How Freedom Community Center gives people charged with felonies a second chance
Christian Lett is not afraid to say that he has made mistakes in his youth. Those mistakes led to him being charged with multiple felonies — and ultimately landed him in the St. Louis City Justice Center after he escaped from a juvenile detention facility.
While still a minor, Lett was held in jail without bond. He faced at least five years in prison for the crimes he committed, including the escape attempt.
As he awaited sentencing, Kayla Thompson and her colleagues at Freedom Community Center, a restorative justice group, were working to get Lett out of jail.
In Thompson’s department, called the Free Us Group Track Program, the participants go through an intensive, 12-week program. Along with community service and therapy, Freedom Community Center also provides immediate basic needs for participants when they are released from jail, including bus passes, food and a phone.
For the most part, Lett was looking for just a chance to do — and be — better.
“It was the opportunity for me. That’s all I could ask for,” Lett told St. Louis on the Air. “All I need is a helping hand. That’s even better. A listening ear, you can’t go wrong. A hug of affection could make a person cry.”
The program, which has seen two graduating classes since Freedom Community Center’s founding in 2021, has given Lett a new lease on life. He told St. Louis on the Air that he once thought he only had his mother in his corner. Now, he has a community that he considers family.
For Thompson, the feeling is mutual.
“I'm working with people that look just like me, Black and brown people. When I look at Christian [and] the other participants, I see my family members, I see people I grew up with, I see my neighbors.”
Restorative justice programs like Freedom Community Centers are gaining attention as the criminal justice system continues to show evidence of racial and economic bias. Once imprisoned, people are met with unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Thompson said that such conditions will not rehabilitate anyone. She said: “People can't heal in isolation and when we put people in cages, we are forcing them to be isolated from others. It’s impossible for you to experience support or for you to heal through trauma when you are by yourself.”
Lett graduated from the group track program on April 7. Around that time he also completed his GED and his case was disposed of. Lett said that he’s looking forward to the next group session with Freedom Community Center and being active in his community in a positive way.
“My next step is to continue to work. The FCC gave me an opportunity. I want to help another person receive an opportunity.”
Correction: This story's headline was updated to better reflect the work of Freedom Community Center
For more on Christian’s journey from prison jumpsuit to suit and tie at graduation, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.