March 22, 2013

Prison Ministry: What Does It Accomplish?


Based on comments left on other Satisfying Retirement posts I know there is continuing interest in the work I do for a local prison ministry organization. The world of prisons and inmates is one I only knew through movies, news stories, and "common knowledge" about those who find their way into prison. I did know that the United States has both the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars and the highest crime rate in the world.

It would seem those two statistics shouldn't go together. But because they do it implies that the time spent locked up isn't turning enough inmates into productive members of society. With 69% of all of those released from prisons and jails returning within 3 years, it seems rather obvious that the penal system is good at locking people but not helping them.

Once freed, these men and women are often put in a position where failure is almost guaranteed. Over 12,000 inmates are released every single week in this country. That is 650,000 a year. They are set free with virtually no money, with only the clothes on their back, and little skill training, into a society that treats them as eternally guilty. Many apartments won't rent housing to an ex-con. Getting hired is very difficult when employers see the giant time gap on the resume or are told of the jail sentence. Some states deny food stamps or Medicaid coverage to these people.

So, with no money, no reasonable expectation of getting a job quickly, and very few willing to house, feed, clothe, or treat sickness, why are we surprised that nearly 7 in 10 end up back behind bars? Obviously, there are plenty of released inmates who will go back to their old habits because that is all they know. Maybe it is the only way they can survive. Many have drug or anger issues that were ignored during their time in prison. So, inevitably the same behavior begins anew.

I'm providing this review to help someone understand why I have become involved in trying to reverse this trend, one person at a time. Are there men and women who should stay behind bars? Sure. Do many inmates get released with little chance at avoiding failure? Yes, of course they do. But, there are those people who made a mistake, have paid the price society demanded, and want a fresh start. That's where prison volunteers and outside mentors become invaluable.

Many of these folks had a rough childhood. Physical or sexual abuse, a home without a stable father, a single mom on drugs or entertaining "boyfriends"...these are the typical childhoods for many of the men I meet. While that isn't always an excuse, it helps us understand what went wrong at a  young age.

My involvement is through a Phoenix-based Christian organization, Alongside Ministries. It provides in-prison and out-of-prison counseling, support, and accommodations for men and women who go through a rigorous program of Bible study and goal setting during the last year of incarceration. While the program doesn't promise a successful reentry into society, the odds are greatly increased. Prisoners are carefully interviewed and screened before joining the program. Only one in five is accepted.

Each person in the program is assigned a mentor, for both inside and outside prison guidance. That mentor is someone selected to help the inmate stay focused on goals, and stay strong in the face of disappointment and obstacles.

The mentor will visit the person twice a month for face-to-face support while their mentee is still in prison. Once released, the mentor and mentee will talk several times a week, and spend time together at least once a week. Most ex-cons are still under parole for several months upon their release so there is a requirement to report to the parole officer a few times a month.

Frankly, whether a man or woman succeeds, stays free, and restarts a life worth living is really dependent on that person's will power, strength of faith, a changed heart and character. He or she must want to avoid the people and situations that resulted in jail time.  

A mentor can be a help, but can't prevent someone from making mistakes. It can be frustrating and infuriating when you see someone making decisions that will cause problems. Even so, the time spent is usually rewarding and gratifying. The chance to be even a small part of helping someone turn his life around makes the risk worthwhile.

I've had my share of failures, but keep coming back for more. Even for those men who leave the program early or end up back in prison, maybe my time with them will pay off the next time they are freed. Maybe not. But, my faith requires me to persevere, so I do.

Volunteering for prison ministry may be impracticable or just too far outside your comfort zone for you to do what I do. I understand completely. Going inside prison walls still freaks me out. But, there is someplace that can use you and someone who needs you, whatever your skills and abilities.

Give of your time and love and you will get back more than you can ever imagine.



27 comments:

  1. Great post Bob! One thing you didn't mention is that most ex-felons are also denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives. That is absurd to me. The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in the country; to deny it because of one mistake is simply wrong.

    I hope people take you last sentence very personally. When you give to relieve some of the sufferings on those in the margins of our society you get back much more than you give.

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    1. We put so many barriers in front of these men and women I'm surprised the return-to-jail rate isn't 100%. The belief that someone who served a prison sentence is damaged for life says more about the person holding that opinion than the ex-con.

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    2. I should mention to my readers that the RJ who left the above comment will be the subject of a post next Wednesday (3/27). What makes his story special or worth reading? Come back Wednesday to find out.

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    3. In response to RJ's comment, in California ex-felons are given back the right to vote, AS LONG AS THEY ARE NOT IN PRISON OR ON PAROLE for a felony. The caps are important; those are the provisions of that particular code.

      I do agree; addressing the root causes, whether of prison returns, mental illness or addictions will seriously improve folks' chances of NOT returning to a previous unhealthy lifestyle.

      pam

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    4. Thanks Pam for telling us about California. That is good to hear. But then again in my State any class B felony or above usually includes a 30 year parole period. They never seem to be able to get out from under it.

      Thanks Bob for the post about me. I am humbled by your attention.

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  2. Bob,

    I'm really impressed with what you do in the prisons. Do you have any statistics on the success rate of your program?

    We have something similar as part of the Zen Center that I belong to where we teach a prisoner to meditate to help them calm his mind. I've never done it myself, but you've inspired me to investigate furtehr.

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    1. Historically Along Side Ministries AZ has around 80% of the men and women in its program not return to prison. Not all of them complete the full 6-8 month residency and program requirements, like Celebrate Recovery. But, even if they leave early they move on with their lives and don't land back behind bars.

      Monday night we are beginning a new 6 week program at the men's center to help the residents with employment options, getting a better job than the normal minimum wage one most can land, producing a good resume, and how to succeed during the interview process.

      We also work on basic budgeting and how to dress properly for the work environment. There is a lot of spiritual discussion, but also very practical stuff these folks need to succeed.

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  3. When you can foster hope you can see change. I work with aboriginals in an education setting (not prison) but that same principle applies. Blessings on you for volunteering to be that person. I heard on the news yesterday (our new federal budget was just released in Canada!) and one idea they are hoping to implement to address the high prison counts and the lack of success in reducing re-offending is to separate somehow those who are suffereing from addictions and some type of mental illness and provide a prison that is a locked down treatment facility to address those issues and provide the counselling that will hopefully give the people the skills to face their addictions and the intervention necessary to address their mental illness (depression, bipolar, etc) in a well supported environment. All of this will be for nothing if the supports aren't there to ensure a transition into society though - here's hoping that will be provided! Kudos to you for standing in the gap and throwing out the challenge!

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    1. There are "prisoners" in all segments of society: prisoners of their upbringing, of their bad choices, of their lack of adult mentoring, of their illness or disability.

      Everyone of us can help another through sharing of ourselves, and, importantly, all of us can benefit from accepting help or friendship from another.

      Canada's idea is excellent. There is probably too much irrational fear of ex-cons for that to ever work in the U.S. But, maybe our neighbor to the north can lead the way in working more on fixing the problem rather than covering it up.

      Thanks, Eileen, and best of luck in your educational work.

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  4. I go to a church that has a prison ministry and while I am not involved I love what I see as a result of it. On Sunday morning I am ushered to my seat by several who have come out of that ministry or I am putting my money into a bucket passed by a woman or man with tattoos up to their jaw who have come out of prison. I am in Bible college and in our Homiletic's class I listened to a man preach who had come out of prison and up to that day I never would have suspected he had ever been near a jail much less a prison. I am honored to be in church with them and pray for and admire the ones who are a part of that ministry. God says all sins are the same weight so weather we gossip or murder we are the same a sinner who thankfully have been saved by grace. God bless you for the work you are doing in the prison.

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    1. Thanks, Sue, and the best of luck in your final 8 weeks of Bible College (I checked your blog!). Too often those of us who haven't fallen on the wrong side of the law pass judgment on those who have. But, as you well know, God judges all of our sins equally. We are not in any position to judge others, rather to love them and help them in any way we can.

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  5. Like others, I'm always interested to know more about your prison ministry. But what struck me most about this post was your opening statement about statistics. The highest crime rate coupled with the highest percentage of people in prison is stunning. Is it a self perpetuating system, like pharmaceuticals and health care? I'm having a hard time getting my head around this.

    Beyond that, though, I'm once again encouraged and impressed by your perseverance and dedication. I'm sure you have made a life changing difference to some of your mentees.

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    1. Yes, that a depressing statistic. Amazingly, even though our current approach is a total failure, we keep driving down the same road. Any attempt to change the time in prison from strictly punishment to rehabilitation is usually met with hostility from the general public and is politically not appealing.

      I keep plugging away knowing that the ultimate fate of these fellows is in God's hands anyway.

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    2. Must be hard in Arizona particularly. Between the gov. and the crazy sheriff...not much compassion. They need you!
      b

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    3. I believe AZ has the highest percentage of its population behind bars, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year for each inmate, not to mention the loss in human potential.

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  6. Have you read Mitch Album's book,"Have a Little Faith"....well it is a good read and involves a reformed convict...but it is a true story. It really made me think how I stereotype people and how much good we miss out on that way. I have no association with this author, etc. I had read his previous books and when this one came out, I knew I wanted to read it. I would recommend it to all.
    Bob, thank you for what you do in your prison ministry. I think prison/prisoners is kind of like mental illness in a lot of our way of reacting to it....we don't understand it, therefore we tend to shrink from dealing with it and separate ourselves from it. Not to say the two are the same....just that we just have trouble dealing with anyone that has "been there" and therefore we shun them to a certain extent.
    I don't know that I could do what you do...but know if God put it on my heart to do it, I would try. I know He has given us all differnt gifts and talents. It seems you are gifted with this ability. Thank you for what you do and making the rest of us think about our "beliefs system" when it comes to how we treat those who have made mistakes and ended up in prison. We have all needed second chances in our lifes more than once. And most of us have came from backgrounds that provided us with stable homes as we grew up. Therefore, it is sometimes hard to understand all of the things the prisoners have confronted in their lives.

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    1. Thank you Linda for your kind comments and support. I am just using certain talents God has blessed me with in a way that hopefully helps others. Everyone has abilities in something that would benefit another person but too often we think we "can't do anything." If you are still on this earth and breathing there is something you can do.

      I'm afraid we treat most of those who struggle with something the same way. Whether it is a new immigrant (legal or otherwise) who doesn't do well with the language or our customs, someone with marginal educational opportunities, badly overweight folks, or ex-cons...it doesn't really matter.

      I believe there is a serious lack of "I am my brother's keeper" attitude. We seem to look for ways to separate ourselves instead of working together. We seem to need to tear down others to feel better about ourselves and that is so sad.

      I have not heard of Mitch's book but I'm off to see what I can find out about it.

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    2. You are right on the mark about how we treat others that are struggling with anything....I hadn't thought of it that way before. But I will be now!
      I am afraid I misspelled Mitch's last name...I believe it is Albom...I usually borrow my books from the library and don't have a copy here to refer to. He also has a few other good ones that are thought provoking...my kind of read.
      I agree that we all need to become more of a Brother's Keeper...so common in our society to "not get involved". Part of the sermon today at church referred to the Samarian that was a leper and was healed and took time to give thanks. If we all just remembered how much God has blessed us with and how we did nothing to deserve it, we would surely be more like the Samarian. After all, we are just stewards here...not owners...that includes our time and talents.

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    3. Well said. Those blessed with much are required to do much.

      I found the Mitch Albom book at the library and put it on hold. I should have it in a few days. I appreciate the suggestion.

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  7. Concerning inspirational books, I just found two: The Pact & Living and Dying in Brick City. One of the authors is an MD, Samson Davis. The two stories are of the three inner city kids in Newark NJ who got together and pledged to go to college, then medical/dental school & some of their challenges. I enjoyed them very much.

    pam

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    1. The Phoenix library system has both books so I have added them to my bookshelf (books I want to read). Thanks, Pam.

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  8. I, too, was shocked at the statistics you mentioned in your opening. I have a relative who was in jail/prison for the last 7 years, and I can personally attest that rehabilitation is not on the minds of the powers-that-be, either at the facility or in the government. Many of the smaller jails in Texas, and those designed for nonviolent offenders are being taken over by for-profit companies (we are told that's to save the state money), and they are out to just make money. My relative said that there are little or no classes held, and as far as preparing them for a return to society, he says that's nonexistent. Fortunately, he has seen the error of his ways and has a loving family that he has returned to that is providing him support and assistance.

    That being said, I think what you, and the other prison ministries, are doing is God's work and very important. No, it may not work for all prisoners, but our job is just to plant the seed. God waters it and brings it to fruition in His time. My relative is living proof, it took a long time for him to learn his lessons, but I think he's back on the right path. I'm not saying that everything has to be God-related or religion-related, but just to give these people the right tools to equip them to function once they are released it so important. Thank you for this post.

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    1. The prison I visit the most often is run for the state of Arizona by a private company. My experience has been that at least that private prison is much cleaner and more humane then the state institutions I visit. There are plenty of classes and the guards and staff seem much more pleasant and interested in doing a good job. Even so, rehabilitation is stated as a goal but the statistics provide otherwise.

      Last night I was at a meeting at another local organization that attempts to help ex-cons get higher quality jobs. They work on resume and presentation skills, personal habits, and goal setting. So far, I am impressed with what I heard. Even though the gentlemen who runs it served 14 years in prison and is a Christian, his approach is not-religious at all. He wants to be able to help anyone willing to succeed regardless of their religious (or non-religious) beliefs.

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  9. Bob,
    I was so inspired by this post, I wanted to write my own blog about it. Of course, I never know how it will end up. This is what ended up with. http://www.rlmnow.com/retirement-volunteering-keeping-stuck/

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    1. Great, Cathy! I'm glad you found something to spur you to take the next step. And, thank you for the link in your excellent blog. The examples you cite can inspire us all.

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  10. My daughter works in a prison in AZ and is very concerned about an inmate who is about to be released.
    He is elderly and has been in for most of his life.
    She is worried that he has NO coping skills for life on the outside.
    Are there any ministries in the Phoenix area?
    Thank you

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    1. There are several good ministries in the Phoenix area, but the one I am most familiar with is Along Side Ministries. I worked through them for 5 years with several different inmates both before and after release. The major requirement is the person be a Christian. I can highly recommend them (http://alongside-ministries.com/). Another well respected organization is Prison Fellowship (http://www.prisonfellowship.org/programs/reentry/out4life/coalitions/arizona/).

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