… I was in prison and you visited me.
But what happens after the prisoner is released?
By Tim Stevens
St. Christopher Episcopal Church, Fort Worth
Matthew 25:36 gives a clear indication of how important prison ministry is, and certainly it is here in Texas. But while the recent emphasis on spiritual care within prisons is vital, the biggest missing piece for the successful re-entry of prisoners is their need for social and spiritual support when they come home.
Kay Smith, founder and director of Texas ReEntry Services (TXRS), and I are attempting to provide the ex-offender with important social and spiritual support in his or her community and church which Ms. Smith feels is the most important piece for successful re-entry.
Our vision is to provide continuity of care for prisoners from inside the walls to reestablish spiritual and social support for them back home in their communities and churches. Kay Smith suggests this care can happen if each of the nearly 900 churches in Tarrant County provides social support for one returning ex-offender for one year. I am talking with chaplains and Kairos staff for suggestions about how a church could best accomplish this.
So here is the challenge: With the support of the Rt. Rev. Rayford B. High, Jr., I am asking the Episcopal Church leaders in our diocese to consider providing social and spiritual care for ex-prisoners after they return home. Our highest priority is not to recruit more volunteers to provide ministry within prisons, but to think of ways to do the more difficult task of providing social support in one’s community after the prisoners are released and sent home.
Here is why the need is so great right here in Tarrant County (it is probably equally great in the other counties of our diocese, but I am focusing on Tarrant County in this article).
Tarrant County ranks 17th in the counties in the nation in the number of ex-offenders returning home every year (more than 5,000). In Texas, Tarrant County ranks third behind only Harris and Dallas Counties. Ten percent of the residents of Tarrant County have been in prison or are now in prison.
The needs of an ex-offender can seem overwhelming. These may include obtaining a photo ID, housing, transportation, education, a job, anger management, medical and mental health services and substance abuse prevention.
Successful reentry means an opportunity for productive new lives for those who have served their prison terms. It also results in safer communities because ex-offenders who successfully build new lives are much less apt to return to crime.
It also can promote church growth. Phil Van Auken, a professor in the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, writes, “Prison work taught me the true meaning of forgiveness, repentance, and restoration. Prison ministry offers unique, vital opportunities for personal spiritual growth because volunteers get personally involved in the gospel basics: witnessing, Bible teaching, counseling, worship, and encouragement. Prison ministry does wonders for revitalizing the spiritual lives of volunteers (and subsequently their churches). Prison ministry gets church members off the pews and outside church walls. Prison ministry promotes cooperation and goodwill between diverse Christians from different denominations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and theological points of view. Prison ministry produces new church members and ministry volunteers.”
All this is true of re-entry ministry as well.
I became interested in reentry 10 years ago, when, as a newly commissioned Stephen Minister, I became a caregiver for one of our parishioners who had returned home after being in prison for problems related to addictive behavior. To better equip myself for this challenge, I learned more and became a board member of Texas ReEntry Services. I took additional mentor training from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and their Parole Division and served as a mentor for two additional care receivers who had been released from administrative segregation (previously known as solitary confinement). Over time our Stephen Ministry group at St. Christopher has cared for a total of 8 -10 care receivers who had been in prison, with mixed success.
My interest in reentry has been rekindled by the recent arrival of our third provisional bishop, Bishop High. The first few times I heard him speak, he encouraged us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison. He told me about some of the innovative programs in the Diocese of Texas directed at prison ministry and reentry.
At a recent meeting in Huntsville, the Rev. Jesse Smith and I met Edwin Davis, the Coordinator of Restorative Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and the Director of Camp Good News, an annual summer camp for teen-aged children of inmates. We met Bill Kleiber and Emmett Solomon of Restorative Justice Ministries of North America. We learned of the growing interest in the Kairos movement in Texas prisons, which reiterates the teachings of the Cursillo Program, but inside prison walls. We were told that the recidivism rate of Kairos participants is about 30%, in contrast to about 70% for non-Kairos participants. The TDCJ, recognizing the importance of spiritual programs, is relying on Restorative Justice Ministers to be the intermediary between TDCJ and volunteers. Bill and Emmett meet and greet men leaving the Huntsville prison and tell them how to be successful in their return home, including information about half-way houses in their hometowns (a big improvement over the traditional bus ticket, $50 and a suit of clothes.) The group said that Tarrant and Travis Counties were the two most progressive Texas counties for supporting returning ex-offenders.
Later in Fort Worth, I met Chaplain Jerry Cabluck at the McCart Street Parole Office. Jerry and his group of seven volunteer chaplains welcome groups of returning ex-offenders on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the parole office, providing them with support, information and a list of helpful organizations. This is quite an improvement over the past several years when I regularly attended meetings at the parole office.
There is much work still to do. If you and/or your parish is interested in participating in this re-entry ministry, please contact me at 817-922-9724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.