Founder of Wings for Life International Ann Edenfield Sweet helps imprisoned people and their families break the cycle of recidivism. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
INCARCERATED PEOPLE may have become accustomed to prison gates isolating them from the outside world, but they were never more cut off than when COVID-19 kept visitors and volunteers away, too. The lockdown also canceled all of Ann Edenfield Sweet’s prison teaching visits, weekly programs, and fundraising events.
The founder of Wings for Life International, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that teaches returning citizens and families of imprisoned people skills to break the cycle of recidivism and generational incarceration, quickly assembled a new plan. She turned in-person weekly family dinners and classes into 16 weeks of recorded programs—aired on Albuquerque’s TV channel KAZQ—on parenting, overcoming addiction, earning a GED, and preventing suicide. In the fall, she began hosting Zoom meetings.
“We wanted to stay in touch with people,” Edenfield Sweet says. “Wings is all about education and building and strengthening family relationships. The TV program allowed us to get into their homes. Zoom, Facebook Live, and YouTube Live connected us ‘face-to-face’ again.”
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Pivoting is a way of life for Edenfield Sweet. The former homecoming queen, Miss Michigan contestant, and flight attendant had—at least from the outside—a picture-perfect life until her first husband, an airline pilot, was arrested in 1986 and imprisoned on federal drug charges. His crime impacted her as well. All her assets were frozen. A $3.5 million federal lien placed on her husband also applied to her.
With that black mark on her background, she struggled to find a job to support her four boys. Her financial struggles were compounded by social ones. Even her family’s church suddenly ostracized them. “When dealing with incarceration, you become a leper,” she says. “I had to learn to manipulate through a system that didn’t want us around.”
In 1996, Edenfield Sweet marshaled her personal and professional experience—hopscotching from jobs in teaching and real estate to publishing sales and youth ministry—into Wings for Life. She also chronicled her lessons in a book, Family Arrested: How to Survive the Incarceration of a Loved One. Since its founding, Wings for Life has taught skills like money management and job hunting to incarcerated people throughout the U.S. and in countries such as Kenya, India, and Liberia. In New Mexico, she’s worked with approximately 10,000 imprisoned people and their friends and families each year. Wings for Life has tracked a low 4 percent recidivism rate among its attendees over 10 years, in a state where rates are typically higher than 50 percent. The programs are aimed at the next generation, too, since children of those incarcerated are 72 percent more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
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Michelle Cruz began volunteering at Wings for Life in 2015 while living at a halfway house after emerging from prison. She had lost custody of her son, but together they began attending the organization’s family nights. Over time, Cruz earned a job with Wings for Life, and she now works as a certified peer support worker with Christian Counseling Professionals. She regained custody of her son and bought a house.
Edenfield Sweet “never once introduced me as an inmate,” she says. “She taught me to say I’m a ‘returning citizen.’ I’m not a ‘felon.’ It changed my view. She helped me look forward and not backward.”