“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”— Matthew 25:36
Innumerable dramatizations have made arrest, trial, conviction and prison imaginable to many Americans. Imagination may fall short, however, of picturing what happens after someone is released from prison.
The U.S. will release about 600,000 prisoners back into society this year. At the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, my job is to research people’s experiences with incarceration and reentry, particularly where those experiences intersect with hunger and poverty. In my work, I find Christ’s words from Matthew 25 to be a reminder of the centrality of a second chance to the Christian faith.
Jesus refers to those in prison as if he is one himself. He instructs us to seek him in prison. One way Jesus can be found in prison is through the second chance that reentry provides. For too many formerly incarcerated people, however, reentry is not a second chance but rather a second round of punishment. If we want our civic actions to align with our faith commitments, then ensuring we give true second chances is an essential first step.
Barriers to reentry
Sociologist Bruce Western studies the many barriers formerly incarcerated people experience during their reentry. Issues of mental health, family disintegration, job availability and many more plague those leaving prison and inhibit their ability to create flourishing lives of work, play and rest.
Even finding the money to get to a job interview, probation check-in or homeless shelter can be a challenge when most people leave prison with only $20 to $100 in hand. The difficulties of receiving a true second chance after incarceration are daunting.
In Western’s own words from his book Homeward: “The people we ask to make the largest changes in their lives often have the least capacity to do so.”
Formerly incarcerated people often struggle to find a well-paying job, and thus to find adequate food and shelter among other essential needs.
An interconnected web
Studies have shown that incarceration increases the likelihood of homelessness by nearly 13 times and can double the likelihood of food insecurity. Not surprisingly, the collateral consequences of incarceration also increase the likelihood of food insecurity for the children of currently or formerly incarcerated parents.
“We have begun to assess the intersections of hunger, poverty and reentry. And we have found the overlap between these issues is significant.”
Our work at Baylor is about addressing hunger and poverty. But poverty requires addressing the issues commonly associated with it, as poverty and its manifestations have a cyclical relationship. As our Executive Director Jeremy Everett says, “We often talk about people without health insurance, or people living with hunger, or families in poverty as if there are subgroups dealing with each isolated issue. The reality is that the same families live with all these conditions.”
Through a research partnership between Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty and Prison Entrepreneurship Program, we have begun to assess the intersections of hunger, poverty and reentry. And we have found the overlap between these issues is significant.
Solving hunger means incarceration and reentry cannot be neglected. If reentry is to truly be a second chance for our incarcerated population, then it must involve a comprehensive pathway back into the community.
As it is, however, most find only more punishment when they leave the prison walls.
Despite many studies showing education is one of the greatest preventatives of recidivism, The Vera Institute reported in 2019 that only 27% of prisons offer education to inmates and only 44% offer vocational training. Far too few of the men and women who leave U.S. prisons have received the kind of preparation and support it takes to reenter the world after serving their sentence.
“Far too few of the men and women who leave U.S. prisons have received the kind of preparation and support it takes to reenter the world after serving their sentence.”
Instead of providing productive ways back into society, federal and state governments have enacted nearly 44,000 different restrictions, called “collateral consequences,” on the ways former inmates can access life’s necessities. We have restricted access to housing and food and have even eliminated voting rights for many. And despite difficulty accessing employment, releasees are required to pay probation, parole and court fees.
The cumulative effect of these collateral consequences is to leave a vulnerable population with fewer legal options to access the resources they need.
Prison Entrepreneurship Program describes the impact of collateral consequences thus: “Unemployment, homelessness and incarceration become an inescapable cycle, and with few real options, many men return to a life of crime. Unfortunately, this tragic cycle is why the majority of ex-offenders will commit new crimes within three years of their release from prison.”
Christians can and should step in to end this cycle by advocating for, and providing, true second chances. While the church knows that justice includes visiting prisoners and restoring them to their families and communities, the American justice system is primarily concerned with punishment. And a punitive understanding of justice ignores individual circumstance and leaves little room for grace and restoration.
‘More than the worst thing we’ve ever done’
The carceral system views people by their actions: You are what you have done. But as lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” To me, as a Christian, I read this to say redemption happens when our past is not used to define us. If Christians are to practice God’s restorative work, we can start by making ways for the prisoner to return to community.
“The work of reentry programs is providing a true second chance.”
The work of reentry programs is providing a true second chance. Prison Entrepreneurship Program has done this by offering education, training, mentoring and more. They have been able to show God’s grace to many by doing so.
As Bryan Kelley says of his own experience, “I (served) as a peer-educator for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, helping men turn their lives around and preparing them for successful reentry (while in) prison by empowering them with a new set of skills and a new network of support.”
But giving a second chance is not restricted to those in nonprofit reentry work. PEP’s work is supported by volunteers who offer to mentor those in prison, who are willing to hire the formerly incarcerated or who simply advocate for laws that make reentry easier. All these are possible in any location.
If Christians are to be bearers of God’s grace to the world, then the prerogative to create equitable and generous reentry pathways is clear.
April is National Second Chance Month, which calls us to think about these needs. But people walk out of the gates of prisons every day of the year. Most of them will find unimaginable barriers to a life of work, play, rest and community.
It does not have to be this way. I pray the church will be a part of creating true second chances for those who need them.
Elijah Tanner is a project specialist for Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty’s criminal justice projects. His work involves researching incarceration and post-incarceration experiences in America, as well as effective strategies for reentry programs. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and an MBA and master of divinity degree from Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and George W. Truett Theological Seminary in 2021. He and his wife have a 1-year-old son. They live in Waco and are members of Day Spring Baptist Church.
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