Fourteen years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a social worker, however, I had no idea that journey would lead to almost a decade of working with friends, neighbors, and our community who are involved in the criminal justice system. I think God brought me into it slowly. For my undergrad, I went to Eastern Kentucky University, a school known for their criminal justice and police training schools. I was surrounded by people who held the attitude “just lock them away,” however I knew there was more to crime than just bad choices. Looking at my own life, I knew there were several times my own bad choices should have landed me in jail if the circumstances had been different – IF I had lived in the inner city instead of the suburbs, IF the cops I encountered had labeled me as a “bad kid” instead of “just being a kid,” IF I hadn’t had loving adults in my life who encouraged me to make better choices.
As I began my career in social work, God continued to bring people into my life who were involved in the criminal justice system but that I knew as kind, wonderful people who were all struggling with life circumstances and demons from their past. The first was a young man on the cusp of turning 18 and aging out of the foster care system. He was struggling to graduate high school after bouncing around to a different foster home every 18 months, beginning at the time he was eight. He had dreams of going to college or maybe joining the Air Force, however, his biggest fear was going to prison. His father, mother, and three older brothers were all serving time in Ohio institutions. He and I would often speak about being a young child and visiting his mom in jail or prison and the impact that had on him. He longed for a relationship with his parents; he wanted to know why they made the choices they did so that he could avoid them.
Another notable person came into my life while working in Cleveland, She was a prostitute and homeless most of the year, except during the winter months when she would purposely solicit police or shoplift to be put in jail; she was trying to avoid the worst of the Cleveland winters. In the three years prior to my meeting her, she had over 30 arrests. I had gotten to meet her on the day she moved into a subsidized apartment and during the time she lived in that apartment, she was never arrested, had gotten a part time job, and entered therapy to deal with years of abuse.
There were so many others that came into my life during the first three years of my career that I began actively looking for opportunities to work with individuals involved in the criminal justice system. God provided that opportunity when I took a job providing treatment for the mental health courts in Hamilton County. I began to be a nearly constant figure in the Hamilton County courthouse and in the jail. I met, worked with, and my heart broke for hundreds of people who I encountered who were involved in the criminal justice system. Over time, I began to see that my clients who did well weren’t the ones with the best therapists. They were the ones who either had a family or created a family, “tribe”, or network that supported them EVEN when they backslid, EVEN when they were in jail, EVEN when they made another bad choice. They were held accountable for their actions but in a loving way that let them experience consequences but they still were loved. I was especially amazed by one church that regularly visited several of their members in jail. The remarkable thing about this church is that it wasn’t the pastor that was visiting the jail, but it was the congregation! Sometimes it would be an older woman, walking with a cane, visiting young men a 4th of her age; other times it would be the businessman who worked down town and popped in on his lunch break, sometimes a peer from the congregation. I had three young men in my program who were members of this church. Even more amazing than visiting them in prison, these members of the church had a plan in place for when the person would get out, They would frequently be at their homes, helped them get or return to jobs, and would even attend follow-up court hearings with them. All three of those young men successfully completed our program and all were living positive lives at the time I lost track of them.
God began working again in my professional life and brought me the opportunity to run a program directly aimed at improving outcomes for individuals returning to the community from prison. One day while processing paperwork on new referrals I ran across an address that was in Liberty Township. The rest of the day it continued to nag at me, and that night I prayed about it. The following day, two more referrals came across my desk with return addresses of West Chester and Monroe. I continued to pray because while I had dealt with hundreds of referrals, at that point none had weighed so heavy on my heart as these. Over the course of the next two months, 20 referrals would be sent to me that were all returning to within 10 miles of our church. Over and over God kept bringing back to me the images of that congregation I had encountered while working in Cincinnati, and I knew I was being called to do something. During this time, I became familiar with the Healing Communities model for churches and felt like this was right in line with the mission of The River. It was out of this that the Healing Communities team at The River was born, with the hope that one day we might get the designation of being a “Station of Hope.”
As Christians, we often read and hear the charge of Matthew 25:35-40. We clothe the naked and visit the sick, but so often we forget about visiting those in prison. At the current rate of arrest and incarceration, one in 77 American adults are involved in some way TODAY with the criminal justice system (pending charges, on probation, in jail, in prison, or on parole). When you account for past involvement, that number rises to one in 23; one in 14 children in the United States report having at least one parent currently in jail or prison. When we ignore Jesus’ charge to care for those in prison, we are ignoring a large part of our community and even our own church congregation. Even if you never step foot in a prison, you can help. Some possible ways are:
- Make a meal for the family who is left behind.
- Mentor their teenage son or daughter.
- Help by providing money so children can have phone calls with their mom behind bars.
- Assist a young man coming back to our community find a job, interview clothes, or a car to get to work.
- Help the grandmother or foster mother caring for children while mom is in jail.