Soon after Pat Nolan was released from a California State Prison, he found himself seated at a deli with some friends. Nolan, a 15-year veteran of the California State Assembly, and four-time Republican Assembly leader, had served 25 months after being targeted for a campaign contribution he received as part of an FBI sting. Despite his years of political success and a résumé laden with B.A. and J.D. degrees, as Nolan sat staring at the menu, he felt paralyzed. Choices—they were overwhelming.
The waiter came to take their orders. One by one, his friends ordered. Nolan grew flustered. He could not decide. His face began to burn with embarrassment. After two years of prison, where all choices were made for him, an ordinary decision like ham, pastrami, or roast beef had become altogether overwhelming. To save face, Nolan ordered the first thing his eyes fell on: turkey. He didn’t even want turkey. Suddenly he understood how even in the most mundane details of life, a prison term takes its toll.
In his 2004 book, "When Prisoners Return", Nolan comprehensively addresses the various issues involved in the care of prisoners after they have been released, not only a vital aspect of prison ministry, but also an important calling that ordinary Christians and the Church as a whole must face. For those of you currently working with prisoners and ex-prisoners, the book provides great practical resources. Plus, it includes information that will leverage your efforts to educate and recruit churches and other volunteers for prison ministry.
A MINISTRY BUILT UPON A ROCK
Nolan gently reminds readers of the firm biblical grounding we have been given to care for the prisoner. One intriguing text he offers is the often overlooked book of Philemon. According to Nolan, "The apostle Paul's entire letter to Philemon is a request for help for a prisoner returning home. Writing from inside a prison in Rome, Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome Philemon's former slave, Onesimus, who apparently had stolen from him and then escaped." Paul urges Philemon to "welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me" (Philemon 1:17).
If the spiritual motivations are not reason enough, Nolan also offers staggering statistics that show how crucial it is to address society's failure to integrate ex-offenders back into society. He reminds us that over half a million prisoners return each year. At the current rate, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years, and half of them will return to prison. With the costs of prison-building and maintenance continuing to rise, society has no other choice but to find a better way to keep these men and women from re-offending. And Nolan offers countless practical steps and organizational resources to help us do exactly that.
THE POWER OF ONE
Studies have shown over and over again that the first few days, or even hours, after release are the time when a prisoner is very likely to be rearrested. After all, imagine the plight of someone who has just gotten off the bus from prison with nowhere to sleep and nowhere to earn money. He’s likely returning to a neighborhood where the people he knows are the very ones who will sway him back to a life of crime. Survival dictates an almost gravitational pull back into old habits of crime. This is why the Church has to do everything it can to forge a sense of establishment for re-entering prisoners.
Mentors can help with that sense of permanence and belonging, but the local church can also be involved in helping with this need. Nolan suggests that churches partner with local affordable housing organizations and find potential employers inside and outside the congregation for released prisoners. Ex-offenders also need help writing résumés, transportation to and from job interviews, and people who are willing to vouch for them to potential employers. Members of congregations can provide basic needs like emergency food and clothing, addressing physical needs even as they give the returning prisoner a sense that he is welcome in the community.
REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS
The Church can help answer all of these questions. Physical, emotional, and especially spiritual support for the victim can come from the Church. Nolan says that emphasis should be laid particularly on assuring the victims that they did not deserve the crime committed against them.
Another good step to take is to get ex-offenders involved in community service projects to improve their community. This will help the offender to repair some of the damage that was done to the community, or to the relationships within the community. While this will never directly repair the damage done by crime, it is a visible sign to the community that released prisoners are vested in the well- being of the community and contributing as good citizens.
"When Prisoners Return" reminds us of a problem that Jesus commands us to engage. Nolan gives us the resources to get going. If you've volunteered with prison ministry for a while, much of the material may not be new to you. But Nolan's extensive list of organizations, articles, books, videos, and other materials will add to your arsenal of resources to support your ministry. And sharing the book with other Christians is an excellent way to help them understand why they should care about prisoners and how they can help.
Pat Nolan’s book, "When Prisoners Return", is published by Xulon Press, and is available at Amazon.com.