"Family Is Most Important"

shutterstock_156012080Helping prisoners and their loved ones stay connected

Well over 2 million people are housed in our nation's correctional system today. Although 2012 saw some of the highest rates of release, the recidivism rate for offenders is near 50 percent.  How can the church respond to this alarming situation?

We spoke with Fran Bolin, executive director of Assisting Families of Inmates (AFOI), based in Richmond, Va., to learn from their decades of experience working both with families of offenders and returning citizens.

Tell us about the work of Assisting Families of Inmates.

Fran Bolin: The AFOI mission is to prevent the breakdown of relationships among inmates and their families by providing regular and meaningful visitation, support, and education services. Our services help prepare families for a successful transition when the returning citizen is released from prison.

AFOI was started in 1978 under the name Prison Visitation Project by a man named Tom Edmonds. Tom organized several downtown area churches, and members of those churches used their personal vehicles to drive family members out to "State Farm"—a group of prisons in Powhatan and Goochland, Va. As church volunteers took the family members out to the prisons, another group of volunteers remained at Second Presbyterian Church preparing a dinner for their return.  When the families came back, they ate and had fellowship together.

This ministry was incorporated in 1980 as the Prison Visitation Project.  The ministry grew to the point that 15-passenger rental vans were driven by volunteer drivers.  By the early '90s, these volunteers were taking families to visit about 14 prisons.  With that volume, more services—such as case management, referrals, and utility assistance—were needed.  There was a true focus on helping the families of inmates as well as those imprisoned themselves.  At that time, the name changed to Prison Family Support Services to better reflect the support services offered.

Since 2001, the year I came, we've had a contract with James River charter bus lines. The first three Saturdays of each month we go to four or five different prisons.  We carry an average of about 100 people each Saturday. We still have volunteer organizations that come in and provide meals for families when they return to our site.

In the early '90s we started looking at technology and the needs of families who live very far from their inmates.  After some research, AFOI provided the first successful technological visit between Virginia's families and inmates housed at that time at a Texas detention center.

Currently, we have video equipment set up at AFOI as well as at the prisons, and then video stations are set up in three other churches in Roanoke, Norfolk, and Alexandria. Thanks to our volunteers, we are currently serving 11—soon to be 12—prisons with video visitation. The busiest sites are in Norfolk and Alexandria, for families whose loved ones are at Red Onion and Keen Mountain State Prisons, which are a six- to seven-hour drive away.

Have you seen any signs of positive change in the criminal justice system since starting this work?

Bolin: I have seen that leaders in the Virginia Department of Corrections are turning their focus onto reentry. We cannot keep building prisons and holding people so long without considering how they might be effectively reintegrated into the community. Because the reality in Virginia is that upon release they're given $25 and a bus ticket, and then they're out on the street, it's difficult for an ex-offender to get a job, to find an employer willing to take a chance on them.  And if they haven't taken any classes or gained skills while behind bars, they really don't have a lot to fall back on except what got them incarcerated in the first place.

We've joined with representatives from different departments to form local reentry councils to help returning citizens network.  These councils are spread throughout Virginia and have been working really well. It's finally starting to click that ex-offenders truly need help when they go home so that they don't get stuck in a repeating pattern.  It also helps the community at large. Unless we assist them in becoming successful members of the community, returning citizens may reoffend and become a potential costly threat within our community.

What do you hope a family experiences with AFOI?

Bolin: I hope they experience a sense of compassion that they might not get within the system.  Our staff is constantly thinking about impacts and how we communicate with families and inmates.  Sometimes those who work within the criminal justice system are so overloaded they simply can't care for people the way they should.  We help families navigate a difficult system. We often hear things like, "Thank you for making a way for us to see him or her and give them a hug."

Some people think that housing is the most important thing for the returning citizen. Some will say employment is the most important. But we say that family is most important—if you don't have healthy people to connect with when you get home, what do you have?  Where are you going to live?  Who's going to get you to your parole appointments?  Who will take you to your job interviews? Family reintegration is the most important element in cutting down recidivism rates.

Can you share any stories that have particularly impacted you while working with AFOI?

Bolin: We have families that travel on a Greyhound bus from as far away as New York or Florida, get off here in Richmond, and take an $8 taxi ride to get to our bus, which costs $12. That's a lot of time and money. There was a retired lady on a fixed income, Eleanor, who flew up from Florida on a Friday to see her son. She had to pay for a hotel in downtown Richmond that night to be there for the Saturday morning bus, but she accidentally flew up on the wrong weekend, and we had no bus service that day. She was very upset and crying. So I thought, "You know, I'm just going to take her."

So I drove down to our headquarters and picked her up. It was three hours to the facility and three hours back after her visit.  I really got to know Eleanor in those six hours, and I learned that her husband—her son's father—had passed away while their son was incarcerated, so he hadn't been able to say goodbye to his father.

Hearing her story really drove home for me the importance of the family and how profound a mother's love is!  Not only did she need to see her son, but she knew he needed the encouragement. Even though she was retired and on a fixed income and at that point her son was in his 50s and suffering with health issues, they were dealing with these issues together in spite of the distance.  It really was a blessing to spend that time with her.

What do you wish the church could understand about our nation's citizens behind bars?

Bolin: It very clearly says in the Bible that you should serve those in prison. By serving those in prison, you should also serve their families.

We have one church base that donates funds and one that donates volunteers, and then one that donates stuffed animals for Christmas.  Christians should donate whatever way they can—not just in money, but in time and in creative ways.  There are so many ways that churches—especially groups of churches—can get involved to make a difference.  The way that we started, as a group of just a handful of churches that really focused in on this one effort—if that could be mirrored in other communities, what a difference we could make!

(Interview by Jennifer Carpenter)

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