Early in the planning stage for the ministry that would become House of Bread, a thoughtful friend challenged me to consider prison ministry using a cost-benefit approach. In brief, he asked me to calculate the financial benefit of every dollar invested in my work. I pondered this for quite a while before realizing that the successful re-entry of released prisoners was the answer. In other words, my work had to be geared specifically to equipping prisoners for fruitful lives on the outside. Or, to put it differently, my success with any particular inmate would be at least in part determined by his success in avoiding crime and not returning to prison.
Along with security, reducing recidivism is the foremost concern of all prison work these days. With the state and federal governments under pressure to contain or even reduce spending, helping prisoners succeed once they are released is a high priority. All prison administrators are looking for programs and people who can help inmates develop the character and life-skills to become productive members of society. With prison spending at over $50 billion per year in the United States — and public resources growing ever tighter — reducing recidivism is an obvious answer.
But it is a three-front war.
First there is the important work being done inside the prisons with those who have already failed, some repeatedly, to develop and practice what it takes to live legal and productive lives. For some, crime has been just about the only life they have known. Almost everyone to whom I have ministered in the penitentiary has had some involvement in drug trafficking. Many have worked in legitimate enterprises but not successfully. Bad attitudes and habits, along with rebellion against authority figures, usually ended their involvement in legal work. Crime was their fallback income-producing activity.
Major negative psycho-spiritual factors enabled so many to embrace a criminal lifestyle. At the risk of stating it simply, deconstructing those dynamics and rebuilding healthier ones is largely the task we undertake in prison ministry. And when we say goodbye to an inmate being released, as I did this past Thursday to a repeat offender who most recently served a sentence for bank robbery, we fervently hope and pray that he is right in his determination never to come back to prison (except as a volunteer).
The second front of the war involves the very real challenges a re-entering ex-con faces when he steps off the bus in the town or city to which he has been released. A convicted felon, in our society, is a marked man.
Felons are routinely denied employment of all kinds despite the fact that they may have the skills necessary to do the job. While it is illegal for an employer to practice blanket denial of employment to felons, many do. Felons can be denied public housing. Many can benefit from drug treatment follow-up, yet such programs are underfunded and sometimes not readily available to those who need them. Some inmates have mental illness. Others have so badly alienated their families that there is little help from that traditional support-system. It is a long list.
In my work at Canaan, I soon recognized that while I might be very effective in helping an inmate toward a transformed life, he will still face daunting obstacles to successful re-entry once he was released. I seriously doubt that anyone can do this alone. More charitable and non-profit resources are needed, but so too are public ones.
The whole area of criminal justice is the third front of the war. To put it bluntly, we are locking up far too many people in our country and in many cases for far too long. I know this is a sensitive and complex area.
No one, including me, wants to see people who have already shown themselves to be a danger to others to be free to continue to do so. Moreover, I also work in a women’s substance abuse rehabilitation center and I see firsthand the victims of drug traffickers. We invest significant resources, sometimes for as much as two years, in helping these women overcome their addictions and regain the character and life-skills necessary to live successfully.
Still…the severity of the sentencing (much of it mandated by law and beyond a judge’s discretion) has prompted many a prosecutor and judge to question the fairness and effectiveness of our country’s practice of retributive justice.
Moreover, the presence in our prisons of blacks and Hispanics in numbers wildly disproportionate to their numbers outside prison has long been a cause of concern. Michelle Alexander probably exaggerates the reality when she says calls the “mass incarceration” of blacks “the new Jim Crow” of a racist society that is ever determined to keep blacks in their place.
I believe we can and should do a better job of criminal justice. We do well at punishing criminals but not nearly well enough at restoring them to productive lives.
I expect there are other fronts in this war. Children who are raised in dysfunctional or abusive environments are surely more prone to involvement in gangs and criminal activity. Intervening in such a way as to improve the likelihood that such a child will cope well and live productively is surely a challenging task.
These thoughts were prompted by a column in today’s New York Times, which you can read here.