Sunday, April 19, 2009

Prison Ministries Fundraiser

Tonight was the night of my guest appearance on the panel for the Good New Jail & Prison Ministry fundraiser. This has become a crucial time for the organization since all charitable donations are down in this economy. This program is one that is entirely donation based, accepting no grants or government funds, so the ability to garner donations is critical to the services they provide.

The panel consisted of a real mixed bag: myself as mayor of the town, the chief of police, the county sheriff, the assistant warden at the prison, the pastor of a local church, and an ex-con who is now an ordained minister at a church about 50 miles from here. We were asked three questions and each person got a couple of minutes to give their answers to each question. It was amusing because the panel was seated up on the ballroom stage, towering over the audience seated on the ballroom floor. So after our meal of prime rib and stir fry, we panelists traipsed up on stage to entertain the audience before the real motivational speakers and the auctions got underway.

The questions and my summary of the responses ran as follows (please note that the chaplain that wrote the questions was a a bit over the top in his wording, but we all gleaned the real intent) :

Good News Jail & Prison Ministry was invited by the Department of Corrections to establish quality trained chaplains to serve as non-paid staff. Give your view, based on the economic climate of today, of the chaplaincy at the XXX Correctional Facility?

The assistant warden had the most telling things to say on this topic. She had the interesting statistics about the lowered rates of violence and the lessened discipline problems in the areas where chaplains serve. She (the AW) also brought up the fact that the chaplains work with the staff. Prison workers tend to have high stress and high domestic violence rates because of the spill over from the work environment. Chaplains help reduce that stress and make it easier to retain good staff. I have to admit that i had not thought of that aspect.

My main point was that having a full time professional chaplaincy supported by groups on the outside supplied hope and a connection to humanity for the prisoners. I have been inside the prison a number of times, usually to speak at graduation ceremonies and/or to meet with staff about programs that have a community interface. The prsion is also a customer of the city as they buy their water and sewer services from us. The environment on the inside is intentionlly designed to isolate and remove hope. Knowing that someone, anyone, cared enough to supply a chaplain is often the difference maker in the prisoners' attitudes.

Given that XXX Correctional facility is the largest prison in Colorado; what value do you see from qualified chaplains serving behind the walls?
Offenders returning to society, what value do you place upon Faith Based Programs in the jail and prison? How do we stop the cycle of recidivism?

There was a spectrum of answers given to this topic, so I'm going to stick to what I had to say. I doubt I could do justice to all the others' views. (Although we all did comment that the size of the prison had little to do with the issues at hand.)

I concentrated on the fact that the chaplains are one of the few groups working hard to prepare the prisoners to leave the prison environment and thrive in the real world. Those preparations include:
  • Introduction to a moral system - many prisoners have no moral system when they enter, especially how to treat others and expect others to treat you.
  • Introduction to the skills of planning and calendaring and preparing. In prison, life is not under your control and very regimented. Many prisoners do well in that environment and then fail in the real world. Many times it is because they have never learned to schedule their own time and efforts. The chaplains teach classes in how to do that even within the confines of the prison system.
  • Introduction to an accepting community of faith. Many prisoners feel that no one will ever care about them as people again. Just the fact that there is a community that cares for and about them and can act as a support group helps keep parolees out of trouble.
I also noted that although faith based systems have the lowest measured recidivism rates, the rate is still abysmally high. Prisoners in Colorado who are  part of a faith based system like Good News  have an 85% recidivism rate. Other programs run about 90%. Those that are part of no program run a recidivism rate of 95% or more. To me, that is one of the real glaing problems in the US. No other country in the world imprisons a higher percentage of its population and no other penal system suffers the same abysmal recidivism rate. I cannot fathom a system that has people serve their debt to society, relases them, and sees somewhere between 8 and 10 of every 10 released be re-imprisoned within 2 years.

So that was how i spent my Saturday night - how did you spend yours?


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