354 | Prisoners Leave, Then What?

October 26, 2014
Sunday, 11:00 p.m.
Letter #354: Prisoners Leave, Then What?


Dear Family,

The old system of criminal justice involved harsh punishments enacted swiftly upon the offender: steal horses and you get hanged just outside of town. Gradually that system shifted to one of lighter punishments enacted over a very long period of time: punching someone while stealing their phone and you get to sit by yourself, away from your family, for twenty years, like an ex-cellie of mine found out on his first offense.

Neither way addresses the issues that lead to the offense, which is fast becoming a trend in modern corrections and throughout the justice system. At least, that’s the statement I hope is true within this decade as more problems with modern corrections come to light.

Recidivism, the repeating of an offense, is not addressed while in prison largely due to program cuts, and only a few programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings) become mandatory once an offender is released. This seems so counter-intuitive. Why wouldn’t we demand that prisoners receive classes, psychological help, accountability, and educational opportunities BEFORE they are released back into society? Yet our governments aren’t held responsible for the product that is churned out of their prisons: men of poor character who often become worse than when they first were locked up.

As prisoners, however, we not only don’t receive training to help build up character deficiencies, we nearly never hear about prisoners who leave. Did they do well? Did they do poorly? Are they successful, or do they live attached to the public purse of welfare? We never know, mostly because once released, prisoners never look back, no matter how good-intentioned they were about keeping in touch, and those of us left behind can’t really blame them. The allure of freedom and all its joys and trials quickly make prison fade from their minds, and us with it.

The system itself cannot be responsible for letting us know, when it rarely knows how parolees fare unless they re-offend. Do they get jobs? Are they forming good relationships? Have they joined themselves to a larger community, whether it be a church, social, or recreational group? No one knows, and I feel this lack of basic success or failure data becomes a detriment to those of us waiting our turn.

One guy I’d tried to help over the course of several years and three prisons eventually paroled. His holier-than-thou mindset prevented him from welcoming any kind of helpful information or advice. A friend of mine received just one letter from him once he paroled, telling how he got a warehouse job, still can’t find the perfect church, and already got his girlfriend pregnant. At least he told us, if only one letter’s worth of information.

And while his friend wishes to keep the information private to protect the parolee’s supposed “reputation,” I believe that it does no good kept secret. As a comedian once said, “You are never completely worthless…. you can always be used as a bad example.” Good, bad, or ugly, I tell the guys I work with, I’m going to tell people how you do once you leave us.

I’ve proudly showed off pictures I’ve received from my old cellie, Tom, who continues to faithfully keep in touch, sending me notecards and paper and even money for an ice cream from the canteen here. He’s in a beautiful relationship, is employed, and happy.

Derek, a young man I’d discipled for over a year, who was baptized in the church here and did much to change his life, recently paroled. I had a Welcome Home card waiting for him with a letter encouraging him to do well and keep in touch.

Just months before his release, he was given an extra two months off his sentence, due to the prison system’s overcrowding issues. His new exit date put him home just two weeks before his daughter’s fifth birthday.

I just received a letter from Derek, with five pictures of him with his family. My favorite is one with his daughter holding a big pink dog her daddy was able to buy for her with his own money he made working as a plumber. I pray Derek continues to make wise choices.

Joseph, a young man in my pod who came from a family of gang members, including even his mom, was on the phone recently with his four-year old daughter, who asked him if she could pray. He said, “Of course!” only to hear her ask if his eyes were closed. He closed them. She then prayed for her daddy to “come home soon” because she missed him. The next day, he received notification that he would parole several months earlier, ending up just days before his birthday and Christmas next year. He couldn’t wait to tell his daughter, but she wasn’t amazed saying, “I know, Daddy! I asked God for it!” Ahh, for childlike faith.

These dads have strong motivation in their lives to give them that extra push to make it, no matter what. And I hope they do make it. Far too often, we never hear from recent parolees to let us know how they’re doing, but these guys are different, knowing how absolutely vital it is for currently incarcerated inmates to hear success and failure stories to motivate and spur us on.

Joe, my unique ex-cellie, paroles on November 17 of this year to a world of support and help, but he can make it if he puts it all in God’s hands and leaves his old life far behind. One thing I know for certain: we’ll have to wait and see, but I’ll broadcast the updates on Joe, good, bad, or ugly.