The Prison Fellowship International (PFI) team made a visit to the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia. It was late in the day when they arrived at the hotel, but the prison team waited outside to cheerfully greet them.
After squeezing around meeting room tables, the team from PFI affiliate Prison Fellowship Colombia team introduced themselves and shared about their main restorative programs – the Sycamore Tree Project (STP) and Restorative Communities – and how they have helped the region heal from the decades-long armed conflict that tore apart the country.
One observation clearly strengthened this team’s credibility and commitment: many volunteers and staff were ex-prisoners who had graduated from STP when they were incarcerated. They shared stories about how STP had transformed their lives and how they joined the Prison Fellowship Colombia team after their release to help transform their country.
Prison Fellowship Colombia made an intentional choice to have ex-prisoners on the team, including those who had committed very serious crimes.
“I thought [hiring ex-prisoners] was really important,” Jenny Montoya, Prison Fellowship Colombia team leader, says. “After they regained their freedom, they could be witnesses to others released from prison. It’s possible to change and to achieve reconciliation.”
Just as Chuck Colson founded and led the Prison Fellowship network following his release from incarceration, ex-prisoners can rise to become leaders in PFI’s national ministries (independent, regional offices that serve their communities around the world). Wilson Brun, PFI affiliate Prison Fellowship Uruguay founder, and Juan Rocha, who leads its restorative justice efforts, are both former prisoners. Prison Fellowship Uruguay operates a farm that provides ex-prisoners a home and structured support as they transition from prison life.
“When they come to this place, we get them ready to be volunteers,” Brun says. They devote one day to work in the prison as volunteers so they can facilitate the courses.
When ex-prisoners join in volunteer or staff roles, it connects them with more than a job. It also provides them a community and positive relationships with others who have shared experiences, faith and purpose, which provides stability and support when they leave prison.
“They [ex-prisoners] feel valued and cared for. They don’t feel judged but accepted,” Montoya says. “They’re not defined by the crimes they have committed in their past.”
The chance to stay involved upon release can help ex-prisoners make sense of negative past experiences and continue their journey of transformation that started inside prison, often as part of STP or The Prisoner’s Journey, another in-prison program introducing prisoners to Jesus. There, they develop a “redemption script,” a process that criminologist Shadd Maruna says “allows a person to rewrite a shameful past into a necessary prelude to a productive and worthy life.”
Montoya explains this process for STP graduates, some of whom are on her team:
“It’s an opportunity for them to redeem themselves and heal internally and gives them a degree of responsibility to keep improving their behavior. They understand there’s a better way to handle relationships with people they hurt and they can support rebuilding our country marked by the armed conflict and violence. They can either be authors of violence or demonstrate that yes, they can change.”
These experiences also empower ex-prisoners and help them grow. Montaya explains, “It trains them and pushes them to pursue other careers and gives them ability to speak in public. They learn to resolve conflict in their homes, in their neighborhoods and in the communities, and become different people.”
However, the transformation process is unique for each prisoner. “They want to fix things in one month,” Brun says of ex-prisoners who live on the Prison Fellowship Uruguay farm. “But it’s a journey. Some people stay here two years, four years. Some stay only one or two months.”
“We try to awake confidence in them,” Brun continues. “People and society discriminate against them. Their self-esteem is damaged, and they believe they’ll find all doors closed. We help them escape that mentality and understand that they have to knock on some doors.”
Prison Fellowship ministries around the world gain greater credibility when ex-prisoners form an integral part of their team and work. Jenny says it opens prison doors for her team: “Our team members are living witnesses that people can change their stories. The prison officials see this person who was inside and now they accompany us to facilitate a program. They realize the programs work.”
Pastor Luis Mussiett, President of PFI affiliate Prison Fellowship Chile, agrees about the impact ex-prisoners can have as program facilitators:
“When ex-prisoners return to prison as facilitators, they come no longer as offenders. They are free now and voluntarily return to serve. At the same time, they also work on their own lives and recover what they’ve lost: their families, their marriages, and their jobs. They reconnect with their children.”
Ex-prisoners also can help these ministries navigate the prison system as they carry out their work. “They know about the movement within the prison and how to get things done inside,” Brun says. “They know which prison officials are corrupt and which aren’t and direct the best people to approach to gain access to the prison.”
Ex-prisoners also make prison programs more effective because they often connect and relate with prisoners better than someone without these experiences. They come to course sessions at the same level. “Many prisoners are reluctant to participate in prison programs,” says Jonatan Parra, Prison Fellowship Chile’s National Level Program Coordinator. “The facilitators who were once in prison have more credibility and gain confidence of other prisoners. It feels more like a family. When they talk with people who were in their same position, they feel confident to freely share and participate.”
Juan Rocha from Prison Fellowship Uruguay shares similar thoughts:
“When facilitators are ex-prisoners, it allows them to speak with more authority. We speak at the same level. You know what people are experiencing because you experienced the same things. But we have the key that will take you out of that situation.”
Ex-prisoners on Montoya’s team often have opportunities to share their stories during STP sessions. “When we prepare for the course, I ask whether they feel comfortable to share their story,” she says. “Not everybody tells everything. They can share the parts of their testimony that they want. This storytelling almost becomes part of their healing process.”
Montoya remembers someone on her team whose life was transformed by STP and who became a living witness to many other people, like Jose Fonseca.
“Jose was very violent in prison when I met him and had many problems in the prison. When he decided to reconcile with his victim through a restorative justice process, it impacted the lives of many prisoners. They saw him as an example. This motivated more prisoners to take responsibility, make right their crimes and look to reconcile with their victims,’ says Montoya.
Montoya and many other Prison Fellowship International affiliates around the world have realized how essential it is to have ex-prisoners involved in their work, as bringing them into conversations, facilitations and programs provides a deeper level of understanding and connection for current prisoners, crime victims, prison officials and others participating.
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