One - Revisited

“I am trying to prepare myself for the outside life but how do I do that when I don’t even know what it is or how to expect it,” a man named Rocky wrote to Marie Hamilton shortly before his release from prison. “Believe it or not I don’t know if I want to come out there. Right now I am thinking about turning down parole. . . . Everyone has fears and this one of mines now. If I had someone I could talk to maybe I would feel differently…”

Someone to talk to. For many incarcerated men and women, that becomes an impossible dream as friends and loved ones drift away or cut off contact, especially during a long incarceration.

Numerous studies over the past 30 years have shown that inmates who maintain positive connections with people on the “outside” during their incarceration have a much greater chance of success upon release. Yet, a national survey of State prisoners conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated that about 2/3rds of inmates don’t receive visits from anyone on the outside other than (occasionally) attorneys.

In Minnesota, this is where a non-profit restorative justice organization called AMICUS (Latin for “friend”) comes in. Through their “One to One” program, AMICUS connects individuals in the community one-to-one with incarcerated men and women, to visit them in prison and provide them with positive relationships and a connection to the world outside of prison.

“One to One” started in 1967, when one county judge befriended one prison inmate and together, the two men created this simple, yet powerful program. It has become the longest-running and most-cherished program at AMICUS, touching the lives of thousands of inmates and community members alike.

As with the PrayerMates program that Marie Hamilton created (which also puts the power of one-to-one connections to work), community participants in One to One feel they get as much or more than they give to their incarcerated friends. Many of the One to One pairs at AMICUS have maintained a friendship over years, even decades.

AMICUS also offers specialized support groups and services for adult female offenders and girls in the juvenile justice system, as well as one-to-one reentry support and services through their “Reconnect” program. Reconnect provides information, referrals and resources to people coming out of prison to help them overcome numerous barriers to success on the outside, including assistance finding housing, employment, transportation, even basics like clothing and food.

AMICUS partners with the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Transition Coalition and was instrumental in creating the MNDOC’s pilot program of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a successful nationally-recognized approach to “substantially reduce the risk of future sexual victimization by supporting people convicted of sexual offenses as they reenter the community and lead responsible, productive, and accountable lives.” Circles of Support and Accountability operate on a “small group” principle, where a small circle of people from the community support one returning offender.

Individuals and small groups who are willing to reach out to support someone trying to get their life back on track after incarceration can have a profound impact.

But of course, that assumes there are plenty of individuals and small groups who are even WILLING to reach out to someone who has been incarcerated – which may be a naive (and faulty) assumption to begin with. Many people want those who have committed crimes to stay as far away as possible, even after the person has served their time in prison. “Not in my backyard,” some say (NIMBY) as they keep “those people” at arm’s length or, worse, run them out of the neighborhood with personal attacks, picketing, protests, hate mail, threats and other tactics.

So, why would we, why should we reach out to those who have committed crimes to support them as they try to return to the community? It’s scary. Risky. What if they con us? Take advantage? Or worse?

Well, for one thing, by supporting them and offering our help, we can help give them a better chance at successfully re-integrating and thereby keep our communities safer.

By surrounding someone who has been incarcerated with concerned, compassionate people who are willing to say, “How can we help you to be successful?” we increase the odds that they WILL succeed and we reduce the chances that they will be driven back to a life of crime. If we isolate and ostracize them, we almost guarantee their failure and hence, we increase the potential risk to ourselves, our children, our homes and communities.

And, of course, there’s another compelling reason that arises out of nearly every major faith tradition in the world. The Golden Rule. “Do unto others.” Whatever you call it, it’s the basic idea that each human being is worthy of compassion and dignity. Each of us is called to reach out to our fellow human beings with love and respect and to humbly remember that, as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I think faith communities – churches, synagogues, mosques and others – have a critical role to play in this effort of “reaching out.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in their excellent publication, Balancing Justice with Mercy: An Interfaith Guide for Creating Healing Communities, points out that if each faith community in the US was willing to reach out to just two people returning to the community from prison, or two people about to go to prison, or six people who are currently incarcerated, then, “every man, woman and youth facing the pain of imprisonment and the challenge of coming home would be cared for.” They also suggest looking around right in your own faith community, neighborhood, workplace, school or family – the odds are there’s someone there who needs this kind of compassionate support.

The challenges and problems in the criminal justice system are undeniably complex, overwhelming, huge. Yet, meeting and talking with the good folks at AMICUS reminded me of the importance of starting small and the powerful difference each of us can make, one person at a time, if only we are willing.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Are you willing to reach out to just one person who is struggling to get his or her life on track? If not, what fears and concerns do you have and how might you address them? If so, how might you be a friend or support or make a positive difference for them?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice book tour healing communities

Next: Interviews on RJ, prison reform, Brethren roots and other good stuff

Previous: Imagine