August 10, 2012

Prison Ministry: On The Road Again

My passion for prison ministry volunteer work has been documented several times on Satisfying Retirement  as well as in a few books. Most recently, in his new book, Are You Just Existing And Calling It a Life, Dave Bernard relayed how my interest in this type of volunteering began.

courtsey Libery Movement
I am surprised and gratified that readers and others respond so strongly to this involvement. Working inside prisons and with recently released fellows who are on parole and struggling to craft a new life is satisfying in a way that I could not have imagined before breaking out of the box that kept me from trying something new.

Last week I stared the process again as a mentor to a man who was released from prison after serving nearly 3 years. Because it is several hours away, I drove to the town near the prison the night before his release so I could get a good night's sleep. I was to be at the prison gates by 7:30AM the next morning. Because of prison paperwork, the fellow wasn't able to walk out of the gate until after 9:00AM so I sat and waited.

For the guy I was picking up, his day began hours earlier. He said he woke up at 4:00AM, nervous and anxious to get on with his life. He was given a set of clothing that was several sizes too big, but at least no longer an orange jumpsuit; he was happy. All his possessions fit in one box. After almost three years he left with less than $65 to start a new life.


By the time he came out of the gate, both he and I were ready to get on the road. My first question: are you hungry? My experience is there is too much excitement and nervousness to want to eat immediately. He fit the profile. We drove a little over an hour before he was ready for breakfast. Because prisoners make very few decisions, consulting a menu is often a daunting task. They can be overwhelmed with all the options. My mentee, however, knew exactly what he wanted: steak and eggs. When the food arrived he gave small moans of pleasure over the taste of meat, fresh eggs, and good coffee. It was fun to watch him enjoy something so much that most of us take for granted.

Another three hours of driving put us back in Phoenix where his first stop was the parole office to check in and begin fill out more paperwork. Then, we stopped by the main office of Alongside Ministries so he could meet the staff and be welcomed home. Next was a trip to the thrift store run by the ministry to get him several sets of clothing to supplement all he owned: one set of poor-fitting clothes he left the prison in.

Finally, I took him to his new home for the next six months, a complex of apartments also run by the ministry. He will attend daily classes on re-entering society, staying strong in his faith, financial basics, and being a Christan man. Church services and time to bond with the other men who live at the complex will also fill his calendar.

After a day or so of experiencing the feeing of freedom will come one of his biggest challenges: finding a job. Even during a strong economy, ex-cons have a tough time becoming employed. Unfortunately, most of society takes the view that once a felon, always a felon. There is rarely much in the way of forgiveness or giving someone a fresh start. Is it surprising so many released people (men and women) end up back behind bars? With few people hiring them, and even fewer willing to rent an apartment to them, we make it almost impossible for someone to stay on the right path. Luckily for my mentee, Alongside Ministries is a safe haven from that type of negative stereotyping. They also maintain a list of employers willing to take a chance on someone. But, believe me, that is rare indeed.

My role as his mentor is to help him stay focused on his goals, give him love and support, and help him develop good decision-making skills. I am not his daddy and not his parole officer. As long as it isn't something illegal or that breaks the policies of Alongside, if he decides to make what I consider a less-than-ideal choice I cannot (and would not) prevent him from doing so.
Like the rest of us, he will learn from experience about consequences and short-term versus long-term choices.


We will talk on the phone several times a week and spend an hour or so together at least once a week. Those sessions are designed to allow him to work through problems and choices with me, share frustrations and joys, read the Bible together, and let him know there are people who do want him to succeed.

Like most men I meet through this program, this fellow had a rough childhood, made terrible choices involving drugs, lost his family, and sealed his short term fate. Now, he is already making steps to re-establish strong relationships with his kids, ready to move on from a toxic marriage, and become an example of what God's love can do in a human life.

When I get tired and burned out from the travel and commitments of time and energy I remind myself what I am able to witness: a human life that was relegated to the trashcan, being turned around and put on a productive path.

There is nothing I could do with my time that has a better payoff.


prison in our rear view mirror




 

19 comments:

  1. All I can say is, good for you! (And thanks for the free kindle book.)

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  2. Thank you for the work you are doing, Bob! I have an aunt that "got messed up" in high school and had to serve time. Most of the younger members of the family have no idea...and why should they! She had a few people, one being my father (her brother-in-law) that mentored her and taught her to set goals, get up after defeats, strenghten her faith and work hard for good things in life. I have no doubt this made all difference in her turn around. You can't make this man's choices but you can be there to help him steer the course. We all can make a difference...one step at a time. I admire what you are doing.
    By the way, my aunt is a grandmother and has raised a wonderful family and worked as a caregiver to house bound elderly and provided many people with love and stability.

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    1. Your story is an excellent example of how, given another chance, people can turn things around. Having someone to confide in, vent to, and be there as a springboard are important to all of us...but especially for those who have a trust problem anyway.

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  3. Bob,

    Thanks for caring for and, visiting the men in prison. While I know
    you are blessed too, and, that God himself is pleased. I too am blessed
    to know that there are people like you in the world. :)

    Thanks for the free e-book! I am off to read it. :)

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    1. Prison work isn't for everyone but the great thing about volunteering is that everyone has something to offer to another. Maybe it is no more than a smile and kind comment to every clerk and store worker you see each day. That simple act will brighten their day and your, too.

      Someone who says they have no talents appropriate for helping another just isn't looking very hard!

      Enjoy the book. If you like it I'd deeply appreciate a review on the Amazon website where you got the book. It helps a lot.

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  4. Hi from me here in Virginia to you in Utah. I grew up in Salt Lake City and have passed the Bluffdale prison many, many times (I even remember when it was located in Sugarhouse, a long time ago!). I knew a man in my childhood neighborhood who did service work at the prison. What you are doing is awesome! Yes, as Linda above says, we can't force someone to turn his/her life around, but we can try to be there for them. And thanks for the free read. I just downloaded it to my TBR "pile."

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    1. Hi, Ann. For clarification I live in Arizona and the prison referred to in this story is near Kingman. But, I also lived in SLC at one time and know the prison you are referring to quite well. It is quite a complex.

      Thanks for your supportive comments and I hope you enjoy the book. I'm hard at work on a new one that I hope to have ready in late October or early November.

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  5. Ministry to the imprisoned is a gift of faith. That daily walk back onto the world. I appreciate your time and effort to save one more human from a life of destruction.
    My life did a 180 on Tuesday.My former principal called at 9pm, desperate to find a teacher for a home ec type class. I am NOT a home ec teacher. On Wednesday I was in the classroom prepping for 130 students! Teen Skills will cover: relationships, child care, nutrition and food prep, basic clothing care and...last but not least...Budgets! Wish me luck. 180 pounding days of teaching kids what I think is basic to survival.
    I'd enjoy hearing if there is a particular topic you think I should cover. Sorry, public school, no spirituality. Maybe I can teach how to relax - in basic meditation....

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    1. Wow...there's a real shift in your life.

      Very important would be budgeting and the basic facts of finance: credit isn't free, spend less than you make, you can't have everything you want when you want it...all the stuff we learned but no one seems to teach anymore.

      Good luck, Janette.

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  6. I passed the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, on my way back from Crater Lake last week. I thought about you and your prison ministry. Like others, I so admire your involvement in such compassionate and meaningful work. Jesus said that we we visit those in prison, we visit him. I always enjoy your posts about this ministry. Good luck to your new mentee. Tell him that he has lots of folks out here in blogworld sending him good wishes.

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    1. I will tell him, Galen. He has had a rough first 2 weeks, dealing with relationship issues and adapting to a world very different from the one behind bars. But, we talk a few times each day about choices and consequences. I have high hopes that God will work His plan for this fellow.

      Isn't it interesting how often we pass prisons or jails in our travels. Did you know America has the highest percentage of its population incarcerated of any developed nation in the world? From my experience I can say that much a massive warehousing of people is a huge expense that often does more harm than good.

      Someone goes into prison after a mistake and leaves a very changed person..usually not for the good. Thank goodness for programs like Along Side Ministry that give some folks a chance to make something positive out of the rest of their life.

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  7. I am so glad you posted this! I was wondering how your ministry was going. What you are doing is living your faith and will be a very important example to this man. So many of us were blessed with supportive families and don't realize how lucky we were. I am keeping both of you in my prayers.

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    1. Thank you, Susan. My mentee and all the men and women like him need our prayers and our active support to help them stay out of prison and turn a damaged life into a productive one.

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  8. Bob I am always in awe of the work you(and others do) and how we all need each other.Truly we(humans)are much more alike than different.We make our way in the world and sometimes just need an open heart and mind.I agree this young man (mentee) may be surprised that perfect blog strangers wish him well and to be happy.Success is what he sees it as!Just an idea if you thought it was interesting/helpful maybe share how the mentee is doing,challenges arising- and you know they will.Possibly encouragement from blog readers, solution ideas heck just human experience could support and help this person...not to mention great reading for your readers I'm just sayin

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    1. As a brief update, this fellow is struggling at the moment with anger issues, primarily related to his soon-to-be-ex wife and relationships with his children. He and I will have to work through this as we discuss his long term goals and the belief that God is ultimately in control and whatever is happening is for a reason.

      Thanks for your support.

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  9. Hi Bob
    Came across this website in looking at retirement/life after retirement. Reading this particular blog confirms my plan to retire end of 2012 rather than wait until Nov 2013. I currently work full-time as a public employee, however I also volunteer as a Police Chaplain with the local police department in the city where I live. In February 2012 i started volunteering in the jail/juvenile hall ministry on the weekends conducting Bible Studies to inmates. In July my wife and I were at the local farmer's market and we ran into some old friends of ours we had not seen in quite a while, the husband has been retired for about 10 years and when I was telling him that I was planning on retiring in Nov 2013 but could retire this year with less income but enough to pay all my obligations and he recommended that the sooner you could retire the better as he truly enjoys his retirement. What struck me funny was as I was listening to him I felt as if the Lord was telling me to retire this year and to become more involved with the Police Chaplaincy and jail ministry. Since that time i have had confirmation on more than one occassion that this is indeed what I should do. I have a very comfortable life enjoy my job however I sense that retirement will free me up to devote more time to these volunteer activities. Although my job is important and i strive to do my best while here, I truly believe that the Lord is revealing to me that the eternal destiny of a person's soul is so much more important than anything I could be doing at my present job....so I will submit my retirement papers in Oct 2012 and retire end of Dec 2012 and will look forward to a new chapter in my life's adventure. Thanks for the blog/confirmation and I pray the Lord will richly use you in the prison ministry as well... God bless!

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    1. Hi Mack,

      What a moving testimony to the power of the Lord to lead you in a direction that will matter so much to you and the men you will work with. If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to e-mail me and we can discuss away from the blog.

      I have found this phase of my retirement so meaningful and fulfilling. I feel blessed to allowed to serve these men in the way I am. And, when they make it in society I feel a special glow of joy.

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    2. Thanks Bob.....thusfar my time spent with the inmates has been very special and blessed to say the least

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