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Religion writers told there are good stories in prison

5/4/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Prison inmates who take part in religious programs inside prisons are less likely to go back to crime when they get out, but they are confronted by "challenges that never stop," members of the Associated Church Press learned April 25.

A panel addressing the religion reporters and editors of the organization met April 23-26 at the Florida Mall Conference Center in Orlando, Florida. Associated Church Press (ACP) was started by a group of ecumenical editors in 1916.

The panel included Alex S. Taylor, head of chaplaincy services of the Florida Department of Corrections; Paul McGlong, director of development for Kairos Prison Ministry International, Inc.; former prison warden Christine Money, now a reentry expert with the Ohio Department of Youth Services, and Val Hymes, editor of the Prison Ministry Task Force network for the Diocese of Maryland. Kathleen Kastilahn, an editor of The Lutheran, moderated the panel.

"Did you know that in many states ex-offenders with drug felony records cannot get food stamps for their families?" asked Hymes, who edits criminal justice news briefs for 250 members of the Prison Ministry Network. "Did you know that many ex-offenders cannot move into public housing, get student loans, become barbers, hair stylists, embalmers, pest controllers, landscapers or even work in nursing homes or day care?

"Some ex-felons are not allowed to vote or drive," she added, urging attendees to find out what their states are doing. She also recommended joining their churches' national lobbying effort such as the Episcopal Public Policy Network of the Episcopal Church (EPPN link at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/eppn.htm) to have a voice in issues in Washington. The Second Chance Innocence Act in Congress that would focus on drug treatment and mentoring for ex-offenders is not moving, she added.

"Barriers to employment are found in state laws, formal and informal policies, and even in the practices of agency officials," say the findings of the Florida Governor's Ex-Offender Task Force Preliminary Report.

The report also recommended that Governor Jeb Bush issue an executive order for a review of all those laws, policies and practices that disqualify ex-offenders and ask for case-by-case relief from "disqualification based on the individual's showing of rehabilitation."

Money said religious programs like Kairos has cut violence and recidivism. "Kairos works," she said, "Because the volunteers come back. The inmates are showered with unconditional love. The prison culture changed; the labor unions jumped on board; the staff began treating the inmates differently."

Glong of Kairos Prison Ministry International, Inc., said 30,000 volunteers have gone into prisons all over the world and have proved that the ministry works to stop repeated crime. Many ex-offenders return as volunteers.

The three-day weekend is a short course in Christianity that welcomes other religions and also ministers to teenagers inmates with Kairos Torch and to families with Kairos Outside.

"Something works," said Taylor.

A study of Florida inmates who attended chapel programs showed they had a dramatic drop in disciplinary reports and "recommitment" to prison after release. But, he added, they face many hurdles, such as getting IDs and drivers' licenses, for example.

Faith-based dorms, which are facing court challenges in some states, have a "hothouse effect. The inmates go from outlaws to law seekers," he said.

The panelists urged the religion writers to cover the good stories as well as the bad in prisons, noting as examples those who train dogs for adoption and to assist people with disabilities, knit for babies and the dying, those who create beautiful art and music and raise money for research.

"The church has the potential to stop crime," said Money, "as healthy lives overlap broken lives."