Event organizers in Philadelphia got more interest than they expected when over 3,000 individuals arrived at the Municipal Services building for a job fair for former inmates.
The crowd, which was three times that expected by city officials, greatly exceeded the capacity of the intended facilities, and resulted in the eventual postponing of the event. Plans are to reschedule the job fair at a later date at the Philadelphia Convention Center, which would be able to accommodate the large number of job seekers.
The scene in Philadelphia could have taken place in most any large city in the United States. A shrinking economy, combined with the growing numbers of individuals returning to the job market from prison terms (and the obvious hurdles such a status imposes) is creating a whole class of ex-prisoners desperate to find employment. For many, the inability to secure meaningful employment is a key factor in their decision to return to old habits and acquaintances … and ultimately, back to prison. One job seeker in Philadelphia indicated he had been searching for over two years, without success. Sadly, his experience is more the rule than the exception.
There are many mitigating factors that help to determine if a former inmate is going to become a future inmate or not. Employment is one such issue. But other factors, such as familial support, church membership, and post-prison mentoring also play a key role in an ex-prisoner’s successful reentry into society. Prison Fellowship’s reentry programs seek to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of those leaving prison, and have been effective in reducing recidivism.
To learn more about Prison Fellowship’s efforts in transforming the lives of prisoners as they leave the prison walls behind, visit our reentry page. To learn how you might be involved in this transformation, go to http://www.prisonfellowship.org/get-involved/.
It is an ongoing problem for inmates being released from prison. As soon as they leave prison life behind, they find themselves in a difficult job market, often with a limited skill set, and with a resumé with a noticeable hole in the timeline. Add to that a criminal record, and the cards are definitely stacked against these individuals finding meaningful employment.
A new program being offered to Virginia inmates through the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia is seeking to improve the odds for at least some of these inmates. At the Dillwyn Correctional Center, a medium-security prison for men in central Virginia, 13 inmates are learning the fundamentals of entrepreneurship.
Kirk Smith, an inmate preparing for release in the coming months, is learning skills to advance his dream – a custom painting business.
“I’m still scared,” says Smith about his business’ launch. “At times, I was pulling my hair out. But now I have more confidence. Now I believe I can start this business. I know I would have failed miserably without this class.”
At a graduation ceremony for students completing Prison Fellowship’s four-year Prisoners to Pastors program, a tearful dad confessed to me, “I thought my son would never complete anything but a prison sentence!”
We were at South Bay Correctional Institution in Florida. Thirty-six students – who had completed hundreds of hours of rigorous theological study – were dressed up in gowns and tassels. They were like little kids in their excitement. Most of them had never walked in any kind of graduation ceremony in their lives, so this was a life-changing moment of hope and accomplishment! These graduates were being commissioned to change their prison and their communities for Jesus.
One of the graduating students is particularly close to my heart. His name is Derrick, and he’s got decades of prison time still to serve. But he doesn’t mind. He’s on fire. He sees that prison as his “Jerusalem,” the mission field where he can love people and spread the Gospel. Derrick’s adult daughter Christina was there to celebrate with him. She is a phenomenal, accomplished young woman. For many years, Angel Tree helped Derrick maintain his relationship with Christina when he couldn’t be with her physically.
At the graduation ceremony, Derrick and Christina weren’t allowed to hug each other, but the officers let me put an arm around each of them, so they could embrace each other through me. That’s exactly what you do when support Prison Fellowship and Angel Tree. You stand in the breach. God uses you to facilitate moments of connection, joy, and healing that would otherwise not exist.
For most prisoners’ children, summer camp is only a dream. But your partnership gives an Angel Tree child the chance to hear that Jesus loves them.
Shatori, Anthony, and Diondre have missed their daddy – he’s been in prison. Ten-year-old Shatori has dreams of cheerleading and becoming a policewoman. Anthony, age 11, loves to play football and wants to be a photographer. And Diondre, who at 12 is already serious and responsible, wants to be a teacher.
As the children of a prisoner, kids like these are at a high risk to suffer abuse and violence. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Prison Fellowship supporters gave Shatori, Diondre, and Anthony the gift of a life-changing week at Angel Tree camp. Away from their everyday surroundings, these young siblings made new friends, built relationships with caring camp counselors, and experienced the love of God.
“Learning about God makes me so happy!” says Anthony, and his face lights up just remembering.
“My favorite part of camp was exercising and playing,” says Diondre. “But I also learned that God can forgive our sins. And that Jesus, His Son, died for us. Angel Tree means a lot to me.”
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them
T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets, Burnt Norton”
Have you ever listened to someone talk on and on until they think of something to say? I sometimes find myself lost in the avalanche of their words – big words, small words, profoundly strung together in a meaningless cascade of noise. Big words tumbling over each other, their meanings diminished in thoughtless, reckless sound as the speaker prattles on while no one has a clue what he is really saying or what she means.
“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” is very helpful advice. As human beings we live in an environment of words. Sometimes we use words with integrity to express the truth and to say exactly what we mean. At other times we use words to camouflage and skew the truth, and to say one thing while meaning quite another thing or even its opposite. And sometimes we just use words without thinking, without knowing their meaning. By words we uphold truth and justice, goodness and beauty. But by using those same words we can just as easily undermine truth and justice, demean goodness and diminish beauty.
Can you believe abandoning a snowmobile in a life-threatening blizzard or digging up arrowheads can result in criminal charges?
These are a few unfortunate examples of “overcriminalization.”
New criminal laws that do not include a criminal intent requirement and the duplication of federal criminal laws that already exist at the state level have made it impossible for reasonable citizens to know all the criminal laws and regulations that could land them in jail or prison.
After years of blowing the whistle on overcriminalization, Justice Fellowship is pleased to report a great step forward from Washington! On May 6, the House Judiciary Committee approved the creation of a task force on overcriminalization.
Over the past three decades, Congress has been averaging 500 new crimes per decade. At present, there are an estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. Code, many of which address conduct also regulated by the states. Additionally, there are an estimated 100,000-300,000 federal regulations that may carry criminal penalties. The House Judiciary Committee recognizes that it’s time to repair the decades of damage resulting from hastily creating new crimes.
The task force will include eight Congressmen, led by Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
Justice Fellowship is looking forward to serving the task force as it tackles overcriminalization and proposes solutions in the coming months. Stay tuned!
What is passion? I think of it as an extreme, almost ungovernable emotion. Passion is when you feel so strongly about something, it’s difficult to keep it inside. When you feel passionate about something or someone, no one has to convince you to take action.
As Christians, it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves, what are we really passionate about? What makes us willing to sacrifice time, money, and talents? Our careers? Our families? Fulfilling our dreams? How well do our deepest passions reflect Christ’s passions?
Jesus was passionate about the cross. He didn’t look forward to it, but He was absolutely determined to go through it, because He knew it was necessary for the fulfillment of God’s plan.
When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him, He is calling us to give our lives. He is calling us to be passionate about the things of His Kingdom.
From Scripture we know that Jesus was serious about “the least” among us – the prisoner, the sick, the alien – that He lists in Matthew 25.
What would our lives look like if we took Jesus’ passions as our own? One thing’s for sure: it would change us, and it would change the world. Young David was passionate about the honor of Israel and his God, and he slew the giant Goliath. Esther was passionate about saving the lives of her people, and she found the courage to risk her life and confront a king.
I challenge you today to take on Jesus’ passions. You won’t ever be the same, and you won’t ever regret it. Learn how we can help equip you today at prisonfellowship.org.
One dark night in January, a cold drizzle enshrouds the California Institution for Women. But inside the education wing, one room overflows with light, life, and joy.
More than 20 prisoners at CIW are the first women to be part of Prison Fellowship’s Prisoners to Pastors program, a four-year, seminary-level program that will train them to become Christian leaders behind bars and back in their homes and communities.
As class begins, women of diverse races and ages enter a room awash in fluorescent light. Amid the smell of erasers and dictionaries, they laugh and chat as they take places in rows of pine desks.
After a time of prayer and worship, the class facilitators – Prison Fellowship staff member Deborah Postell and volunteers Nancy Gary and Shirley Houston – handed back the students’ most recent final exams. Together, the women achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.43 on the first unit they completed!
Gloria, a student whose two children live with relatives in another state, stands up to explain how God has used the Prisoners to Pastors program to restore her faith in her own potential.
“My parents always used to get bad reports from school. I would always get kicked out,” she explains with a rueful smile. “So now, to me, to have an A- on my final is …” She chokes up, unable to finish, while her sisters in Christ applaud and encourage her.
Not only is Gloria learning to master the program’s challenging curriculum, but she is also using her expanded knowledge of God’s Word to lead Bible studies for Spanish-speaking inmates on the prison yard. And along with Sylvia, a fellow student, she just helped translate the first Spanish-language edition of Inside Journal®, Prison Fellowship’s newspaper for prisoners.
The congregation knelt in silence for the prayer of confession . . .
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. . .”
No health! Well nobody’s perfect ‑‑ right? There is not one of us who has not: from time to time, done something inappropriate or neglected to do that which is good. To be a mortal human being is to live with the inescapable reality of one’s personal ethical imperfections and the imperfections of others. So, nobody’s perfect ‑‑ not me, not you, not them; we are collaborators, and all too frequently co‑conspirators in ethical misdeeds and inaction.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
The words are, no doubt, familiar to many of us who learned to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” at a young age. The tune might be even more familiar – you don’t have to be religious to recognize a song that seems omnipresent in movies or on TV; at private funerals or public memorial services. We hear it played in grandeur on a stately pipe organ, or by solitary trumpet; by bagpipe, folksy guitar, or jazzy piano. Each different rendition seems to bring out another facet of the song, or elicit a different emotion.
“Amazing Grace” has become a part of our collective conscience, yet too often we fail to stop and listen to the message contained in John Newton’s hymn. And when we do listen, the lyrics often sound harsh and out-of-tune with the current culture of self-affirmation. As a general rule, we prefer not to think of ourselves as “wretches” in need of saving.
There is at least one group in our culture, however, that relates intimately to the message in “Amazing Grace” – those behind bars.
In a 1990 documentary, Bill Moyers explores the impact of “Amazing Grace” on people from all walks of life, including prisoners. The video includes an interview with singer Johnny Cash, who performed the song at his first prison concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas in 1957.