Pictured above is Bill Gaertner meeting an inmate upon his release from serving 19 years in Hagerstown State Prison.
In July of 2005, Bill Gaertner was standing in the middle of an interstate highway, hoping to get hit by a truck. He was an alcoholic and a serial domestic abuser. Eventually he went to prison for eight years, where he reconnected with his Catholic faith.
“There’s a reason I’m here,” he said. “Don’t talk to us about a job, talk to us about a life.”
That reason has turned out to be Gatekeepers, a Hagerstown, MD-based non-profit that helps people released from prison reintegrate into society, which he founded after being released in 2013. A former college basketball coach approaching 70, Gaertner noticed that most of his fellow inmates were young men without male role models who had lost their ways in middle school and when they were released, while there were lots of programs that helped them find jobs, there were no programs that taught them what Gaertner calls “the business of life” – how to stay employed, get housing or get important documents like drivers’ licenses or birth certificates or open bank accounts.
“They have so much inside, but they have no shot,” Gaertner said.
The Order of Malta got involved with Gatekeepers through Mike McGarry, KM, a co-chair of the North American Prison Ministry Apostolate. The Apostolate consists of the leadership of the four United States and Canadian Associations of the Order of Malta. The Apostolate was formed in direct response to the request of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
“He has become a friend, an adviser and a spiritual partner,” Gaertner said of McGarry.
Gaertner said that while a number of faith-based groups are willing to come into prison and pray, members from the Order of Malta are among the few at the gates when people get out of prison.
“The Order of Malta is really getting it,” Gaertner said. “I’m blessed to be able to work with them. A lot of people there pray with you, but when it comes to the corporal works of mercy, it’s ‘Not in my backyard.’”
Gaertner said that members of the Order of Malta were helping with resources, peer mentoring and Gatekeepers’ spiritual component. He said that members come in and pray with inmates and the newly released, run special programs and even give retreats in the prison.
Gaertner said that spirituality is important and frequently overlooked by similar programs. According to the Gatekeepers website, 66 percent of ex-prisoners re-offend if they have no religious participation while only 20 percent who participate in religion return to prison.
Gatekeepers is successful in its work. According to their website, they have graduated 39 ex-offenders in two alumni groups, only two of whom have re-offended. Gaertner said that the organization recently became a 501(c)3 non-profit and he’s ready to scale it up. He also recently met with United States Representative David Trone (D-Md), pictured above with Bill Gaertner.
“Bill’s passion and dedication to reforming our criminal justice system from the ground up is exactly what we need in Maryland and across the country,” Trone wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m looking forward to working with him and taking his ideas back to Washington.”