People who are incarcerated confront numerous obstacles when they are released, often outside their control. They need strong, healthy relationships to lean upon as they transition to life outside prison.
The church community can fill this critical need that, when left unattended, increases the risk that ex-prisoners will return to crime.
When people who are incarcerated leave prison, they return to a world that has left them behind. Prison cuts them from their previous way of life. Perhaps they have lost their job or their family. Essentially, they have lost all important connections that help them resettle or reestablish themselves. When they return to the community, there is a gap or vacuum and if they don’t get support, they’re at risk of reoffending and going back into prison.
People living in freedom often take for granted stability in life that formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to attain. Former inmates grapple with real struggles like getting a job, earning an income, settling into decent accommodations and finding basic transportation.
Compounding these struggles, people who are incarcerated often have few, if any, positive relationships they can rely upon. The “criminal” label stays with most inmates as they come out of prison and often pushes them to the margins of the community. People may not welcome them, making it difficult for them to reintegrate. The wider society builds a fence between themselves and those recently released.
Former prisoners experience a trust deficit within their families and communities that reinforces stigma. It often takes time for people to change their mind to believe that formerly incarcerated individuals are no longer a criminal and that they have changed.
These variables—isolation, institutionalization inside prison, stigma, few supportive relationships and struggles to attain basic life necessities when they transition out—create a negative ripple effect that impacts former prisoners’ lives. As they step forward and try to gain a foothold outside prison, often the ground seems to crumble beneath their feet.
Church communities offer ex-prisoners a lifeline for greater stability and support. Ministry staff and volunteers establish the links between churches and people inside prison.
Efforts become more restorative when prisoners are connected with church communities and pathways are created for them to join churches that will support and advocate for them during their transition.
One thing to note is that this discussion assumes, and even requires, that Prison Fellowship International’s (PFI) national ministries around the world engage in parallel, ongoing efforts to build relationships with and sensitize churches, so churches offer a safe, nonjudgmental community where former prisoners feel like they belong.
In-prison programs like Bible studies and discipleship programs provide a natural space for church-based volunteers to connect and build trust with prisoners. Importantly, ministries need to seek ways to sustain these relationships so prisoners can turn to them when they leave prison.
Organizations like PFI’s affiliate, Prison Fellowship Zimbabwe (PFZ) keep these post-release church connections in mind as they facilitate relationships between volunteers and prisoners during their in-prison ministries.
“A person’s reintegration starts in prison with Bible studies and evangelism programs. During that time, we expose the inmates to different churches,” explains PFZ Executive Director Wilson Femayi. “Once they indicate a church they want to join, we contact the church. Normally, prisoners meet volunteers from the church because the pastors are overworked.”
“The church identifies volunteers who walk with the inmate while they are still in prison.”
Some ministries invest deeply in prisoner reintegration. Prison Fellowship Malawi (PFM) collaborates with the government to operate a halfway home that prepares individuals for their return to the community. Prison Fellowship Nigeria’s (PFN) Onesimus Project is a collaboration between the church, government and a university that prepares incarcerated individuals to rejoin their communities by providing shelter, psychosocial support, counseling, guidance, and vocational skills training, including equipment and seed money to start small businesses.
While these programs are needed, they are resource intensive and difficult to implement. Most ministries lack the resources and expertise to implement them.
Despite how effective these prisoner reintegration programs, church-based mentorship programs are much easier to implement. They simply require committed volunteers and engaged churches empathetic to the returning prisoner’s context and needs.
For example, PFN facilitates the church’s provision of spiritual caregivers and mentors. Each inmate has an assigned mentor who help train prisoners in skill acquisition to equip these inmates in the life outside. The mentors often develop such interest in their mentees that prisoners become like their son, prompting mentors to follow up and support the person after their release to make sure they are established and settled down in society.
“There’s that connection between preparing the inmates and giving them immediate support when they come out,” says Tsado.
“We see in that circle of inmates who have mentors, the rate of recidivism is very, very low, if not eliminated.”
These mentors become prisoners’ link to not just the outside world, but also to the church which gives them social credit. Many prisoners lack this social capital, healthy relationships that help them accomplish their aims and deal with life problems. Formerly incarcerated individuals need someone to stand with and support them to offset the distrust, stigma and discrimination that they often encounter so they can get on with life.
PFZ operates the Prodigal Son project, where churches publicly welcome people returning from prison. Church volunteers meet prisoners inside the prison through Bible studies and other outreach programs and sustain these connections throughout prisoners’ sentences. Church communities welcome prisoners home once they are eventually released.
In front of the church, former prisoners give public testimony about how their lives have changed, making it easier for former prisoners to find space in the society because the same people in the church are the people in the community. Through public testimony and the relationships formed, it’s not the part of the former prisoner to communicate to the community, “I have reformed,” but it’s the part of those who witnessed his testimony who can say, “He has reformed.” It’s about convincing the community that they can live with and relate to this person, and can play a part in his reintegration.
The church community becomes an advocate—it stands in the gap—for people formerly incarcerated who need credible witnesses to vouch for them.
Reputable associations help prisoners bridge gaps that often keep them from obtaining accommodations, finding a job or being genuinely accepted into a community.
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