The masthead image above was chosen to make a vital point about incarceration and release. The figures on the left, wandering aimlessly or lost in the fog, remind me of a great many of the men and women we encounter in our work in the local jail. They are without direction, lost in pain and addiction, and isolated from a community of support. Even after release, for far too many of them, the fog remains.
Those on the right of the image have clarity and direction because they can now see. They undoubtedly still face challenges and difficulties, but they can see clearly the outcome of their choices. Most importantly, they can see the light and walk toward it.
My colleagues and I in this ministry recently took a big step. To the work we have long been doing inside the jail, we have now added a post-release component. We have been thinking and praying about this for many months. Every sign pointed to the necessity of doing it. (Actually, the signs demanded it.) We are tired of watching the revolving door of the jail, through which a distressingly high number depart, only to return due to parole violations, usually involving drug and alcohol relapse.
Enough! So we developed a plan, talked about it incessantly when we were doing our programs with the inmates, and sold the idea to the wardens and treatment counselors. They even put our information sheet as page one of the release packets given to every county inmate!
We offered — what else to call it? — a bribe. “Call us when you get out of jail and we’ll take your to dinner to celebrate your release.” In the first month, three men called us. We’ve taken one out to dinner and are setting up a time with another one. We offer them something few probation officers will do. We tell them we are there to accompany them as caring and supportive friends as they navigate their way back into life on the outside. In other words, we want to help them find their way out of the fog and into the light.
We will offer more in due time, especially if a grant proposal we made to a foundation comes through for us. In the meantime, let us be a reliable friend. You can call us anytime.
One did. To be exact, it was at 2:20 A.M. — the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday. I was on-call and answered the phone beside my bed. The man (I’ll refer to him as James) had just polished off a bottle of whiskey and 12 cans of beer. He’d been out of jail less than two days and his anxiety level was in the danger zone. The alcohol had not helped, he admitted. (I am still amazed he was able to form a coherent sentence.)
“Honestly,” he said, “I am ready to call my dealer, but I thought I’d at least try to reach you guys first.” He went on, “I really didn’t think anyone would answer. I expected to hear a recording telling me to leave a message.”
Remembering a line from Young Frankenstein, I replied, “Come by anytime; we’re always open.” We both laughed. Then the conversation turned deadly serious.
James, I knew from our time together at the jail, had a serious addiction to opioids. He got it legitimately (if such a thing is possible) when hospitalized for surgery on more than one occasion. When he said he was “this close” to calling his dealer, I knew he was neither kidding nor trying to be dramatic.
I asked if we could unpack what was going on. He was eager to get it out. For the next hour we talked about his anxiety and fear and how hard he found it to control either. He gave examples of things that were bothering him. Chief among them was his fear that he would use again and that his family would disown him for good after several repeated relapses in the past.
In my past, I have always hated phone calls or face-to-face encounters where the person was out of control or in danger of doing something they would regret. My fear was that I would never know what to say. Or that I would offer to help in a way that was not realistic. A couple of times during the call with James I was wondering why I agreed to sign up for this.
Somehow, though, with God’s help, I did know what to say. I walked him through a simple cognitive process that seemed to help him realize that he could think rationally and make the right choice. I was rather amazed at how helpful he found this. When we finally ended the call, he was profuse in his gratitude that I’d taken the call and helped him “off the ledge,” so to speak.
The next day, my colleague Gean visited James at his workplace. He found him badly hung over, but much less anxious and feeling more in control. I’ve seen him twice since then and he seems stronger each time.
Is James out of the fog yet? Undoubtedly, there is still a ways to go, but he’s walking toward the light. And we are accompanying him to make sure, as best we can, that he gets there.
It’s an encouraging start for our post-release work. We’ve found some really good people in the county who share our concern and have come alongside us to help give shape to this new effort. We would appreciate your prayers as well.