Society's debtors

After they've "paid their debt," don't ex-prisoners create new costs?

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Walk into any prison or jail in the United States these days, and a dozen tough issues will confront you. Do prisoners have it too easy? Are sentences too long? Should we even use incarceration for nonviolent offenders-or should we emphasize programs of mandatory restitution? Is prison the most suitable remedy for drug-related crimes? The issues are many, big, and hard.

Here's one, though, I imagine you haven't thought about:

The prison population in the United States has doubled over the last dozen years; now one in every 140 Americans is behind bars, an all-time high. Given that most of those more than 2 million people will sooner or later be released, who's getting ready for the social impact of that release?

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Never in the history of humanity have so many formerly incarcerated people been turned loose on the rest of society. Will they be bitter? Violent? Will they have job skills? Will their families accept them back? Will they contribute to society or continue to be a drag?

I sat in a federal prison for several hours last week and talked with three men who've had plenty of time to think about such concerns-and who now are working hard to address them. Charles Murphy, William Aramony, and Sam McMahon are all inmates at the Federal Prison Camp at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, N.C. All three broke federal laws involving the use of other people's money. Mr. Murphy is likely to be released this summer. Mr. Aramony (who once headed the national United Way organization) hopes to be released this fall. Mr. McMahon is about halfway through a 10-year sentence.

Here were three men of unusual competence, demeanor, and initiative. All three had once run their own businesses or organizations. All three had slipped and will carry felony records for the rest of their lives. But now all three also want to do something about what lies ahead for their society.

What Mr. Murphy, Mr. Aramony, and Mr. McMahon have found in prison is a host of inmates unprepared to take their place as productive members of society when they are released. In various ways, they want to address that challenge before it is too late.

Specifically, these men have joined a growing national effort to help inmates prepare for the jobs they will need when they get out of prison. They have joined hands to stage what they call a "Job Search Seminar" and to offer personal mentoring to needy inmates.

Through a typical classroom setting in 50 different federal facilities across the country, the seminar reminds the inmates about the essentials of what employers will be looking for. It helps them build resumés. And it stages a mock "job fair," through which inmates learn interview skills with real-life employers. The interviews are videotaped for playback and critique, and inmates learn to provide straightforward, honest answers to tough questions: "What can you contribute to our company?" and "Have you ever committed a crime?"

"We teach them to drill even while they're brushing their teeth," said Mr. McMahon, "and to keep developing a positive answer to the question why someone would want to hire a felon."

But the really beneficial part of the program, according to these men, comes from the one-on-one mentoring provided by people like themselves. This, mind you, is not an external program being offered to the inside. This is a program largely administered by inmates themselves, serving now as volunteers to offer their assistance to those who were literally their partners in crime. The personal nature of the offer-typically from inmates who are known to have been leaders of society before their imprisonment-adds to the impact.

Mr. McMahon told me: "A prison system, to be managed, must build a compliant spirit among its inmates. The effect on the human spirit, over time, is devastating to a personal sense of worth, to personal initiative, and to hope for a responsible, productive life. The Job Search Seminar rekindles hope and the understanding that, while the inmate is a sinner like the rest of us, God loves and values him, and that he can become a positive, responsible citizen."

The three men with whom I talked also put a heavy emphasis on the role Christians can play in such efforts. Mr. Murphy especially stresses what local churches can do in helping newly released inmates discover their new roles in society. Relationships with such inmates are almost always best established months prior to the release, both with the inmate himself (or herself) and with a local church's support for that inmate's family. Mr. Murphy told me that the "big three" needs of the newly released are "a job, a vehicle, and a place to live." The solutions to all three of those needs are typically within the reach of even a small local church, he said.


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