Men and women coming home from prison need real, practical support. A reentry specialist talks about how to help.
Nearly 450,000 men and women return from prison every year. There can be many barriers and challenges to overcome on the road to success—especially right after release—but a supportive community can make a huge difference.
Aaron Oda serves as program manager for Gemeinschaft Home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a transitional facility for men and women coming out of incarceration. Gemeinschaft Home is a 90-day program that provides case management, counseling, and reentry services.
We sat down with Aaron to hear about the barriers faced by returning citizens and some practical ways to help. (The following are his personal views and not the official views of Gemeinschaft Home.)
Prison Fellowship: What are the main hurdles you see people face as they are returning from prison?
Aaron Oda: Definitely stigma. I think that returning citizens, just right off the bat, have this label of “felon” and a lot of times, that prohibits them from getting sustainable employment. Adequate housing is also a hurdle. There will be times they apply for apartments and then as soon as they say they've got a record, the apartment agency will take their $50 application fee and then deny them.
There can also be conflict and reconciliation issues that returning citizens face with family coming back. A lot of them state that there has been harm that's been committed, and they're trying to break away from old patterns of behavior and reconcile with family—to show that they're on a good path, to show that they're being honest. They're sometimes just waiting for their family to accept them back into the fold.
Also, a lot of men and women who are incarcerated and coming out of incarceration deal with mental health concerns and drug addiction, and so finding adequate resources for that can be difficult.
Why do you think people are averse to giving others a second chance?
I think the wider community has this image of the typical felon as someone who is deceitful, who isn't loyal. But that's just not the case. I mean, men and women coming out of incarceration are some of the most loyal, hardworking employees.
I think sometimes people in communities, when they don't have person-to-person interaction and intimacy, take stories they have heard and just label everyone that way. That’s why I think it's really important that we come into relationship with men and women who are coming out of incarceration so that we can hear their stories and so that they can paint a new narrative for themselves.
How can community members draw closer to people with a criminal record?
One thing that they can do is just normalize the experiences of people who are coming out. As Christians, we know we all have sinned and we all have committed harm—therefore, we all deserve dignity and second chances. So first of all, we can come alongside someone with that posture.
Also, I think ordinary people can be mentors to those who are coming out. A lot of times they need transportation. They need to know where the bus is running in the city. They need to know how to sign up for Medicaid and health care. I think part of this would be just to reach out to your local reentry organization in town and find out what needs you can help meet as an ordinary citizen.
Also, a lot of times people who are coming out have debt that needs to be paid to the courts. Often a person's probation officer can use community service hours to help lower the amount of their debt.
Something that we do here at Gemeinschaft Home is we regularly try to set people up with community service. People at local churches will tell us, “I need the church cleaned every week” or “We need help setting up for an event in town." They can use our guys, and it's a way for the men not only to get community service hours, but for them to start building relationship in the community. Just from community service, we've had clients who are getting jobs through people they've met, as well as finding mentors and peer specialists.
What should people keep in mind when coming alongside returning citizens?
I would say prepare to be surprised. Men and women who are coming out of incarceration are just like you and me, and it's a great way to develop empathy for someone. I've come to realize that not every choice in life is created equal, that a lot depends on where I'm born, where I grew up, the color of my skin, what economic class I'm from. A lot of people have a lot more barriers than others. Through helping out, volunteering, walking alongside someone, you start to pick up an eye and an ear for this, especially as Christians.
I think it's no mistake that Christ was, before He was crucified, a prisoner. When He was crucified, that was capital punishment. It's just an amazing thing that the God we worship has embodied that experience of these men and women and what they go through. I think when we walk with them, we're seeing the face of God in them and through them.
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