Hebrews 13:3 reminds Christians to "continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison." In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me." A person with a past can rise from their mistakes and become part of society after paying their debt.
Prison Fellowship, a national prison ministry, is calling on church leaders and politicians to help former prisoners live normal lives. Currently, about 25 percent of adults in the United States, almost 65 million people, have a criminal record. This means that these people do not have access to certain jobs or education. They might be restricted from voting and it can be difficult to find housing following a prison sentence.
When former prisoners do not have access to basic necessities, food, shelter, a job and a car, it is difficult to become a productive member of society. Recidivism increases when people are not given a chance to integrate back into the community. There are over 48,000 statutes in the United States that limit the rights of those with a record. Although some might be understandable, some, like those that prevent felons from voting, keep citizens from belonging.
It's Not Only Prisoners Who Are Affected
It's estimated that about 2.7 million children have a parent in prison. Every year, about 700,000 prisoners are released back into the community. Their families cannot be expected to support able-bodied adults. It puts stress on the family unit, which affects employers, schools and social services. Employees are not productive. Students cannot concentrate. People who are stressed need assistance from doctors or other organizations.
Former prisoners who do not have housing and work do not just hurt themselves. It affects the entire community. Chances are, these former prisoners will go back to their old ways unless something impacts their life on the outside. Prison Fellowship's statement of faith addresses this: "Through an amazing awakening to new hope and life purpose available through Jesus, those who once broke the law are transformed and mobilized to serve their neighbors, replacing the cycle of crime with a cycle of renewal that restores entire communities."
Many Organizations Work With Ex-Inmates
When you meet someone with a past, don't run away from them. Remember what's in your past. Maybe you never went to prison, but would you want someone to find out about all your sins? Would you be worried that a friend might judge you for who you were 5, 10 or even 20 years ago? Former prisoners may have to earn your trust, but that's no different than anyone else in your life. You have to give a person a chance before deciding whether you want them in your life.
Prison Fellowship might be Christian-based, but many faith organizations have a prison ministry to help people who need to reintegrate into the community following a prison sentence. If you are a ULC minister, you might be able to volunteer in the prison yourself to be a stable influence. Check with the regulations of the prison in your state, because the rules are designed to protect prisoners from becoming more vulnerable than they are and to protect volunteers from being misused.
As a community, we have to take a different approach to what is happening to former inmates. We have to help people find their place in the community and to be different than who they were. If they make the choice to go back to their old ways, then that is their choice. But to make that choice, they need options of a better life. They need a second chance.