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Prison ministers see political winds shift towards re-entry, training

By Val Hymes
ENS 050604-1

Val Hymes
The Rev. Jackie Means, national director of prison ministries, left, and Bishop Suffragan Rayford High of the Diocese of Texas, right, hosted the 8th national prison ministry conference.  Former Oklahoma prison inmate and author Bo Cox, center, led meditations for the conference.
   (Val Hymes)

[Episcopal News Service]  News of a shift in political attitudes toward criminal justice reform marked the 8th National Prison Ministry Conference, held April 29-May 1, 2004.

Nearly 90 lay and clergy ministers traveled to the gathering, entitled ‘Engage in God’s Mission: Serving All His People,’ held at the Camp Allen Conference and Retreat Center in the Diocese of Texas.

“The political winds are turning,” reported Joan Burnham, executive director, Texas Inmate Families Association.

Corrections officials from Texas--the state leading in executions--said they now are convinced that rehabilitation and re-entry programs do more to enhance public safety than treating inmates like caged animals, as critics charge.

About 650,000 prisoners are released in the nation annually. Currently, more than 60 percent return to prison within three years.

New buzzword: re-entry

“The public is increasingly unsure that we--governors, legislators, corrections authorities--are achieving what we want” in prisons, said Christina Melon-Crain, chair, Texas Board of Criminal Justice. “Re-entry is our new buzz word, nationally and locally.”

“Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor,” she added. “The president has dedicated $300 million toward a prisoner re-entry initiative.”

President Bush said in January that the money would go to expand job training and placement services and to provide transitional housing and mentoring, including help “from faith-based groups.”

It was not all good news.

Chaplain Vance Drum, an officer of the American Correctional Chaplains
Association, said prison wardens are becoming “more open to treatment and rehabilitation,” but substance abuse programs “have floundered” because of budget slashing.

The longest-serving chaplain in Texas, Drum said his state has also cut the number of chaplains from 144 to 91, adding, “It’s only because of the volunteers that we can succeed.” The programs they bring in “serve as cocoons for aftercare” and re-entry. Those cuts are happening nationwide while more prisons are under construction.

More than one speaker referred to the “booming prison business” that has become an economic engine for some states. Chaplain Drum said, “There’s a nationwide growing movement of lay prison ministry” to counter it.

But Boone Vastine, the vice chair of Texas Juvenile Justice Ministries, said the church is failing its children by focusing on pro-life issues only for the unborn.

“Once a child is brought into the world,” said Vastine, “the church tends to walk away. If they have value in the womb, why don’t they have it in the world?” He said the cost of imprisoning a juvenile is $50-60,000 a year. “The faith community is uniquely qualified to teach at-risk children what love is” before they go to prison.

‘Real shot at influence’

Many of the solutions to these problems are stalled in the nation’s capital.

“Washington is so polarized now, we can win or lose an issue by just one vote,” said John Johnson IV, chief of domestic policy for the church’s Office of Government Relations. There are only 10 Episcopalians in the Senate and 35 in the House of Representatives, almost evenly divided by party, he said.

“But Episcopalians have a real shot at influencing national policy. We have a lot to bring to the table--credibility, constituency and the ability to pounce on an opportunity when it appears.”

He cited bills to repeal mandatory minimum sentences as such an opportunity because some conservatives and liberals and two Supreme Court justices are opposed to them.

Death penalty legislation “needs to be reformed before abolition is possible,” he added, by, for example, “supporting good legal representation for defendants, rather than going to the lowest bidder.”

“We need to form very deep and broad coalitions,” he said, urging Episcopalians to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network. []

‘Made new by the way you treated me’

The conference was hosted by Bishop Suffragan Rayford High of Texas and the Rev. Jackie Means, director of Prison Ministry and Criminal Justice officer for the Episcopal Church. It was chaired by Edwin Davis, coordinator, Restorative Justice Ministries, Diocese of Texas. Musician Cindy Bishop ministered to the conference and the Rev. James C. Morgan, chaplain and rector, St. Stephen’s, Huntsville, Texas, led the worship.

Nearly 20 workshops described ministries focusing on prisoners, victims, families, children, chaplains, prison officers, transitional care, addictions and alternative sentencing. A Eucharist, Texas two-step dancing, and networking rounded out the conference.

Meditations by Bo Cox, former Oklahoma prison inmate and author of ‘God Is Not in the Thesaurus,’ began and ended sessions.

“I wasn’t healed, delivered, restored, saved and redeemed by people telling me about God. I was made new by the way you treated me. “Can you show that you care? If you can, then you’re in the right place,” said Cox.

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