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Saving Former Prisoners by John D’Amico

By: John D’Amico

Prisoner re-entry—the process of leaving prison and returning to society—has become a pressing issue throughout the nation. Former prisoners are returning home in large numbers, having spent longer terms behind bars than previous inmates in years past. Unfortunately, the great majority of them will be unprepared for reintegration and will return to their communities with disproportionately high rates of addiction, illness, limited education, inadequate work skills and experience, and little or no preparation, support or assistance for their transition to community living. As a result, they will most likely commit new offenses.[1]

Like the travelers described in Jeremiah 6:16, far too many former prisoners have lost their way and chosen not to walk in “the old paths, where the good way is.” They need the help of a leader who can steer them through the pain, suffering, and hardship of re-entry to a better future. The true leader that they need is the Lord, and He speaks to them in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Most of the factors that predict recidivism–antisocial values, antisocial peers, poor self-control, lack of pro-social problem-solving skills, and family dysfunction–relate to the absence of morals or values and the inability of offenders to conform to the laws governing society and accepted notions of right and wrong.[2] Former prisoners need religion, which can lead them away from delinquency, crime, and recidivism.[3] Faith-based programs can create the conditions for personal transformation and provide the inspiration necessary for successful re-entry.[4] Ministers, imams, priests, rabbis, mentors, faith fellowship groups, and people of good will can save former prisoners by replacing antisocial values with pro-social values, counteracting the negative and harmful influences of antisocial peers, encouraging parolees and probationers to accept responsibility for their actions, helping them respond positively to crises and problems, and restoring family connections.

Spirituality: The Foundation of Sobriety

The criminal justice system is plagued by pervasive substance abuse. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is tied to child and spousal abuse, violent crime, rape, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, family breakup and divorce, school dropout and failure, debilitating accidents, and job loss. The war on drugs and alcohol based on interdiction is widely regarded as a failure. Fortunately, religion is coming to the rescue. According to the Report of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, spirituality is playing a powerful role in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and in the maintenance of sobriety. Because religion gives meaning and purpose to life, religious people are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.[5] Physicians and experts on drug and alcohol addiction are concluding that prayer, meditation, and spiritual experiences produce psychological and physical reactions that satisfy physical and mental needs, provide a sense of belonging and purpose, and serve as a protective factor in both prevention and recovery.[6]

In addition to substance abuse, however, many newly released prisoners face significant challenges such as chronic illness and lack of education that place significant barriers in the path to re-entry. They also have critical needs, the most pressing being jobs, housing, and transportation.

Corrections, parole, and probation authorities provide substance abuse treatment and fund programs that address the various needs of former prisoners. But these efforts are inadequate. Public agencies must recognize their limitations and augment their efforts by employing prisoner re-entry partnership strategies involving faith-based entities and community volunteers.

Faith-Based Programs: The Answer

Saving former prisoners is the job of faith-based institutions that can offer a wealth of resources, services, and ministries in the communities to which ex-prisoners return. Importantly, some of the most active and influential congregations are located in communities hardest hit by the cycle of imprisonment, release, and re-incarceration. Where traditional public and nonprofit programs may not be able to reach the most at-risk former prisoners in poor communities, well-established churches and other faith-based institutions can fill this void with needed social, educational, and employment services.[7]

Unfortunately, several restrictions limit the ability of government agencies to tap into these resources. Government cannot promote, encourage, favor, or proselytize for any organization, religion, sect, or other faith-based belief system. Parole and probation officers cannot require former prisoners to participate in faith-based programs and initiatives. In addition to these prohibitions, there are fiscal constraints that limit the amount of public funding available to programs provided by faith-based entities.

Fortunately, a famous Biblical passage points the way around these barriers:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” [8]

When I became Chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board in 2003, I learned, to my astonishment, that many people of different faiths were willing to lend a helping hand, but had never been asked. I therefore invited them and their ministers, along with local law enforcement personnel, treatment providers, local officials, and the general public, to community partnership conferences in New Jersey’s major cities. There was no fee or charge for participation or for the food and drink provided by the co-sponsors, which included various educational institutions, churches, and local businesses.

The conferences featured workshops addressing the plagues affecting former prisoners as well as their needs. At the end of these sessions, the attendees were asked to join local task forces charged with developing specific solutions to the problems discussed. A parole officer or member of the Parole Board’s Community Programs Division was assigned to each task force to facilitate periodic meetings, maintain momentum by providing information and resources, and pursue the opportunities presented by local networking.

Attitudes of Victorious Living

I challenged the religiously affiliated conference attendees to respond to a “Parole Board altar call” to help combat immorality in the criminal justice mission field by changing the hearts and minds of at-risk former prisoners. They responded by joining the task forces. One of the most successful byproducts of their involvement has been the initiation of a Bible-based Christian outreach and restoration ministry called “The Most Excellent Way” (TMEW) (www.tmewcf.org and www.mostexcellentway.org) that has been embraced by ministers, priests, church leaders, and congregants throughout the state. TMEW provides group counseling on alternatives to chemical dependency with an emphasis on the redemptive power of faith. It focuses on a process of permanent change of compulsive habits and self-centered behavior from the inside out—as a matter of the heart. It encourages self-examination, mental renewal, and spiritual transformation based on ten “Attitudes of Victorious Living”:

  1. Humility: I admit I am powerless over the effects of drugs and alcohol, and self-centered behavior — my life is unmanageable. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3 NKJV

  2. Repentance: I believe Jesus Christ can and will create in me a new way of life. Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 NKJV

  3. Submissiveness: I give my will and my life to Jesus Christ. Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5 NKJV

  4. Honesty: I honestly examine myself in the light of God’s Word. Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6 NKJV

  5. Mercy: I humbly ask God’s forgiveness for my sinful past. I am able to forgive those who have hurt me. Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7 NKJV

  6. Obedience: I desire to live under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit — day by day. Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8 NKJV

  7. Reconciliation: I ask forgiveness from God and those I have hurt or dealt with unfairly. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9 NKJV

  8. Faith: I trust in the power of Jesus Christ when I face hardship and trials. Jesus said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10 NKJV

  9. Perseverance: I stand firm in my faith that Jesus is in control of all things. Jesus said: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:11-12 NKJV

  10. Loving Servant: As a new creation in Christ, I share with others the Good News of a risen Savior who makes His people whole. Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world …Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16 NKJV

Few parolees have dropped out of TMEW, the recidivism rate of successful completers has been very low, and New Jersey courts have given the program the same official acceptance accorded to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). I attribute these remarkable results to an environment in which participants can freely express their faith and grow in fellowship with others through support groups. The Re-Entry Policy Council observed,
“The example of others who have faced similar challenges and succeeded, the permission to talk about personal issues with and form attachments to a group of peers, a sense of religious faith, or other forms of inspiration can support an individual’s mental resolve to complete a rigorous substance abuse treatment regimen, to get and maintain a job, or to peacefully manage family conflicts”.[9]

Another major reason for the success of the New Jersey Parole Board’s faith-based outreach has been the ability of TMEW substance abuse counseling groups to couple spiritual therapy with specific responses to the needs of ex-prisoners. Working with churches, charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, community colleges, universities, municipal governments, and many individual volunteers, they have “answered prayers” by helping former prisoners in the following concrete ways:

  • Grants and loans for rental security deposits

  • Temporary housing in unused church facilities and in the homes of church members

  • Job readiness training and referrals

  • Transportation to work, medical appointments, parole offices, and social service offices and facilities using church vehicles

  • Restoration of drivers’ licenses through donations to pay motor vehicle fines and insurance surcharges

  • Donations of used vehicles

  • Gifts of clothing, food, and furnishings

  • Free haircuts and beauty treatments

  • Free medical and dental care

These faith-based community outreach programs have garnered for parolees in-kind services, financial assistance, and donations worth millions of dollars—all at no cost to the taxpayers. While these benefits represent a tiny fraction of the state’s corrections budget, they represent a substantial involvement on the part of the communities to which former prisoners return. In the face of the high recidivism rate of former prisoners, it makes sense to facilitate their voluntary participation in faith-based programs that use religion and spirituality to foster substance abuse recovery and help them cope with and overcome the challenges of re-entry. This is, after all, a “mission field” in our own backyard, and it is in that field that with our help, former prisoners will be able to walk in the “old paths where the good way is” and find rest for their souls.[10]

John D’Amico is Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, retired, and a former State Senator. He also served as the Chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board from 2003 to 2007. He holds a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.
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[1] New Jersey Re-entry Roundtable Final Report, December, 2003, Coming Home for Good: Meeting the Challenge of Prisoner Re-entry in New Jersey, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute, p. 4

[2] Latessa,E.; Cullen, F. & Gendreau, P. September, 2002. Beyond Correctional Quackery—Professionalism and the Possibility of Effective Treatment. Federal Probation, 66(2), 43-49.

[3] Hirchi, Travis. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969; Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirchi. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

[4] Re-Entry Policy Council Report. 2005. Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community. Re-Entry Policy Council, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Labor & U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, p. 204

[5] Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Report of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality, November 2001, p. ii et.seq.

[6] Andrew Newberg, M.D. & Eugene D’Aquili, M.D. Ph.D, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Ballantine Books, April, 2001, p. 130; Marc Galanter, M.D., Healing Through Social and Spiritual Affiliation,Psychiatric Services, September 2002, Vol. 53, No. 9.

[7] Byron R. Johnson, More God, Less Crime, Templeton Press, 2011; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Urban Institute, and Outreach Extensions. Outside the Walls: A National Snapshot of Community-Based Prisoner Re-entry Programs. 2005. p. 164.

[8] Jesus, Holy Bible, New King James Version, Luke 11:10

[9] Re-Entry Policy Council Report, 2005, p. 204

[10] Holy Bible, New King James Version, Jeremiah 6:16

Journal of the Correctional Ministries and Chaplains Association, Vol. 2, Issue 3, September-December, 2013. CMCA is affiliated with the Institute for Prison Ministries, Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Illinois

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