching them with local houses of worship to reintegrate them into society and hopefully prevent them from coming back to prison. Ludeman had been looking to serve, but he did not know if O’Connor’s offer was the way he wanted to pursue it.
“It’s hard to admit this now, but a real emotion I had was that this just might be too much in the bowels of society for me,” Ludeman said. “I want to help people, but I wasn’t familiar with this population, I never knew anyone that had been to prison, I had never been to prison… I had a fear of this population.”
But he grew more interested when he met with her after they had spoken in person. On a few occasions. Ludeman especially grew interested when he learned about what he has come to call “The Big Problem.”
Seventy-seven percent of individuals in the United States that return to society after leaving prison will end up back in prison in three to five years. This fact, Ludeman says, stunned him.
“At first, I found it incredulous,” he said. “I thought it was exaggerated.”
After doing his own independent research and forming a strategic plan, something well within his element, Ludeman found not only was The Big Problem true but that it contributed to many societal woes. The repeat offenders end up back in prison, crowding the facilities that house them; they contribute to higher crime rates since they are likely to recommit felonies, and since 10 million children in the United States have or will have at least one parent in prison by the time they reach age 18, those children become up to nine times more likely to go to prison than their peers.
For those reasons, Ludeman and members of Concordance state that recidivism and the high population with prison records is the third largest social problem in the United States, behind only poverty and disease.
Ludeman started to act beyond just forming a strategic plan to help solve The Big Problem. He consulted with people from criminologists at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University; government officials from George Lombardi, the director of the Department of Corrections, as well as Mayor Francis Slay and then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley; and law enforcement officers from the Metro Area.
After months of work and research, Ludeman believed he had a substantial plan to reduce the re-entry rate into prisons by more than a third. He presented it to the members of Project COPE, and they voted to dissolve into a new organization he would spearhead, a new strategy to solve The Big Problem.
And Concordance Academy was born.
The Concordance Academy of Leadership aims to address not just one of the problems facing the formerly incarcerated, but all of them – or at least the most impactful ones. Ludeman said that the problem with previous organizations was not the services they provided, nor whether or not they did a good job. It was that there were many segmented organizations that sometimes gave redundant or even contradictory advice to ex-cons.
“None of those people are talking to each other, and there’s a lot of different language,” he said. “You’re getting seven different experiences.”
On top of that, the travel time for a group of people that may not have reliable modes of transportation could make it difficult to get to every service that could be scattered about town.
Concordance aims to be different. Ludeman stresses that the academy will offer a holistic and integrated approach offering multiple different services, customized to fit each participant’s individual needs.
“There is no other organization on the planet that is offering as comprehensive a service offering as we’re offering that is using evidence-based practices in our service offering,” Ludeman said. He added that everyone they hire knows everything about each aspect of the company so that there are no mixed messages and just one clear voice.
Ludeman says Concordance will hold classes and lessons relating to cognitive and relationship therapy, substance abuse disorder treatment, mental health, education and job readiness, employment, housing, and general life back into the the community. In all of those areas, the academy will only use evidence-based practices, evaluating what has worked in reform and re-entry efforts in other countries as well as in the United States.
Concordance also foresees the need for thousands of volunteers from houses of worship in the St. Louis-area to expand upon the work of Project COPE.
Participants will also get paid for going through the program to fulfill their “desperate” need for income. But Ludeman views it as compensation for their time. The participants go into the academy for eight hours a day, four days a week once they are released.
After 18 months in the academy (six before release and 12 after), participants will graduate and have an “alumni center” to use as a resource to assist them in any of those areas of focus.
Ludeman believes those services will help felons deal with also goes a long way to combatting the largest problem facing those felons above all others.
“All are struggling with the stigma that’s associated with being a felon,” he said. “The word ex-felon doesn’t even exist. You’re always a felon, and a lot of the laws in place are about inhibiting felons in employment, housing, voting, hits them in child support, a lot of areas…”
He likened the stigma to a giant scarlet letter F – for felon – on their foreheads. It’s also part of the reason he hired former state Sen. Jeff Smith, who went to prison for a year in 2009 for obstruction of justice.
The first class has already been selected: 28 individuals chosen from three of St. Louis’ prisons, five or six of them women. Ludeman said the first question that each of the participants had was “Why do you want to help me?”
After explaining the program to them, he was encouraged “just seeing the excitement and I’d say hope, we’re providing to our population.”
“People come out of prison somewhat fired up that they’re going to do it right this time, but when they face all of these problems in front of them or inside them, they quickly give up on hope.”
A second class will be selected by the end of the year. He hopes that by 2019, roughly 1000 participants will have gone through the program, and that the recidivism rate drops by 50 percent.
Funding is also an issue, but he raised roughly $9 million in just a few months when he was first setting up the academy, asking for donations of $100,000 a year for three years from people he had connections with in his time as the CEO of Wells Fargo. He said they appreciated his business and management approach to finding a solution. Eventually, as the program grows, he believes states will help foot the bill, especially because they essentially save money on programs like his by not spending nearly as much on the Dept. of Corrections with fewer inmates.
Ludeman aims to fix The Big Problem here first, but he has long-term goals as well. After St. Louis, he wants to move to Kansas City and then a handful of other states (several that he didn’t name have shown interest). Eventually, he wants to go nationwide, but that’s a long way off.
“We don’t want to get involved in scope creep here,” he said. “ Our head is down and fixed on what we’re doing here in St. Louis.”