Is Your Church Ready to Welcome Former Prisoners Back Into Society?

Imagine this scenario: You have been locked up in prison for years and are getting ready for your release. For years, you have lived in a place unlike any other in our society. You are in a world where, every moment of every day, you are reminded of the worst thing you have ever done. Your past even haunts you in your dreams.

Behind bars, you are not known by your name, but by the number on your prison jumpsuit. After years of being locked up, you have been forgotten by family, friends, and your community. You have not received a visitor or a letter from outside these walls in a long time. You are in a place where violence could be around any corner and decision-making has been stripped from you.

For years, this world is all you have known. But soon, you will suddenly be released back into your community, facing a litany of parole conditions and the anxiety of trying to figure out how to transition into life in the outside world without messing up again.

This is the experience of thousands of men and women who are released from prison every year.

I have been involved in prison ministry for 14 years, and I have never met a prisoner who wasn’t nervous about leaving the prison walls. Some are downright terrified.

There are 2.4 million people who are incarcerated in the United States—by far the highest number of prisoners per capita in the world—and 95 percent of them will one day be released to their communities.

You may think that once someone has served his or her time, the punishment is complete and he or she is rehabilitated; the person can move on with life with the expectation that he or she won’t get into trouble again.

The Challenges of Reentry

But the sobering reality is that 67 percent of those who are released will be rearrested.

This is because the process of reintegrating into society—what we, who work with the criminal justice system, call reentry—is very difficult. Life after prison is like a second sentence. Returning citizens face parole conditions, hefty court fines, and the stinging societal labels they have been given. With a felony on their records, housing opportunities become off-limits and employment opportunities shrink.

Even simple tasks can feel overwhelming. I need a driver’s license, but I don’t have a birth certificate or anything to prove who I am. How do I get to the Secretary of State office? I don’t have a bike or money for bus tokens. Oh, they use swipe cards instead of bus tokens now. How do I put money on a swipe card? I need to apply for jobs, but the hiring managers keep telling me to apply online. How do I do that?

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Douglas Cupery