In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it.
Mental Health in the Prison System
One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”
PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”
She worries about him.
“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”
In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”
A Broken System
Navigating the multifaceted labyrinth that is the prison system can be exhausting.
Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”
She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.
Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.
“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”
PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”
PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”
Life After Release
Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.
They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.
PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.
“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.
Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”
And, she knows it could get harder.
“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”
Church as a Resource
Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?
When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.
As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.
“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”
As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.
More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.
Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.
Encourage your church to learn more and to discover what local agencies are assisting with family visitation or providing support services for children with incarcerated parents in your own community.
Read the first part of this two-part series here.
In the first installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Check back soon for Part 2 of this compelling story.
Thanks to ongoing work of justice advocates across the United States, we are increasingly aware of the devastating effects of our prison system on the millions of individuals who have been incarcerated.
In the land of freedom and liberty, we incarcerate more of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world. There has been a 500% increase in our prison population over the last 30 years, and more than one out of every 100 adults in the country is currently behind bars.
Angela Davis notes that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” Through a broken system of predatory profiling, mandatory sentencing, and profit mongering, millions of individuals are being “disappeared” from their communities, and from their families.
So what is it like to be on the outside while someone you love is on the inside?
PJ, Molly, Cheryl, and Kim share their stories.
“I grew up with siblings who were always in and out of jail,” PJ remembers. “Our family was constantly interrupted. I’ve never been in prison, but I have five siblings and they have all been in prison. It’s like they were caught in a cycle and they couldn’t get out. They weren’t out for even a year sometimes.”
The first time her older brother went to jail, he was nine.
PJ notes that a system that doesn’t repair what’s broken, just perpetuates the brokenness. “The prison system doesn’t fix anything, it just stalls it,” she notes. “My godbrother went in when his daughter was a baby, and came out when she was 18. So where is that whole relationship? Not only is it him who’s being institutionalized, but there’s her whose growing up without a father.”
By her own admission, Molly went to jail quite a bit when she was younger. “I was addicted and it really affected my kids, because I was not there,” she recalls. When she was inside, Molly’s mother took care of her children. She understands that when you’re locked up, “other people are having to hold up your end.” Each time she had to explain to her mother that she was once again locked up she knew it affected her mother emotionally.
Molly is usually the one that manages the household, which meant when she wasn’t around, others were left to handle things on their own. “It can make people feel abandoned, left behind, feeling somewhat at a lost as a result of my being locked up.”
“On the other hand,” Molly recalls, “my daughter’s father used to go in and out of jail a lot, and I actually felt relieved. He was abusive. When he was locked up I was happy because that meant he was out of my hair for a bit.”
Cheryl has two loved one’s currently in the system, one already sentenced, the other waiting to go through the process. “It’s almost like going through a loss, almost like a death,” she notes. “There’s a grieving process. There is a long adjustment.”
Kim’s youngest son has been locked away for awhile. She shares that “it’s hard even to gather as a family. He was the one who was always joking and laughing.” He has lost his support system, and they have lost him.
“He and his younger sister were real close. It’s been hard for her, not having him around her. We have a grandson that was his little buddy, and now he’s not around. They were babies when he left. Now they’re getting ready to graduate high school and go off to college”
PJ recalls going to visit her siblings in jail as a kid. “I hated how dingy and dark it was,” she says. “I hated talking to them through the glass on the phone. I remember having to be picked up to see them through the window.”
She now has a nephew that’s been inside for three years, even though he only just got sentenced a year ago. She is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to talk to him for a while.
Because he was arrested in another state, PJ and her nephew are nearly 2,000 miles apart from one another. “The prison does have video visits that you can buy,” she says. “But, you have to pay with a credit card, then you have to download software, then at the time assigned you have to log on with that software.”
PJ says the system works as long as you have access to things like credit cards, computers, reliable internet, and a webcam. But, it’s still a better situation than it used to be.
“When he first got there we had to write to him on a post card,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even write a letter. That was their rule. You had to communicate on a post card.”
Kim also struggled to overcome long distances to stay connected with her son during his incarceration. When she was, in fact, able to visit, it could be difficult. “He was very angry in the beginning, so visits were hard,” Kim recalls. “He would get mad and tell us not to visit. It took a long time for him to calm down and accept.”
However, for PJ it’s a no-win situation: “They cut you off and make you feel abandoned on both sides. The people on the outside feel abandoned, and the person doing time feels abandoned. Then you’re supposed to reunify that relationship afterward. But its already been traumatized.”
Visit our site next week for Part 2 of this story.
This is the third in a three-part series on mass incarceration and Christianity’s role in bringing transformation to those affected by it. Previously, we examined the criminal justice and prison policies in the United States that lead to high rates of incarceration, particularly among black and brown men. In addition, we’ve looked at some of the work being done within prison walls to transform lives and communities with the Light of Christ. Here, we will explore life after prison and some creative ways for churches to take the next steps in getting involved with their own communities.
After serving a prison sentence and being released back into the world, one is faced with a wide array of seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. Discrimination against the recently released is rampant, and is on top of the racial and economic discrimination one may have faced even before entering prison. Those released from prison often have a hard time finding a job that will pay them a living wage, and they no longer qualify for student loans to help improve their employability. They are often denied safe, affordable housing, and are not allowed live in public housing (even if living with family members that do qualify). They often lose access to food stamps and other government support benefits, at the very moment they need it most. Friends and family may have turned away, and it can feel like there is nowhere left to go. Could this be where God’s Church is needed most?
Over 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years. The first month after release is critical, but recently released citizens often face the same challenges that led them to prison in the first place. As discussed previously, ministries like the Horizon Prison Initiative work closely with men on the inside before they are released, but they also acknowledge that “after paying their debt to society, formerly incarcerated individuals go home. Home to the same circumstances that fostered the environment that led them to prison.”
Horizon’s Executive Director Jeff Hunsaker suggests that “not everybody’s called to do this work, but on the other hand churches are called to be part of healing community. Churches get real comfortable and don’t see that bigger world we live in.” He laments an attitude that says “I don’t care what happens to them, just keep them away from me,” one that only sees the incarcerated as those deserving of punishment. But Hunsaker notes that “90% come back to your community. What kind of person do you want them to be when they return?”
A Role for the Local Church
The Church can play a critical role in receiving recently released citizens back into their communities. Indeed, we are called to “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:1-3).
This is the verse that inspired the West Ohio Conference (WOC) of the United Methodist Church to think intentionally about how its communities in the region could do a better job of receiving returning citizens into their churches. “Transformation is not going to happen if we entrust it to a purely punitive system,” says Deaconess Sue Wolf, “It’s about God’s love and God’s Kingdom. If we can prove it’s true there, then it’s true for all of us, anywhere.”
“A lot of local churches and seminaries are involved in their own individual prison ministries,” acknowledges Harris Tay, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the WOC. But he wondered what a unified effort across the region would look like. Noting the Church’s commitment to hospitality, he says “reentry work should be part of the fabric of what we do.”
So the WOC set out to create the ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program to address multiple facets of prison ministry within the context of church communities. This program was formed to be intentionally asset-based, acknowledging that the prisoners themselves are assets to the ministry. Thus, the content and curriculums began to form with guidance and partnership of those currently incarcerated, relying on their suggestions rather than on the varying perceptions of those on the outside.
Ultimately, the WOC plans to connect twenty-five churches with re-entering citizens to form relationships and support well before those individuals are released. The hope is to have churches ready to receive wherever prisoners are going. They will create a safety net, a soft landing, for those being released.
The program is designed to be about mutual relationships, understanding that everyone can learn and grow no matter what role they play. While inside prison, participants are required to complete cultural competency training. Thus, participating churches are also required to undergo the same. Kenya Cummings, an intern for Diversity Initiatives at the WOC, says that the churches will need to “lean into some knowledge that the released men will be imparting.”
Indeed, the goal of the partnership is to “transform prisoners, transform prisons, and transform communities.” Thus, volunteers and congregations have much to learn from the prisoners themselves, who have dedicated years to prayer and spiritual discipleship with the time they had on the inside. It’s not about a one-way relationship, but rather a partnership that brings about mutual edification and spiritual growth. Cummings attests that “the men know the Power of God and how it can be at work. They know about transformation. They know if they can be transformed, so can the Church.”
The ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program will also serve as a hub for community organizing, healing the neighborhoods that are most affected by mass incarceration. They will employ five Urban Encouragers to act as first-contacts for released citizens and will also serve guides for congregations that are learning how to be good partners. They will organize within the local community to help restore neighborhoods and to identify assets within the community that can support those being released.
Cumming suggests that churches interested in engaging in re-entry work become “incredibly aware of where their church congregation is located and what they have to offer.” Every church and every community setting is different, with unique needs and assets. “Reentry can never be a carbon copy ministry,” she attests, “you have to look at your church’s assets and passions, and let the ministry emerge from what is currently present.” If volunteers are artists, start an art prison ministry, if they are engaged in legislative issues, she suggests focusing around that. Customizing a church’s prison ministry is key to both its effectiveness and its persistence.
Cummings also suggests churches investigate what programs and resources are already in their local neighborhoods and to them come alongside the ongoing work of the community. “We want to build, not duplicate,” she says.
Overcoming Apprehension with Art
Asked if local congregations have been receptive to the program, Tay observes that “most churches don’t know where they really sit on it,” but that the WOC is willing to invest in the training and development to help with the adjustment. “We’re actually going to walk with you and do the trust building and relationship building to help make it happen.” He notes that many churches affirm a commitment to love and hospitality, but “any church can say it. We have the opportunity to expand and enhance that pledge.”
Along these lines, the WOC has created a collaborative for churches engaged in prison ministry to share resources, training, and encouragement with one another. Cummings understands that work like this is rewarding, but challenging: “Folks can get tired in doing the work. They enjoy it, but it becomes tiresome.” Churches starting on the journey may also have concerns. Cummings says they may feel “anxious about what it really looks like…but after talking through fears there’s greater calm.”
To address these needs, Cummings is heading up opportunities for participating churches and volunteers to become rejuvenated. “Art is incredibly healing,” she notes, and she plans to use art to engage with those participating in the ministry collaborative. With a mix of poetry, spoken word, visual art, and storytelling, Cummings hopes to create an environment “for collaborating, not just another burden.” She observes that “as we tell stories and share resources, we experience renewal.”
Tay affirms that “A static meeting may not be the best way to connect with the soul….Performance has always been the voice of movements,” and that churches should be considering how to merge creativity with action. “How do we build trust through the arts?” he asks. He goes on to praise Cummings’s collaborative as “a huge opportunity for those who want to do church differently.”
Cummings anticipates a wide variety of ministries will be able to come together to share the stories and ideas. There will be teams throughout the west Ohio region. “Each team might look really different and I’m excited about that,” says Cummings.
Taking up the Challenge
Hunsaker has a challenge for churches: “What are you here to be and to do?” He says he’s brought Horizon graduates to some churches where they’ve felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. He worries that the decline in attendance that some churches have experienced is because they have “lost touch with why they exist and what their purpose is.” It may be that they profess a value of love and reconciliation, “but how many are actively involved in it?”
Jimmy Cheadle, a Horizon graduate and now an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, say the best thing churches can do for the recently released is just welcome them in and create a loving, healthy environment for them.“ But,” he says, “sometimes churches aren’t so good at that.” He has had experiences where he didn’t feel welcome, “You pick up on that, when they keep you at arm’s length. They were nice to us, but they were glad we weren’t coming back next week.”
But Cummings observes that those being released show remarkable bravery and surprising willingness to engage beyond any mutual fear. True, there may be feelings of anxiety, but it is often outweighed by the understanding of what reentry without strong community looks like. They may fear rejection, but Cummings notes that rejection is a reality for them anyway. Part of what the Horizon program offers to the men is the tools and spiritual strength to deal with that rejection on the outside.
There are a lot of reasons that a warm, loving welcome doesn’t always happen. Cheadle senses some churches respond out of fear rather than faith. They react by saying things like “What do you mean you’re bringing a criminal here? We have enough of that already.” He says building loving relationships is sometimes three steps forward, two steps back, “and the two steps back takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.” But he urges, “it’s really not so much about what you want to do. It’s about what you’re supposed to do.”
Hunsaker encourages churches to become involved on a relational level, to volunteer and to interact one-on-one with those on the inside. He knows that what your heart will encounter is beyond description and that once you’ve experience it, you’ll be hooked.
Jesus himself was put on trial, found guilty, imprisoned, placed on death row, and ultimately subject to capital punishment by the state. If we are to identify with Christ, we are to identify with those who find themselves in similar situations today.
Local churches can play a vital role in God’s plan for transformation. Encourage your congregation to engage in authentic intentional prayer for the incarcerated and for local prisons. Pray for those about to be released and those who have recently reentered their communities. Pray for the renewal of both the imprisoned as well as of the systems and structures that brought them there.
Include these prayers in the regular liturgy of your church, perhaps along with other ‘prayers of the people,’ if that is a tradition in your setting. Do not let the incarcerated men and women of our society be forgotten or left out of our daily prayers, but rather be diligent in lifting them up to God. In doing so, watch as our prisons and neighborhoods are blessed with God’s redemptive.
As prayers continue to be lifted, consider beginning a small group or bible study around the issues of mass incarceration. In partnership with willing correctional institutions, begin to send birthday and Christmas cards to specific inmates. Have all the members of your church sign these cards as part of their Sunday morning routines. Begin to ponder what it would look like for your church to become a sanctuary for recently released citizens.
It is important to engage your congregation early and often around these issues to help increase awareness and compassion. Similarly, it is important that the entire worshiping community remain mindful and prayerful together, not simply leaving it as a specialized interest of a few. Lift up the prisons and those ministering with them as a community, knowing that you are responding to God’s call to remember the incarcerated.
Be prepared for some challenges. The bureaucracy associated with prison ministry can be daunting. So too can be the cultural differences we may experience in prison ministry work. We learn many things about ourselves and our own culture’s assumptions and values when we encounter those different from ourselves. And it is in so doing that we see the face of God.
Isaiah 61:1 says “the Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” What does it mean to take these words seriously? What witness would we bear by living out God’s challenge to walk beside the imprisoned? Imagine how such a commitment might radically transform not only the individuals we help, but also profoundly alter our own lives, our local churches, and indeed entire communities for the glory of Christ.
This is the second article in a three-part series on mass incarceration and the Church. Previously, we discussed how a variety of discriminatory factors converge to put millions of people behind bars, a disproportionate number of whom are our black and brown citizens. Here, we examine one organization’s attempt to bring redemption to a broken system.
Prison can feel like a forgotten place. A place where we send our broken and unwanted to hide them away from the nation’s consciousness. For so many, it is a place of trauma, of retribution, that only adds to a lifetime of hurt. But what if instead, prisons were a place of redemption, a place of hope? What if prison became a beacon of God’s love, not just to those living there, but to the world?
These are some of the questions that the Horizon Prison Initiative tries to answer.
Horizon grew out of the Kairos Prison Ministry when several leaders saw the need to expand beyond a brief three-day encounter into a more in-depth program that could build lasting relationships to truly transform lives. They found that “removing your inner scarring and resentments toward yourself and others is not a simple process; it is achieved in a 24/7 year-long living, learning, and loving environment.”
After an initial launch in Florida, Executive Director Jeff Hunsaker says the program expanded to Ohio when a compassionate warden saw the importance of faith communities within prison walls. Horizon aimed to do what the prison institution couldn’t—to love on prisoners with God’s love in a profoundly transformative way. Hunsaker observes “you can’t pay people to care about people.” It has to come freely, and from the heart.
Horizon’s mission is to “transform prisoners to embrace society, not harm it. These transformed prisoners then transform prison cultures. Then they transform home communities.” Horizon graduates are told “you are a living example of faith, love, and respect. As a graduate your message of spiritual development and personal growth will impact prison culture. You will make light out of darkness and bring hope where little is expected.”
In explaining how he came to lead such a unique and sometimes trying endeavor Hunsaker said “It’s about calling. You have to be called to do this work. I could not resist it.”
The Horizon Program
The structure of the Horizon Program gives participants the opportunity to live out the lessons they are learning as they experience their transformation. As a sort of monastic community, participants are grouped into family units that meet together regularly. “That family part is critical” says Hunsaker. It helps the participants learn to live together, encouraging each other and resolving conflicts as a functional family, even if this hasn’t been their experience with their families outside of the prison.
Though Horizon participants are required to maintain their normal work schedules and prison life during the day, evenings are spent with other participants in a variety of Horizon programing. There are eight core components that are mandatory elements of the program:
- Awakenings: Enhancing Spiritual Wholeness. Awakenings helps participants find meaning from their experiences, confronting thoughts and habits that contribute to current beliefs and behavior.
- Building Community helps participants learn to resolve conflicts in constructive and meaningful ways and to gain “faith solutions to life’s trials and conflicts.”
- Character Reformation is a time set aside to address how one’s thoughts and attitudes can themselves perpetuate negative circumstances and interactions.
- Daily Family Meetings contribute to participants’ sense of belonging and help foster abiding relationships within family groups.
- Faith Fundamentals shore up the foundations of participants’ spiritual beliefs and offers the building blocks for a committed faith.
- Outside Brothers meet with participants to connect them with the outside community in solid, caring one-on-one relationships.
- The Trauma/Healing Awareness Workshop allows participants to examine how trauma has affected their lives, and about breaking the trauma cycle.
- Victim Awareness gives participants the opportunity to reflect on the effects of various crimes on victims, their families, and their communities.
Each program element provides an essential component of Horizon’s success, and participants can also create their own activities and electives. Hunsaker notes his particular gratitude for the Outside Brothers who work closely with each participant. He says that they “bring the grace of God,” entering into conversation with no agenda, but listening and loving unconditionally. They bring hope, helping the men realize “I’m not this piece of dirt that people are saying I am.”
Participants also have the opportunity to join in the Family Letter Writing program, which provides them each with two stamps and two envelopes per week. After weeks of exchanging letters with individuals back home, relationships can begin to be healed and families can be restored.
Graduates of the Horizon Program can return in subsequent years as Encouragers. Each family unit is assigned an Encourager who guides the group through the program, helping to resolve conflicts and to serve as a mentor to the men as they progress.
One of the Encouragers, known as Coach, attests “I love what I do. It’s about inmates helping inmates to change their lives. Who’d have thought I’d have the opportunity to go to prison and change lives.”
As a result of Horizon’s work, lives are changed both inside and out of prison walls. The Horizon Program realizes that “prisons don’t successfully transform lives. Prisoners do.” It is sometimes the first encounter with the deep love of God for men who have never had anyone care about them.
Thus, faith plays a central role in the Horizon curriculum:
“Faith is a critical ingredient in Horizon’s transformation process. Horizon is not a place for quick, short-term, and for-show jailhouse displays of religiosity. The faith experience is real and deep with meaning – one that uncovers truth, gives purpose to those who thought they had none, and reinforces the changes they so desperately want to make. It provides a way for atonement and forgiveness—of self and others. It invigorates people from the outside to volunteer and places of worship to become reentry lifelines. It gives hope where hope is not expected.”
Horizon also focuses on trauma recovery, knowing that “trauma not transformed is trauma transferred.”
Those on the inside note that “just coming to prison is trauma itself.” There is a victim offender cycle in which those in prison were often first victims themselves before becoming perpetrators. Horizon helps them recognize this cycle, and to forgive.
Jimmy Cheadle is a Horizon graduate, and served as an Encourager on the inside. He now works as an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, offering support and programing for recently released citizens. He explains “Horizons changes a few people at a time, letting them go back into the rest of the population to change the culture of the prison. But changing the culture takes a long time.”
That’s why Hunsaker says he actually sometimes prefers to enroll men serving life sentences. They have the opportunity to have the greatest long-term impact on prison culture. There are men who have graduated the program that are “far more affective inside than they would be on the street.” Thus, he note that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), even inside prison walls.
Horizons volunteer Sue Wolfe acknowledges that much of the transformative power of the program comes from the men themselves: “we recognize that we’re with them for a few hours a week in a long week.” The men are doing their own work of “reclaiming their own humanity, to learn they are also a person of worth.”
The Horizon Initiative believes that “Honor, Respect, and Dignity are due to each and every Human Being, not because of the greatness of their achievements nor how they have behaved, but because they are home to a soul that is inherently Holy.” Hunsaker elaborates “it’s all about instilling hope and saying that you don’t have to be defined by what society has told you about you”
Wolfe notes that “too often prisons are about retribution, not restitution, but that Horizon can “restore who God created us to be.” She has interacted with many men in the prison who “had thought they were not smart, who were told they aren’t, but now are learning so many things…it changes who they perceive themselves to be.”
Not a One-Way Street
Horizon has become part of the volunteers’ spiritual journey as well. “The volunteers will tell you they receive more than they give,” says Hunsaker. And indeed, the testimony of those visiting the prison attests to this. “I’m braver than I thought I was” Wolfe notes about her interactions and experiences, “I didn’t think I could do that.”
Susan McGarvey, also a volunteer with the Horizon Initiative shared that she “always lived and worked in communities similar to me. Certainly my world view has broadened immensely.” She goes on to explain “it makes us realize we are more alike than we are different. We sit down at table with each other week after week and find out that they are flawed human beings just like I am.”
The Horizon program provides an important step for volunteers to live into the faith they profess. McGarvey expounds “it’s a real opportunity to find out if the things you’ve been saying your whole life are really true: grace , mercy, forgiveness, loving the unlovable.” She has had a tremendous impact on the lives of men, and the men on her.
McGarvey notes that she also came to realize how similar we all are, that we all do “foolish things could have turned out differently. Hunsaker agrees, “we’re all part of the great uncaught.”
A Lasting Impact
When Dale, one of the Horizon Encouragers went before his parole board they asked him what benefited him the most while in prison, “Head and shoulders above, the answer was Horizon.”
With a recidivism rate that is five times lower than average, Horizon graduates make good use of the tools provided to them in the program. With government budgets becoming ever tighter, the program notes that “for every 10 Horizon participants that get out of prison and stay out, the state stands to save $260,000 per year, for every year they stay out!”
This makes the $1,600/person yearly cost of the program more than worthwhile, with the “return on that investment being in significant reduction in recidivism,” explains McGarvey. In the face of bloated prisons and broken legal systems, more programs like Horizon are needed to let the Light of God shine in dark places.
Having looked at the effect that God’s transformative love can have inside prison walls, we will next examine what local churches can do for those who have been recently released and are looking to rejoin our communities. If you would like to learn more about the Horizon Prison Initiative, or to support their work, visit: http://HorizonPrisonInitiative.org/
In the United States, the land of the free, we incarcerate more of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world. What may have at some point been intended to maintain safety and security for our citizens has resulted in an abusive system that perpetuates itself for its own sake.
There has been a 500% increase in our prison population over the last 30 years. Though only 5% of the earth’s population lives in the United States, we house over 25% of the world’s prisoners. More than one out of every 100 adults in the country is currently behind bars. As elections are won on ‘tough-on-crime’ platforms, draconian prosecution policies and mandatory minimum sentencing have bloated jails and ruined lives.
Rather than intervene and rehabilitate, the criminal justice system, as it currently functions, serves to further entrench marginalized communities into a cycle of oppression. Inmates most often rejoin society ill prepared to make meaningful changes in their lives. Drug treatment is only available to one out of ten inmates that need it. Approximately 200,000 inmates have serious mental illnesses that receive insufficient treatment in prisons. As budgets tighten, crucial resources for education, counseling, and spiritual guidance disappear. Without meaningful programming to develop necessary skills and strategies while on the inside, old habits will quickly reemerge once prisoners are back on the outside.
Having a criminal record also means losing access to the support structures necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. They face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools. They can no longer serve on juries and forfeit the right to vote. In reality, it’s not actually a ‘return to society’ at all, and over 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years.
Race, Profit, and Mass Incarceration
The criminal justice system in the United States is severely biased along racial lines, resulting in the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown citizens. In her book ‘The New Jim Crow,’ Michelle Alexander asserts that “by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the US criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control…even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.” Indeed, even though African Americans comprise 13% of drug users in the United States (paralleling population demographics generally), they represent over 40% of those incarcerated on drug offenses. One in three Black men, and one in six Latino men, are apt to be imprisoned in their lifetime, while only one in seventeen white will ever be. Similarly, Black women are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than white women. Seventy-five percent of them are mothers. Angela Davis notes that “the fastest growing group of prisoners are black women, and Native American prisoners are the largest group per capita.”
These disparities are the result of systematized discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice process. From the school-to-prison pipeline and stop-and-frisk policies, to bias in sentencing and racialized drug legislation, the odds are stacked against citizens of color in the United States. For example, the development of crack cocaine made narcotic use more affordable in low-income communities, including in cities that were already segregated across racial lines due to redlining and white-flight. Along with the emergence of demographic differences in drug choice, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that possession of 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine carried the same sentence as possession of only 50 grams of crack, a 1:100 disparity. In addition, aggressive and racially slanted immigration laws have led to a six-fold increase in detentions. The majority of these new detainees are Latino, further skewing incarceration demographics along color lines.
Heinously, there is much money to be made from a system such as this. Though we spend almost $50 billion per year on the prison system, some individuals and institution are using the opportunity to get rich. The term ‘Prison Industrial complex’ describes the system in which private corporations and government institutions partner together to create an inextricable alliance resulting in tremendous financial profit. The prison business can be quite lucrative. Private companies make millions through the construction of new prisons, government contracts for prison management, and supplying prisons with furnishings and consumables.
Moreover, inmates are made to work for as little as $0.12 on assembly lines and work crews. The prison companies can then sell the product of their labor at substantial profit. Thus, the prison population is seen as a captive workforce, one that can be minimally paid and that need not receive any employee benefits such as insurance or retirement. There are no union strikes; no paid sick leave, no spouse or dependent benefits, and the employee are always on time. Is it any wonder that our jails stay filled?
Indeed, stipulations are often written into the contracts of prison management companies to require 90%occupancy of the facilities. The two largest for profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, played significant roles in crafting criminal justice legislation in the United States, leading to increased mandatory minimums and incarceration rates. Concurrently, companies cut costs by reducing quality of life and basic care for inmates, leading to overcrowding and inhumane conditions.
Reporter Chris Hedges observes that “poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year.” Thus, the current system of incarceration and labor exploitation is often seen as a continuation of practices dating back to labor chain gangs and slavery in the United Sates.
The Church’s Response
Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). But Angela Davis describes how we instead intentionally hide society’s unwanted members away from our collective consciousness. She notes that “homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages…Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” This is why Jesus reminds us so sternly to visit prisoners and insists that it is among these that we will find him (Matthew 25:36).
Unfortunately, the Church does not always follow Christ’s example with this regard. Lawrence T. Jablecki asserts that “the for-profit criminal detention industry and the Christian right are joined at the hip by a draconian moral and political perspective that impedes the realization of a genuine system of criminal justice that protects the dignity and rights of every person.” Christian communities and political organizations often perpetuate unjust systems of incarceration in the name of “Christian values” and “biblical morality.”
Others though are taking a stand for prison reform. In an interview for Huffington Post, Rev. Robina Winbush suggests that “the ministry of Jesus the Christ was about challenging unjust systems that held individuals and marginalized communities in bondage.”
Indeed, in early 2014 leaders of Christian Churches Together, a large coalition of church leaders in the United States, declared that “the church in the United States has a moral and ethical imperative to protect human dignity and must address the problem of mass incarceration in our nation.”
Shortly thereafter during Holy Week preparations for Easter, a multidenominational group of Christian leaders released a statement advocating reforms to “repeal policies that unnecessarily criminalize millions of people and place a vastly disproportionate burden on poor and black communities.” They concluded their statement by invoking the symbolism of Easter itself “we, leaders of faith call for a rebirth and resurrection of communities burdened by the harms of injustice oftentimes masquerading under the guise of law and order and criminal justice.
Rev. John Jackson of Trinity United Church in Indiana asserts that “the policies of this failed war on drugs — which in reality, is a war on people who happen to be poor, primarily black and brown — is a stain on the image of this society…. If the resurrection season means anything, it means that people are to be loved and not used. People should be helped and not harassed and that people should be placed above profit.”
Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, suggests that not only should Christians join the fight for prison reform, they should be leading the way: “For Christians, this system violates the basic rule of compassion and balance that infuses the morality of the faith. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, in particular, bar any role for mercy. This result is utterly inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings and actions, which emphasized mercy in our dealings with one another.”
Scripture tells us that “the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners” (Psalm 69:33). As Christians, we must learn what it means to “let the groans of the prisoners come before you” (Psalm 79:11) and to listen to those whom we are called to minister.
Next, we will explore how Christians might better remember and serve the incarcerated, and learn about a prison program in Ohio that is meeting success, even in the face of challenges.