“Do you want the man getting out of prison to be in the pew next to you—or in the alley behind you?”
That was the question posed to me the other day by a prisoner I will call Tom. Tom has served over 30 years behind bars and is currently incarcerated at State Correctional Institution—Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania. He helps run a program there called CPR, Christians Preparing for Release, to help men successfully transition into society as committed men of faith. He and a group of “lifers” there devote much of their time to mentoring young men in prison, and in many cases, being the tough but caring father figure they never had.
I was able to see Tom in action recently, as he counseled a young man named Steve awaiting parole. Tom reviewed what it meant to make a commitment to the Lord, covering a wide range of topics including celibacy before marriage to complete financial accountability. During a discussion where he discussed the differences between wants and needs, Tom counseled Steve, “Never make a single purchase, until you pray about it first.”
I was stunned by the charges Steve was promising to abide by. He had been mentored by these older men for years and did not argue with a single point. But more than that, I marveled at the advice itself. Who could imagine state convicts advocating such a strict adherence to their Christian faith?
“Our goal is to make our communities safer by helping these men become the men God intended them to be,” Tom said. “The reason we called the program CPR is because of its relationship to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Medical CPR is about giving someone who was biologically dead a second chance at life. Our program is about giving a second chance to someone who was spiritually dead. We’re hoping to work with churches on the outside who will be willing to welcome a parolee into their congregation and provide fellowship.
One of the recent graduates of the CPR program is a man named Martin, who spent five years at SCI Mahanoy and was released from prison four months ago. “Ironically, it wasn’t until I came to prison that I was exposed to some positive role models,” Martin told me. “That’s the case for a lot of prisoners—most never had a dad, or else their dads exposed them to criminal behavior or went to prison themselves. The CPR mentors can relate to us more than people who didn’t make the mistakes we made. Most of the mentors are serving life sentences and have nothing to gain by helping us. They created this program because they care, and do not want to see us return to prison.”
Martin credits the CPR mentors with giving him the inspiration and faith he needed to make a smooth transition out of prison. “They created a written curriculum that covers just about everything we might encounter out here,” he explained. “But the most important thing they teach is putting God first.” He said the fact that he has already landed a good job, found an apartment and a supportive church, and is enrolled in a local community college is due to their inspired guidance. “Now it’s my turn to give back and honor them for their example.”
Walt, another lifer and CPR mentor, explained what is required of the men being mentored before they can graduate and be recommended for outside support. “They have to regularly attend all meetings, show a genuine commitment to the program and demonstrate enough humility to be teachable. They also have to be upfront about their crime and accept full accountability for it. Then when we think they are ready, we submit their name to the prison chaplain and he has to agree with our assessment or they will not be referred to any outside congregation. That’s to protect the community churches,” he explained. “We see the church as our family. We would never refer anyone who would be a detriment to that family in any way.”
“I look at it this way,” Tom said. “We were a part of the problem once. Now we want to be part of the solution. Hopefully, the churches in our local communities will help us finish the work we are trying to do to make our neighborhoods safer.”
Cindy Sanford is the author of Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’ Visit her website at letters2alifer.blogspot.com.