Justice Ambassadors With a Criminal Record Are Voicing Their Values and Effecting Change
At Prison Fellowship®, we believe the door is open for culture change in America’s justice system. We advocate for a restorative approach to justice that advances proportional punishment, constructive corrections culture, and second chances. Nationwide, our volunteer network of Justice Ambassadors works to foster relationships with lawmakers, leverage social media, host awareness events, and make lasting change in their churches and communities.
Within this space, we help equip people with firsthand justice system experience to have a seat at the table to voice their values. People who have experienced incarceration have something important to offer their lawmakers who oversee policy on crime and punishment . That’s why we’ve created a special training process for Ambassadors who have been incarcerated. Through an intensive, small group training within the Justice Ambassador program, formerly incarcerated Ambassadors are equipped to amplify their voices, advance legislation, and impact culture as more effective advocates.
Over the course of six months, the participants in this training experience personal, relational, professional, and spiritual development in community with other participants.
A COMMUNITY OF CHANGE
For a long time, Jessie had wanted to get involved with criminal justice reform and advocate for people with a history of incarceration. When he learned about Prison Fellowship, it sounded exactly like what he’d been looking for. He first discovered Prison Fellowship’s advocacy work through a Facebook post.
Jessie knows the burden of a criminal record and the widespread social stigma it brings—a challenge that affects millions of Americans, he points out. Today 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. He says people have often treated him differently after learning about his past.
Those experiences are always in the back of his mind, especially when he meets with lawmakers to advocate for second chances. He recently met with lawmakers to lobby for the EQUAL Act, which would end the disparity in how federal prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine are calculated.
For Jessie, the time he spent learning and growing with others who have a similar background became an opportunity not only to champion justice, but also to build community with people who have similar stories.
“They really became my brothers and sisters,” Jessie says of his cohort. “We’re each other’s biggest fans, just encouraging each other to continue. It’s cool to ‘do life’ together and meet people who are just like you, who are passionate about the same thing.”
THE POWER OF A STORY
Unlike Jessie, Sheena had never served time in prison—but she knew firsthand the challenges of living with a felony record. (The sentence imposed for a felony can vary depending on the circumstances of the crime. In Sheena’s case, she received a five-year suspended sentence with probation.)
Sheena faced many hurdles finding employment and housing where she lives in North Carolina. Spurred by her own struggles, she founded a nonprofit in 2016 to help connect people who have gone through the justice system to health care, education, job training, legal support, and more.
While searching online for more information on these resources, she came across the Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador program and signed up. She later joined the specialized training program.
“I really do believe I’m my brother’s keeper,” Sheena says. “This sense of comradery and lifting up one another has been our strength in this cohort. Strangers came together. We are no longer strangers anymore.”
They are a group with powerful stories, and Sheena quickly discovered the impact of sharing those experiences as part of her advocacy work. She has joined several local TV interviews and shared her story in multiple op-eds, including one in the Greensboro News and Record that caught the attention of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Tillis went on to co-sponsor the EQUAL Act.
“I’ve learned that I can speak before people that I thought were beyond my reach,” says Sheena. “I can make a difference. It’s just opened a lot of doors for me to get my story out to others.”
She adds that, as a Christian, she believes “we are commanded to remember those in prison, and God is a God of justice.”
LEADING THE WAY
As formerly incarcerated Ambassadors foster creativity and comradery, they build and strengthen valuable advocacy skills through tasks like managing volunteer schedules, organizing and hosting film screenings, and conducting legislator meetings. These Justice Ambassadors integrate their own stories with current issues and persuade various audiences to embrace reform, from church members to lawmakers. All of this provides an opportunity to take their advocacy to the next level—a practical way to give back to the community.
Ricky heard about Prison Fellowship while he was in prison. Now released and living in Arizona, he sees his Justice Ambassador journey as a way of stepping into his second chance.
“I became an advocate because I just had a heart to go back to the prisons,” says Ricky. “I was just like, how do I give back?”
When Ricky became a Justice Ambassador, he was looking for the tools to speak up, to “correct oppression,” as Isaiah 1:17 says.
“It’s important to advocate for people who aren’t in a position to advocate for themselves,” says Ricky. “I was given a second chance. If it wasn’t for God, I would still be in a dark place.”
Working with Prison Fellowship staff, he receives detailed lobbying assignments, information on the issues, and other practical support that equips him to make a difference. Every phone call, every meeting, every social media post—all play a role in changing the system for good.
“Being able to talk to people in power and helping them rethink [the] approach in how we sentence people—it’s very important,” he adds. “Having the conversation, that seat at the table, is what’s important to me. We’re getting in the ears of lawmakers and trying to bring justice reform because of our Christian values.”
‘MY VOICE MATTERS’
When people like Jessie, Sheena, and Ricky are empowered to share their stories, advocate for justice, and live out their values in a tangible way, everyone stands to benefit. Their winsome advocacy is changing the narrative for people with a criminal record who deserve to be defined by more than their past.
To anyone considering the Ambassador program and its specialized training for people who have been incarcerated, Sheena says, “You will never be the same. You should join this cohort because you will learn more about yourself. You’ll learn how to come together as a team to get things done. Those aspirations become a way to change your community.”
“It’s given me confidence in knowing my voice matters,” Sheena adds. “I never thought this is where I would be, because of the mistakes I made many, many years ago. Today, at almost 70 years old, for the Lord to be lifting me up in this way … I’m just grateful that my story made a difference.”
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