How do freed prisoners cope after 30 years? How would you cope if you lost 30 years of memories? “It took about 2200 miles and a week to change my perspective.” David Barringer, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, USA writes in his weekly column “From Your Servant Leader”, Frederic’s E-Gazette.
He continues…That’s how long the distance and time were between my recent visits to the Los Angeles and Orlando Councils. Council staff and Vincentians were gracious with their time to show me around, including some very interesting and unique prison ministry programs, while I was in their areas for other duties.
In LA, there is a special program that works with men released from prison after at least 30 years.
Thirty years! Try and remember what has changed in your life over the past 30 years to see what these men were missing. Family members born and deceased. Cell phones, email, even desktop computers didn’t exist or were very rudimentary and expensive 30 years ago. No CDs or satellite TV and radio. And think of how much the job market has changed, with some entire industries being created such as IT and e-commerce, homeland security and medical specialties while others such as small appliance and TV repair have virtually disappeared.
Men returning to society after 30 years need to deal with all this and so much more, and the LA Council is helping them to stabilize their employment, their living arrangements and their lives.
In Orlando, some Vincentians work with men still in prison for months before their anticipated release. They pray and they let someone know that there is someone who cares about their success once they leave from behind the walls. If they don’t have a stable place to stay upon release, they can live in a converted trailer park with other returning citizens, attend AA and other classes, look for employment and otherwise try to stabilize their lives. The result? In a state with more than 70% recidivism (return to jail) and some of the most restrictive parole requirements, this program’s return rate is about 2%. Perhaps just as impressively, many of these returning citizens improve their
lives with jobs, social structures and stability that discourage them from getting back into trouble.
Prison ministry is certainly not new to our Society. St. Vincent himself and his cohorts visited with the many political prisoners and others in the Paris criminal system. We include prison visits as one type of home visit in our range of services to those in need.
The change in my perspective during these two Council visits involved looking differently at prison visits. Vincentians who visit and counsel prisoners during and after their incarceration and help them to stabilize their lives are conducting systemic change activities, perhaps in its most extreme form. We have some in our Society who see systemic change as something new, scary or just plain different. However if we look in a new light at one of our oldest Society programs, we see that through prison ministry we have been advancing systemic change all along.
As we examine types of people who come to us for services, we have seen a rise in the number of single, usually female, parents. One of the reasons cited for their having to make it on their own is because their husband or significant other is in jail, leaving the family left behind in poverty. If we want to end poverty, we must look at its root causes.
St. Vincent has shown us one way to do so by praying with and counseling prisoners and returning citizens, and exploring together with them systemic change solutions that will help them and their families.
Yours in Christ,