After Prison

January 23rd, 2014

Forging a New Path

The number of men and women being released from prison has soared in recent decades, with approximately 1,700 people leaving prison each day, according to a 2004 statistic. Our brothers and sisters who are returning to their communities face numerous personal and societal obstacles as they try to forge new paths for themselves.

Many of those who are being released from prison have low levels of education and few marketable job skills. The median education level among former prisoners is 11th grade. Also, many inmates struggle with drug abuse and addiction. In 2001, the National Institute of Justice found that nearly two out of three newly arrested men tested positive for illegal drugs.

Having a support network is crucial for women and men who want to take their lives in a better direction, but family relationships are often strained or broken by years in prison. Those who have served long sentences in state or federal prisons may have spent years in a facility that is more than 100 miles away from their home communities, making visits difficult. Some parents lose custody of their children while in prison, and many marriages end as well.

Rising prison populations and tight state budgets have sometimes meant that less supervision and support are available to former prisoners than in the past. Community and faith-based organizations are being asked to help bridge the gap in helping ex-prisoners reintegrate into their communities.

Collateral Consequences

Personal challenges such as broken family relationships or drug abuse are not the only obstacles standing between former prisoners and success in the outside world. Many also face numerous restrictions on where they live or work. In the legal system, these obstacles are referred to as “collateral consequences,” meaning any restriction or stigma that comes from being convicted by a court, even though the restriction isn’t part of a person’s sentence.

US district judge Walter Rice is concerned that these consequences are limiting former prisoners from being able to hold jobs. He points to laws that automatically suspend the driver’s license of a person who has not paid child support. When people leave prison, they often owe large amounts in child support but have no way to pay it. If they don’t have a driver’s license, their ability to find a suitable job, or even to get to appointments with their parole officer, is greatly limited. Rice is part of a task force in Montgomery County, Ohio, that is studying the causes of recidivism, or relapsing into crime. He is encouraging the Ohio Legislature and Congress to change certain laws that may be unintentionally contributing to high recidivism rates.

In addition, many landlords refuse to sign a lease with someone who has a prison record. Although federal law does not require it, local public housing authorities often assume that they are not allowed to let ex-offenders live in their housing units. When a recently released individual moves back in with a family member living in public housing, the family could be at risk of eviction, depending on the local authorities’ policy.

Another collateral consequence that former prisoners often face is losing their right to vote (in many cases even after parole has been completed). Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, asserts, “When you restrict somebody from the right to vote and things like that, in a sense you are continuing to withhold their citizenship. . . . When does the punishment stop, or at what point have I done my time?” he asks.

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argues that collateral consequences discourage former prisoners who want to start fresh. “A lot of modern research has shown that you want to make the path of law-abidingness very attractive, and you want to make the path of continuing to break the law very unattractive,” he says. “So that calls into question the habit in our society of continuing to punish people for many years.”

The Difference Faith Community Support Can Make

With the great obstacles and deep needs that so many people face when leaving prison, it can seem like success is next to impossible. Programs that provide deep support and forge community with ex-offenders show, however, that developing a new life is possible.

Spirit Key is a ministry in Texas that works with ex-offenders, veterans, and homeless individuals. One of their most in-depth programs is providing housing to 20 people who are preparing to return to the outside world. These residents gradually transition from part-time to full-time work and paying rent while engaging with Spirit Key’s faith community. Allen Rice, Spirit Key’s executive director, refers to it as a “transitional work facility,” not a halfway house. “Most halfway houses are ‘good luck—pay your rent on time. . .’ We’re a place of second and third chances so people can re-enter the culture.”

Stephen, a 52-year-old client living at Spirit Key, says he has been in prison and an alcoholic for most of his life. The lowest point of his life came in 2012, when his son killed himself while Stephen was still incarcerated. He prayed for God’s help in staying sober through the terrible pain he experienced. When he was released from prison, he was accepted at Spirit Key. Stephen received many services and material items to help get a fresh start, but in his words the most important thing he received was “spiritual nourishment and a strong shoulder to cry on.” Now, he feels that he is “fully restored in hope and I know that God wishes me to help those who are in terrible need” through ministry at Spirit Key.

Congregations as Healing Communities

While the average congregation may not be equipped to carry out a ministry as extensive as Spirit Key’s, there are other ways to support people coming out of prison. The United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) announced in October of last year that it is partnering with Healing Communities, which assists congregations in ministering to people leaving prison, as well as their families. Bill Mefford of GBCS says that joining Healing Communities is a way for United Methodist churches to become “Stations of Hope” for those returning to the community.

The Healing Communities ministry especially focuses on the needs that likely exist in the congregation among those families who already have a loved one in prison. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, the organization’s director, frequently asks pastors if he can do an altar call for family members of prisoners after he has spoken at their churches. Pastors are often reticent, worried that people will be too embarrassed to come forward. Trulear says at least 12 family members have come forward every time he has issued such an offer to pray with them. He believes that for faith communities to engage with people coming out of prison, “it requires creating a culture where we understand that as people of faith we’re already connected to the criminal justice system.”

The Healing Communities framework tries to work with each congregation’s assets and strengths to minister in several key ways, including

  • creating a welcoming, supportive environment for ex-offenders and family members of those who are in prison so that the stigma associated with being incarcerated can be reduced;
  • using pastoral counseling and support groups to provide formal and informal support to people who are at risk of returning to prison, as well as to family members of people who are incarcerated;
  • connecting church members with opportunities to volunteer in classes held in prisons that help inmates develop life skills; 
  • building a movement of advocacy among congregations that works toward making the criminal justice system genuinely fair. 

Retribution or Restoration?

As people of faith consider the incredible challenges that individuals face after their prison sentences have ended, some important questions remain: Should the purpose of our criminal justice system be retribution, or payback against those who have committed crimes? Can our goal instead be to restore these former prisoners to our families and our communities so that they are able to contribute fully to society? The faith community can help that full restoration become a reality.

 Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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