Faith-based programs can help prisoners make transition into freedom

3/4/2012

 By PAT DUNBAR
 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, ~ Luke 4:18
      In the United States each year an average of 1 million defendants are convicted of felony crimes, and 450,000 of them are sentenced to prison. In the state of Georgia, the average daily population being held under supervision of the Department Of Corrections is 57,026 persons. Of these individuals there are very few whose names or stories will be known to us unless we have a personal connection to them.
       However, the results of the regular workings of an ever more increasing criminal justice system has a considerable price not only for these individuals who are incarcerated, but additionally for the wholes subset of parents, spouses, children, friends, and communities who have committed no crimes but are obligated to suffer the invisible punishments that result from our current approach to criminal justice.
      In some areas of the U.S. law makers have begun experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety. These ideas include a mix of community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service. Furthermore, it has been noted that recidivism rates have been positively impacted through faith-based programs.
     To that end we are now seeing some local United Methodist churches across the country that have structured prison visitation or visitor hospitality programs, Bible study in the prison, and various approaches to pre-release, transitional, and after- care ministries for offenders and their families.
       Some local churches have developed their local ministries rooted in restorative justice principles and practices with programs ranging from victim-offender reconciliation, sentencing circle and mediation, to healing circles. We have also seen in United Methodist churches in the northeast, that congregations are engaged in community strategies that search for a restorative justice alternative to the criminal justice system at the neighborhood level.
     These forms of ministries are at the "cutting edge" for justice and mercy ministries which help our churches expand their witness of Christ’s love. However, more congregations need to become involved in meeting the needs and frustrations of men and women leaving our prison system. It is important that we identify that 80 percent or more of the 2 million prisoners currently incarcerated across our country will leave their prison cell within the next few years.
       After-care and job improvement emerge as an area of prison ministry mission for the resourceful commitment of the church as a whole. But perhaps the most critical aspect to support the transition back into society as productive citizens is the involvement of ex-offenders and their families into the full life of a local congregation. This is a challenge to each of our local congregations.
    Criminal justice, as we know it, is retributive justice.  It does not create solutions that benefit the whole community by helping the community repair the break or addressing the social conditions that breed the crime.       Retributive justice places a permanent stigma on the offender for past actions; after placing the offender in exile. An ex-offender who is ostracized and kept in exile after paying his or her debt to society is further violated.  He or she lost the opportunity to make amends, to have respectful interaction with others, and to develop healthy social skills, or to heal and become a viable member of the community.
     The church is in the business of restoration if we are truly disciples of Jesus Christ. We must begin models of restorative justice within our communities by reaching out to social service providers, policy makers, and law enforcement. We must also encourage congregations to provide safe spaces to people so they may share real experiences of victimization, incarceration, or other personal encounters with the justice process.
      Finally, as I close I want to share an opinion expressed by Chaplain Richmond Stoglin: “if The United Methodist Church continues to ignore the issues of the criminal justice system by its lack of involvement, I fear others will assume our religious community is unconcerned. Why should correctional administrators listen when The United Methodist Church, whose very roots began with jail/prison concerns, raise issues regarding overcrowding, increasing numbers of juvenile and women inmates, mandatory sentencing and the death penalty? On what moral history can the church base its claim when it is almost absent from the issue of incarceration?”
      This begs an answer to the question posed by United Methodist inmates, “Where are our church representatives”? We can only respond, “We hope to see them soon.”
    Ideas for Where to Begin:
    Families take on a significant burden of the reentry challenges faced by prisoners following release. Based upon their findings, they have the following suggestions:
1.     Social assistance and services should be designed not just for the prisoner alone, but should involve the entire family of support;
2.     Families should have a large role in the reentry process through the pre-release planning phase; however, care must be taken to ensure that family involvement is positive for both the prisoner and family members;
3.     Programs should be developed to capitalize on the family system that already exists;
4.     Care should be taken to identify and provide tangible and emotional assistance for released offenders who do not have a positive family support network.
5.     Make available services and supports for family members and children of prisoners, and when appropriate, help establish, re-establish, expand and strengthen relationships between prisoners and their families.
6.     Provide parenting and other programs to address a range of family needs and responsibilities of people in prison or jail.
7.     Facilitate contact between inmates and their children and other family members during the period of incarceration, when appropriate.
For more info, contact: Pat Dunbar: patricia.dunbar@ngumc.net


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