Welcome Home

by Harold Dean TrulearWelcome

It's a phrase that signifies warmth, acceptance, and belonging. The weary pilgrim, the anxious traveler, the displaced refugee long to hear those words.

But for many Americans, the longing for home will be left largely unsatisfied even upon their return. They are incarcerated men, women, and youth, and they will return to their communities—our communities.

This causes great concern among some who care about youth and young adults in poor communities, because many of these folks return unprepared for life "at home." Indeed, given the high recidivism rates for these populations, concern that their return could increase criminal and violent activity in poor communities is not unwarranted.

Despite government support for prisoner reentry programs, despite laudable philanthropic efforts by organizations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the issue of the reentry of incarcerated persons into mainstream American society remains a blip on the social welfare and policy radar screens of the Christian church—especially those who claim to have laid claim to the moral high ground in our country.

The record numbers of returning ex-offenders bring with them special issues, many of which predate their arrest and incarceration. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 70 percent of the nation's incarcerated have no high school diploma.

The National Alliance of Faith and Justice states that "approximately one-third of prisoners cannot locate an intersection on a street map or identify and enter basic information on an application." They also note that "only one in 20 can determine which bus to take from using a schedule." When one adds to the mix such necessary tasks as obtaining a driver's license, Social Security card, and bank account, life skills taken for granted by many of us present major challenges for those seeking to come "home."
At a conference sponsored by the University of the District of Columbia and the Kingmaker Foundation, an ex-offender talked about how conditioned he had become to prison life: "Somebody tells you when to wake up and go to sleep. They tell you when to eat, when you can study, when you can have recreation. I got so used to waiting for a buzzer to walk through a door that when I got home, I went to a store and stood outside for 20 minutes waiting for a buzzer before I realized I could open the door myself and walk in."

Those who know the criminal justice system agree that three things are necessary to facilitate the readjustment of incarcerated persons into society:

First, they need a place to hang their hat. Many persons in prison have burned their bridges, which makes the return home anywhere from rough to impossible. Families who do receive their loved ones back must make major adjustments. Some families have moved on, wanting nothing to do with the ex-offender. Halfway houses and other facilities receive ex-offenders, but even those places are often overcrowded and under-resourced.

Second, ex-offenders need jobs. Significant obstacles exist in the job market for this population, from legal barring to prejudicial discrimination. Yet employment is a critical component to successful reentry to community and society.

And third, ex-offenders need a community—a group of caring persons who make it their business to be present for those returning "home." Sound like something a church could provide?

While we don't have nearly enough people and communities of faith mobilized to receive returning citizens, many resources are available for those congregations and individuals who do choose to get involved. The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and the National Alliance of Faith and Justice are good sources for model programs and strategies. Emory University professor Robert Franklin talks about ways to improve services for newly released prisoners, cogently arguing the theological mandate for congregations to welcome this population home. Other excellent resources are available from the Reentry National Media Outreach Campaign.

People of goodwill have long decried overcrowded prisons and racial disparities in sentencing and have called for the release of those incarcerated unjustly. These are meaningful endeavors, but if ex-offenders lack the three basic elements of readjustment—housing, employment, and community—how do we expect their release to be good news for either them or the society to which they return? Who will be there to welcome them home?

Harold Dean Trulear is director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice. He has written extensively on issues related to incarceration and is the coeditor of Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward (Judson Press, 2011). A member of the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Trulear is also an associate professor of applied theology at Howard Divinity School in DC and on the pastoral staff of Praise and Glory Tabernacle in Philadelphia, Pa.

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