Serious justice reform has begun in Pennsylvania. Citing similar measures in Texas and Hawaii, the state's lawmakers recently passed SB 100, which is aimed at reducing the exorbitant costs of incarceration while maintaining public safety. The bill addresses in particular issues of prison overcrowding and prison health care, and gives special attention to diverting low-level addicted offenders into local treatment programs, and to community-based alternative sentencing measures.
But an important part of any such reform must include faith communities.
Faith communities should be important resources for both those returning to communities, and those being diverted from the system. While the limited capacity of most faith-based organizations to provide job training, substance abuse treatment, housing—all critical components of re-entry—complicates efforts at partnerships with government institutions, ( the fact remains that the two most salient requirements for successful reentry and recidivism reduction lie squarely within the faith community.
At a March 22, 2012 presentation on attitudes of state prison chaplains sponsored by the Pew Forum, corrections expert Tom O’Connor suggested that ” the most important factors in recidivism are anti-social thinking- beliefs attitudes and values- and anti-social companions.”
In a follow-up conversation, Dr. O’Connor told me that this is a critical reason why the faith community must be part of the solution in reducing recidivism. Dealing with thinking patterns and relationships “are things congregations already do,” he said. As one pastor with a strong re-entry ministry told me, “any congregation that has a problem with changing people’s thinking and providing meaningful relationships doesn’t have a re-entry problem; they have a religion problem!”
As alternative sentencing and re-entry programs and strategies gain in importance, congregations and faith-based organizations have a rich opportunity to provide the context for building pro-social skills in thinking and relationships by applying existing resources, “religious capital” according to Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, who has urged the faith community to make prisoner reentry a priority in several of his writings.
But in order to do this, the faith community will need to use its core values of love, forgiveness and redemption to reduce the stigma and shame surrounding arrest and incarceration.
This includes the recognition that those in the prison and jail populations of our states and communities are often one or two degrees of separation from the faith community in the first place. Large numbers of congregations have multiple families whose sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, etc. are already in the system.
In some congregations the numbers are between 50 percent and 80 percent. If congregations understood that their membership includes the families of the incarcerated, and began “following the bloodlines” to provide support for those behind bars—much like they do with those in hospitals—they could begin the process of support necessary for successful re-entry and reintegration, and become a robust part of our national drive to reduce recidivism. My own congregation, following the “hospital” model, posts the names of inmates, detainees, those facing trial and/or sentencing etc. with connections to the congregation. The list includes addresses for writing to inmates, as well as writing to judges and other officials on behalf of those facing or doing time. A welcome home celebration marks the first Sunday anyone returns from incarceration. Of course, having such a list requires ministerial leadership to break the silence, reduce the shame, and end the stigma surrounding incarceration. Good religion- good faith- does all three.
Pennsylvania’s latest reforms, and others on the way, offer a distinct opportunity for the faith community to mobilize its existing resources of “religious capital” in addressing issues of anti-social thinking and companionships.
A shift in its paradigm for engaging the system will help.
Harold Dean Trulear is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University.