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"Ask and you will receive": creating faith-based programs for former inmates.

Inmate reentry has become a pressing issue throughout the nation, especially since ex-inmates are returning home in large numbers, having spent longer terms behind bars. To combat recidivism effectively, parole and probation agencies must understand and counteract the causes of criminality, address the problems that plague ex-inmates, and help meet ex-inmates' needs.


In New Jersey, more than 70,000 inmates will be released in the next five years. Unfortunately, the great majority of them will be unprepared for re-integration and will return to their communities with disproportionately high rates of addiction, illness, limited education, inadequate work skills and experience, and little or no preparation, support or assistance for their transition to community living. As a result, many will commit new offenses. (1)

Most of the factors that predict recidivism--anti-social behaviors, anti-social peers, poor self-control, lack of pro-social problem-solving skills and family dysfunction--relate to the absence of pro-social morals or values and the inability of offenders to conform to the laws governing society and accepted notions of right and wrong. (2) Research supports the proposition that religious beliefs are inversely related to delinquency, crime and recidivism. (3) According to the Re-Entry Policy Council, faith-based programs can help create the conditions for personal transformation, provide inspiration and contribute to successful reentry. (4) Ministers, imams, priests, rabbis, mentors, faith fellowship groups and people of good will are uniquely qualified to help parolees replace anti-social values with pro-social values; counteract the negative and harmful influences of anti-social peers; encourage parolees and probationers to accept responsibility for their actions; help them respond positively to crises and problems; and help restore family connections.


There are four major "plagues" afflicting offenders in the criminal justice system that prevent or retard successful offender re-integration into society: substance abuse, illness, ignorance and immorality. The most devastating of these is alcohol and drug abuse, which is tied to child and spousal abuse, violent crime, rape, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, family breakup and divorce, school dropout and failure, debilitating accidents, and job loss. (5)

In addition to the myriad problems that these four plagues present, newly released inmates have critical needs that place significant barriers in the path to reentry. The most pressing of these are jobs, housing and transportation.

Parole and probation authorities have various programs that address these plagues and needs, but those working in parole and probation cannot do the job alone. Authorities must recognize their limitations and augment their efforts by employing inmate reentry partnership strategies involving faith-based entities and individual volunteers.

Faith-based institutions can offer a wealth of resources, services and ministries in the communities to which ex-inmates return. For many years, they have been involved in the work of helping ex-inmates and their families cope with the effects of incarceration and return. It is important to note that some of the most active and influential faith-based institutions are located in communities hardest hit by the cycle of imprisonment, release and reincarceration. Where traditional public and nonprofit programs may not be able to reach the most at-risk former inmates in poor communities, well-established churches and other faith-based institutions can fill this void with social, education and employment services. (6)

There are several restrictions, however, that limit the ability of a parole board or probation department to tap into these resources and establish meaningful faith-based programs for parolees and probationers. Government agencies are constitutionally prohibited from promoting, encouraging, favoring or proselytizing for any particular religious organization, religion, sect or other faith-based belief system. In addition, parolees and probationers cannot be required to participate in faith-based programs and initiatives. Beyond these basic prohibitions, there are fiscal constraints that limit the amount of funding available to faith-based entities.


The New Jersey State Parole Board has learned that people of good will have been waiting to lend a helping hand--but have never been asked. It turns out that the most effective faith-based inmate reentry partnership strategy is to communicate the core principle that it is not only the job of the parole or probation agency but also the job of faith-based entities and compassionate citizens in every community to care about the ex-inmates returning to their neighborhoods. It is in everyone's interest to actively promote successful re-integration of ex-inmates into society.

In 2004, the New Jersey State Parole Board created a Community Partnership Unit. Its mission is to forge alliances with various community groups, religious and faith-based entities, and volunteers to assist parolees in the reentry process, thus reducing recidivism. The Community Partnership Unit and various educational institutions, churches and local businesses have co-sponsored community partnership conferences in major cities such as Newark, Camden, Paterson, Jersey City, Atlantic City and several smaller areas as well. There is no fee or charge for participation or for the refreshments provided by the co-sponsors. During an introductory plenary session, the impact of recidivism on the host community is described, and the problems and challenges of reentry are thoroughly explained. The attendees then participate in workshops focused on critical inmate reentry issues such as homelessness, education, employment, physical and mental illness, addiction, gang reduction, faith-based partnerships, and family restoration.

At the end of the workshops, the attendees are asked to join local task forces to develop local solutions to the problems discussed. A member of the Community Partnership Unit is then assigned to each task force to schedule and staff periodic meetings, maintain momentum by providing information and resources, and pursue the opportunities presented by local networking. To encourage individuals from the faith-based community to join the task forces, the parole board challenged the faith-based community to respond to a "parole board altar call" to help combat immorality by changing the hearts and minds of at-risk parolees. This appeal has resulted in the establishment of faith-based task forces in every region of the state.

The most successful initiative emerging from these faith-based task forces has been an interdenominational, Bible-based, Christian outreach and restoration ministry called The Most Excellent Way (TMEW, Ministers, priests, church leaders and congregants throughout the state have embraced this ministry. TMEW provides group counseling on alternatives to chemical dependency, with an emphasis on the redemptive power of faith. It focuses on the process of permanent change, from the inside, of compulsive habits and self-centered behavior. It encourages self-examination, mental renewal and spiritual transformation based on the ministry's 10 Attitudes of Victorious Living: humility, repentance, submissiveness, honesty, mercy, obedience, reconciliation, faith, perseverance and service.

Few parolees have dropped out of the ministry, and the recidivism rate of successful completers is very low. These remarkable results are attributed to an environment in which participants can freely express their faith and grow in fellowship with others through support groups. As the Re-Entry Policy Council has observed, "The example of others who have faced similar challenges and succeeded, the permission to talk about personal issues with and form attachments to a group of peers, a sense of religious faith or other forms of inspiration can support an individual's mental resolve to complete a rigorous substance-abuse treatment regimen, to get and maintain a job or to peacefully manage family conflicts."

Studies of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and ministries, such as TMEW, by physicians and experts on drug and alcohol addiction have documented that religion and spirituality can play a powerful role in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and the maintenance of sobriety. Because religion often gives meaning and purpose to life, religious people are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Prayer, meditation and spiritual experiences have been found to have health benefits, producing a psychological and physical reaction that satisfies particular spiritual, physical and mental needs. These activities provide a sense of belonging and purpose for adults and serve as a protective factor in both prevention and recovery. (7)

The primary reason the New Jersey Parole Board's faith-based outreach has been successful is that TMEW substance-abuse counseling and group therapy has been coupled with specific, concrete responses to the needs of ex-inmates. Churches, mosques, synagogues and charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Jewish Family and Children's Services, have answered prayers by helping parolees in many different ways such as providing:

* Grants and loans for rental security deposits;

* Temporary housing in unused church facilities and in the homes of church members;

* Job-readiness training and referrals;

* Transportation using church vehicles to work, medical appointments, parole offices, and social service offices and facilities;

* Donations of used vehicles;

* Gifts of clothing, food and furnishings;

* Free haircuts and beauty treatments; and

* Free medical and dental care.

In addition to working with TMEW, the parole board has formed a series of faith-based partnerships to provide a mentoring program. Mentors from the community can develop relationships with parolees and probationers that can help them invest in treatment programs or see their behavior from a new perspective. In fact, mentoring programs have proved to have a significant effect on recidivism reduction. (8) To ensure that these relationships support the goals of the criminal justice system, mentors should receive appropriate training and fully understand their relationship to correctional authorities as well as to the greater law enforcement community, the Re-Entry Policy Council reports. Fortunately, excellent training programs and materials are available from Prison Fellowship Ministries (


Another important initiative emerging from the faith-based task forces relates to restoration of driver's licenses. Many parolees have had their driver's licenses suspended because of drug or other offenses. Unable to pay accumulated motor vehicle fines and insurance surcharges, they have difficulty restoring their driving privileges. Churches are pooling donations to help parolees pay off these obligations.

During the past three years, the community outreach efforts of the Community Partnership Unit have secured for parolees more than 800 jobs and have garnered in-kind services, financial assistance and donations worth more than $7 million--at no cost to New Jersey taxpayers. While this is a modest sum in relation to the parole board's total budget, it represents a substantial involvement on the part of the communities to which ex-inmates return. In the face of high recidivism rates, it makes sense to encourage ex-inmates' participation in faith-based programs that use religion and spirituality to foster substance abuse recovery and help them to cope with and overcome the challenges of reentry.


(1) New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute. 2003. Coming home for good: Meeting the challenge of prisoner reentry in New Jersey, New Jersey Reentry Roundtable final report. Newark, N.J.: New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute.

(2) Latessa, E., F. Cullen and P. Gendreau. 2002. Beyond correctional quackery: Professionalism and the possibility of effective treatment. Federal Probation, 66(2):43-49.

(3) Hirchi, T. 1969. Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Gottfredson, M.R. and T. Hirchi. 1990. A general theory of crime. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

(4) Council of State Governments. 2005. Charting the safe and successful return of prisoners to the community. New York: Re-Entry Policy Council, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

(5) Califano Jr., J.A. 2001. So help me God: Substance abuse, religion and spirituality. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

(6) Solomon, A.L., M. Waul, A. Van Ness and J. Travis. 2005. Outside the walls: A national snapshot of community-based prisoner reentry programs. Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, Urban Institute and Outreach Extensions.

(7) Newberg, A. and E. D'Aquili. 2001. Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Ballantine Books.

Galanter, M. 2002. Healing through social and spiritual affiliation. Psychiatric Services, 53(9):1072-1074.

(8) Tierney, J., J. Grossman and N. Resch. 1995. Making a difference: An impact study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

John D'Amico is former chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board.
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Author:D'Amico, John
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Previous Article:Begin 2008 at the ACA Winter Conference in Grapevine, Texas.
Next Article:Georgia reentry: a transformation in correctional philosophy.

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