Thursday, December 31, 2009

Helping Ex-cons Start Over

The Women Of Block 12 are not always happy to leave jail. Many of them have no place to go. Life on the outside doesn't wait while you're incarcerated. Landlords rent your apartment to someone else, furniture and possessions disappear, another person takes your job - sometimes they take your boyfriend.

Starting over is difficult, if not impossible. Where does the security deposit come from for the new apartment? How do you find a job with no telephone? How do you explain the gaps in your employment? There aren't enough shelters. There's not enough help.

Diana Ortiz spent 22 years in prison. Now she's a job developer at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem. Read her story in the following article by Suzanne Weinstock, "Helping Ex-Cons Start Over."

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Read more about The Women Of Block 12:

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Project Angel Tree - What One Woman Can Do

In 1982, former prisoner Mary Kay Beard began setting up Christmas trees in shopping malls and asking shoppers to donate presents for the children of prisoners. That year, Project Angel Tree gave gifts to 556 Alabama children. Since then, volunteers in churches across the country have given more than 16.5 million gifts for over 8 million children.

But her life wasn't always about giving to others. As a young woman, Mary Kay was known as the "Bonnie Parker" of the south. By the age of 27 she was wanted by both federal and state authorities for armed robbery. Her specialty was guns. Captured and convicted, she was sentenced to 21 years in an Alabama prison. There she said, she watched other inmates wrap items such as bars of soap, toothpaste and shampoo (all obtained from local charities) as presents for their children. She vowed to do something about it. The result of her vision is Project Angel Tree, a nationwide charity, sponsored by Prison Fellowship.

Listen to May Kay's amazing story at:

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For more stories about women in prison visit my website:

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Educating Prisoners

Six out of 10 U.S. inmates go to prison without a high school education - a factor that weighs heavily in the numbers of offenders who return to the system.

But one Salem, Oregon business man is doing his part to change that. He has donated nearly $294,000 to help prisoners get a college education because "He believes government can't do everything and private citizens need to step up."

As a result of his generosity, nearly 100 students in three Oregon correctional institutions are enrolled in college courses. The average grade point for all of these students over the past 2 years has been 3.4.

Read the entire article: Anonymous donor helps pay bill for prisoners to go to college behind bars by Susan Goldsmith at:

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Visit my website at:

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Awful Plight Of Pregnant Prisoners

"The lack of common sense and compassion with which imprisoned pregnant women are treated is chilling" according to an article by Rachel Roth, writer for "The Nation." Women prisoners in the US have often been denied prenatal care, adequate nutrition and hospitalization during pregnancy and birth. Many deliver their children while in shackles. Ms. Roth's article goes on to discuss examples of the dangers incarcerated women face during pregnancy and childbirth.

Read the entire article "How Does Somebody Have a Baby in Jail Without Anybody Noticing?" at:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Christmas Blessing

I had a wonderful surprise today. I met with a woman who wrote her story for my upcoming book, "The Women of Block 12: Voices From A Jail Ministry." Her name is Tesa and she was referred by a "graduate" from my Wednesday Evening Creative Writing group at the jail.

Tesa and I had talked on the phone several times. Today, we met at a local Subway Shop so she could finalize giving me permission to use her work. When she walked in I realized, by her greeting, that she knew me. Then it registered. Tesa had been in the group WAY BACK when it started about 7 years ago!

It's hard to remember all the names and faces. My partner, Jean and I have met hundreds of inmates over the years....and they look so different when I meet them on the street. For one thing, they're not dressed in orange. Sometimes they even have makeup on.

Tesa looks beautiful and healthy. She's a wonderful writer (watch for her story in my book). She's going to school to get her degree in AODA counseling so she can help others. And she plans to continue until she gets her doctorate.

For those of you in prison ministry (or those who are thinking about it), remember God works through you to help people heal. His work is never a waste of your time.

Thank you, Tesa, for hanging in there, for your courage, for the gifts you share.

Thank you for this Christmas Blessing.


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For more information about my upcoming book,
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Decline In US Prison Population

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report earlier this week stating that for the first time in more than three decades, 20 states reported a decline in the number of people in prison during 2008. Across the country, states are sending fewer people to prison as they struggle with the severe economic recession.

These new figures document that the dramatic growth in the U.S. prison population over the past 30 years may be finally leveling off. However, the U.S. rate of incarceration of 754 per 100,000 people remains the highest in the world and about five to eight times that of other industrialized nations.

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Visit my website:

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Prison Punishment And Mental Illness

The number of prisoners who suffer from mental illness is growing dramatically with the increase in prison and jail populations.

According to author, Eve Bender in a November 4th article for Psychiatric News, Prison Punishment Exacerbates Inmates' Psychiatric Illness, the system is creating a more 'severely disturbed' population by failing to provide adequate psychiatric care and punishing inmates with isolation. This practice, which uses segregated housing units (SHU) to separate prisoners from the general population was developed over the past few decades as a way to control prison violence and overcrowding.

Studies indicate individuals who have been segregated have the highest rates of recidivism. Even those inmates with no history of mental illness, suffer from "symptoms of anxiety, confusion, violent outbursts, and even hallucinations" when segregation practices are implemented.

Read more on this topic at:

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Visit my website:

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Alternatives to Prison Are Working

Substance abuse treatment saves lives and taxpayer dollars according to an article by Matt Kelley on

He says, "Put aside the fact that substance abuse treatment saves the lives of people plagued by chronic addiction. The savings to taxpayers ought to be enough to force a reconsideration of policies that haven't worked: It costs $48,000 a year to keep an addict in prison, compared to $4,000 to $5,000 for outpatient treatment."

Read the full article at:

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Prison Hospice Programs

According to Carol McAdoo, a coordinating consultant with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, over 3,000 inmates die each year in prison. More than 75 state and federal prisons now have hospice programs where inmates are trained to give compassionate care to the dying.

Read the full article by Rick Jervis of USA Today at:

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Parents Behind Bars

An estimated 2.4 million children in the United States have a parent behind bars. These children have done nothing wrong, yet they suffer from the consequences of their parent's incarceration.

Incarceration places a strain on family relationships as relatives and spouses struggle to take on the role of parenting. Parents and children may find it difficult to remain connected during the parent's prison sentence. Parents are often incarcerated far from home making visits costly and difficult. Prisons and jail charge 10 times the standard rate for collect phone calls - sometimes the only contact available to families.

Read more in the article "Children Of Prisoners."

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can We Produce Fewer Criminals?

Florida's Coalition for smart justice which met this week discussed the following options for reducing Florida's 33 percent recidivism rate:

• "Re-entry" programs that begin to prepare inmates for their return to society as the end of their sentence approaches.

• Treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse, which affect a large percentage of the prison population.

• "Character-based" programs based on broad networks of community volunteers working with inmates in a structured curriculum."

Read the full article by Howard Troxler in The St. Petersburg Times, Instead of Building More Prisons, Why Not Produce Fewer Criminals?

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Please Visit:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Elderly In Prison

"Elderly prisoners constitute the fastest growing segment of prison populations." according to an article by Stephanie Chen of CNN.

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, indicates the US male prison population (over age 55) grew by 82 per cent between 1999 and 2007.

Some prisons have nursing home and medical units which provide complex medical care to elderly individuals suffering from such ailments as kidney disease, Alzheimers dementia, and diabetes. As a result, states are required to provide more frequent and costlier treatment to this population of aging inmates.

Read the article: Prison Health Care Costs Rise as Inmates Grow Older and Sicker

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Vets Need Drug Treatment, Not Jail

"Treatment, not incarceration, should be the first option for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses.."
According to a recent article by William McMichael of the Navy Times, "substance abuse is the single greatest predictive factor in the incarceration of veterans. There are no solid numbers on how many veterans suffer from drug addiction — just as there are none that nail down the number of veterans currently in prison and county jails."

Read this story at:

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More about women in prison at: http//

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Every Woman

The other night, at jail ministry, we were discussing a work by writer Pamela Redmond Satran. It was originally published in Glamour Magazine under the title: "30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Should Know By The Time She's 30." Pamela admits it's her most famous piece as it has traveled around the internet and been attributed to persons such as Maya Angelou and Hillary Clinton. You can read the original article here:

The women of Block 12 added a few of their own thoughts:

Every Woman Should Know
  • How to recognize when she needs a break from the current stressful situation before she gets overwhelmed.
  • How not to set her goals too high so she doesn't get discouraged - but high enough to feel success.
  • You can't trust everyone you encounter.
  • There is a better purpose in life than being incarcerated.
  • When she needs a man and when she needs space. When she needs someone to do for her and when she can do for herself.
  • Who she is, what she wants and a plan to get it.
  • It's okay to make mistakes but even better to admit them.
  • She's not the only one who's had a broken heart, but she's the only one who can overcome it and move forward.
  • It's all right to need friendship - no one likes to be lonely- but you are never alone.
  • Her husband may not stand beside her 'til death do us part.'
  • Who she is and be secure within her own skin before seeking a permanent relationship.
  • When to say 'yes' and when to say 'no.'
  • How to let go of things that happened in the past.
  • How to forgive herself.
  • How to love herself.
Every Woman Should Have
  • Stability in her life.
  • Goals for her future.
  • Patience.
  • Enough resources of her own without always having to rely on another person.
  • Enough guts to go for any position she wants if she's qualified to do so.
  • A companion when needed, but a spiritual side that's hers alone.
  • A dog or cat. They keep your secrets.
  • Time alone to pat herself on the back and know she's appreciated.
For more information about jail ministry visit:

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Angola Prison Receives A Birthday Gift

"The Angola prison once was called the “bloodiest prison in the nation. When Cain came as warden more than a dozen years ago, he began a campaign to introduce the Gospel to inmates.

A July 2009 state correction systems press release reported that some 2,500 inmates participate in “moral rehabilitation programs” at the prison and that violence is at an all-time low."

Read this fascinating article by Marilyn Stewart of the Baptist Press:

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Random Acts of Kindness

This week, Joyce Meyer asked viewers to participate in a Love Revolution. She defines this as Christians taking their beliefs and putting them into action on a daily basis with random acts of kindness. Joyce suggested that each of us commit to three acts of kindness every day.

She said, "Just think of the impact on our world."

Some of her examples included buying coffee for the next person in line at Starbucks or giving a bigger tip because God tells you to. But she also explained that an act of kindness doesn't have to be monetary. It's something everyone can do. We all encounter individuals who need encouragement, who would like someone to pray with them, or just want a friend to listen.

When I visit the jail on Wednesday nights, I am always amazed how the women inmates minister to others. One might lead the block in prayer every evening. Another takes the time to teach a cellmate how to read so she can understand her Bible. Women who know how to braid hair will spend hours making someone feel pampered and pretty.

This past week a young woman sang a few lines from a song she had heard. Her voice was so beautiful the group cheered and asked her to sing it again.

"I don't know the name of the song," she said. "And I don't know all the words, but it was taught to me by a lady in another jail. She was doing a long sentence and having a hard time. I sang the song to her through the vent every night before she went to sleep."

Random Acts of Kindness.

Let's all join the Love Revolution!

Learn more at:

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Do Drug Courts Really Work?

Several Wisconsin counties now offer Drug Courts as an alternative to jail or prison time for offenders addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. According to an article by Katherine Vinehout in today's Tomah Journal,, The cost per year for an individual in drug court is about $7,500 compared to $28,000 in a Wisconsin prison or $14,000 in a county jail.

Drug court provides long term treatment and court supervision while the individual remains in the community with their family. According to Vinehout, a study by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2007 revealed that "offenders sentenced to traditional probation were 19 times more likely to be re-arrested for drunk driving than a drug court participant."

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Read more about offenders and substance abuse at:


Friday, September 18, 2009

Don't Forget My Name

The other night, at the end of class, a young inmate came up to me and asked if I would write to her when she went to prison. I gave her my address

P.O. Box 666
Mukwonago, WI 53149

and encouraged her to let me know when she arrived at her destination. I also explained that I would keep in contact and send her the handouts from our future classes.

She hugged me goodbye and said, "Don't forget my name!"

Remember the name of someone who is alone or hurting. Lift them up to God in prayer. Both of you will be blessed.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bring It On, God!

Have you heard of Catherine Rohr? She is a young executive who has established a program in a Texas prison to help young men, who are about to be released. She recruits volunteer executives to teach the men to develop business plans that will help them change their lives when they leave prison.

See her website at:

I watched a recent interview of this amazing young woman. She said when God was encouraging her to develop this ministry, she said, "Bring it on, God."

Those are powerful words. If we are bold enough to pray them each morning God will present us with new ways we can serve him with the talents he has given us.

The Women of Block 12: Voices From A Jail Ministry


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where will I sleep?

Several weeks ago, the women of block 12 were discussing how long they had been incarcerated and when they hoped to be released.

One of them said, "I'm getting out in 3 weeks. I should be happy but all I can think about is where will I sleep?"

Homelessness is one of the greatest problems facing ex-offenders. During the time spent in jail or prison, most of them lose their jobs, their homes, their possessions. Starting over is difficult, if not impossible.

Have you read "Under The Overpass" by Mike Yankoski, Multnomah Books, 2005? This young man and his friend Sam crisscrossed the United States living among the homeless for several months. His book is a snapshot of the 3.5 million men and women who live on the streets of America.

Mike challenges all of us to take a long, hard look at the problem of homelessness and to consider what we are called to do. He has many suggestions on how we can help and says, "...I think the most meaningful gift might be your genuine attention and caring."

I couldn't agree more, Mike. We all need genuine attention and caring.

Visit my website:
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Friday, August 14, 2009

What does the Lord require of you?

The prophet Micah tells us: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8).

This past week, when I met with my two friends, Pamela and Joy, they discussed the difficulties they were experiencing on the outside. Their frustrations in finding employment were at the top of the list.
  • The time spent in prison did not prepare them for taking care of themselves once they were out.
  • Employers no longer considered them as candidates for jobs.
  • Tax deductions and Federal bonding programs were not recognized by employers as a benefit.
  • They have no place to live because they have no income.
  • They must pay their parole officer a monthly fee - even when they are not working.
Are we acting justly when we refuse to accept an individual's time spent in prison as payment for their offense?

Read more at:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Old Friends

The other night, I had dinner with two friends, Joy and Pamela, former inmates who contributed their stories to my forthcoming book: The Women of Block 12: Voices From A Jail Ministry. We met six years ago in the early days of my ministry at the county jail. There was no question, in my mind, who taught who. Those beautiful, spirit filled women ministered to their fellow inmates AND to me. I just showed up on Wednesday nights and let God work through them.

Six years later, with prison behind them (for good, I hope) they continued the task of mentoring others. I sat across the table and listened to their excitement in seeing each other again and sharing the memories of their days and nights in Block 12.

"Do you remember how timid Linda was in the beginning?" Joy laughed. "We fixed that."

"Yeah," Pamela said. "We taught her how to fast and pray."

Indeed you did, my friends and I will always be grateful. I love you both!

Visit my website:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Guest Speaker At The Jail

Guest speaker & psychotherapist, Jill Turcott-Nielsen donated her time this past Wednesday to bring hope to the Women of Block 12. Her message: Developing Self-esteem. Thirteen women participated in the hour-long discussion. Their most frequent question - "How can I earn the trust of my family and children after all the things I've done to hurt them?" Jill encouraged the women to look for the gifts that God has given them and rebuild their lives on those strengths.

For more information about Jill and her therapy services visit: Psychology Today

Visit my website: for more information on jail ministry.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Incarceration Generation

"Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school..." according to an article in the July 4th New York Times:

The Women of Block 12 worry about their children and what will happen to them while they are in jail or prison. Some of the children are with grandparents or other relatives. Many live with abusive partners. Others are in the foster system.

The women fear their newborns and infants will not recognize them when they get out or that their older children will be angry at them for leaving. Every Wednesday night, we pray for the children left behind.

When these women return home, will they be better parents? Not unless we help them with the skills they need to support and nurture their families.



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Take 'em to jail attitude doesn't always work with the mentally ill"

Police officers in Yakima County, Washington are participating in training to help them assess the needs of mentally ill individuals according to an article by By Phil Ferolito of the Yakima Herald-Republic. The goal is to divert individuals with mental illness to community treatment programs, a more cost effective and humane alternative to jail.

Mr. Ferlito writes, "Since the 1950s, beds at mental hospitals nationwide have been reduced from more than 500,000 to about 58,000, sending many people who suffer from mental illness into the streets and jails."

Read more about this topic at:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Treatment Instead of Prison - A Cost Effective Alternative

A recent audit of Wisconsin's inmate population identified 31% of prisoners as having some form of mental illness. The Women of Block 12 are no exception. They talk openly about their depression and anxiety or family history of mental illness. Some are aware of more serious diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol believing they are just plain losers.

The issue of undiagnosed, untreated, mental illness is a major problem for our nation's prisons and jails. Punishment of the mentally ill is inhumane and archaic. We need a more effective system of care that prevents incarceration. Communities across the country are exploring treatment alternatives that are proving to be more effective and less expensive.

In a June 26th article from the Albany Times Union, writer Paul Grondal, discusses one program for dealing with mentally ill individuals who would otherwise go to jail.

Please visit my website:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The War On Drugs

The Women of Block 12 rarely discuss their criminal cases but they readily admit to their addictions and the shame of being incarcerated. Over the past 7 years, I have learned the following:

  • The women grieve the things they have lost as a result of their choices - jobs, homes, family ties, reputations, the right to care for their children.
  • For many this is not their first arrest but just one stop in a seemingly endless cycle of substance abuse and incarceration. Their drugs of choice include alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and others.
  • Many are mentally ill and take drugs to self-medicate.
  • They feel helpless to change their circumstances.
  • Most are non-violent offenders incarcerated for crimes related to their addiction.
  • According to the Department of Justice, the Women of Block 12 belong to a growing population of over one million non-violent offenders incarcerated in prisons and jail across the United States. These offenses involve neither harm, nor threat of harm, to a victim.
  • Offenders, such as these women, are hopelessly entangled in "the war on drugs" a flawed system of beliefs and policies that has failed to solve the problem of their criminal activities.
  • There can be no end to the cycle of addiction and incarceration until we see clear to separate those who have social and medical needs from those who are violent offenders.

Do You Remember Me?

One evening, in the visitor's lobby of the jail, a young woman walked up to me. "Linda, do you remember me?" she asked.

I scanned my memory for recognition and before I could answer, she filled me in. "I'm Tanya from Block 12. I was in your class last year. I'm going to college now and I'm doing really good!"

She put her arm around the young girl standing next to her. "Honey, this is one of the ladies who took care of mommy when she was away."

The Tanya I remembered bore no resemblance to the beautifully groomed, self-assured young woman who stood before me. A year ago, in our jail ministry class, she looked like all the others, tired, depressed and dressed in orange. What a joy to see her on the outside!

"I came to visit a friend," she said giving me a hug. "I knew you'd be here tonight. It's Wednesday. You always came on Wednesdays. I can't thank you enough."

You're welcome, Tanya. Your success is all the thanks I need.

Women Offenders

"Women tend to commit less violent offenses and are more known for committing what are commonly referred to as female offenses: prostitution, embezzlement, forgery, and counterfeiting." (Fact Sheet, female Offenders, Terri Adams-Fuller, Institute for public Safety & Justice, 2001).

This is truly a profile of the women we meet in our Jail Ministry group on Wednesday nights. While the women do not share the details of their offenses, they admit to many of the above mentioned crimes. Over the past seven years, many of the women have shared their personal stories for my upcoming book - The Women Of Block 12: Voices From A Jail Ministry.

Read Melissa's story, now posted at

Holy Ground

When I visit the county jail, on Wednesday nights, there is never a time when I feel afraid or threatened. Of course, officers in the control room watch our every move and each volunteer wears an alarm for emergencies. The alarms work very well, by the way. We tend to be careless and set them off from time to time.

But my sense of security comes from another source. Christ calls us to visit him in prison (Matthew 25:36) and I believe he is there when we answer the call.

Music At The Jail

Thirty years ago, I met a praying woman who changed the course of my life and although her name is erased from my memory, her ministry is not. She led a women's prayer group at the church I was attending and taught us how to praise God with words and music. She would offer a prayer and teach us a song (accompanied on her auto harp) - prayer, song, prayer, song until the petitions of everyone in the room were brought before the Lord. Only then would the evening end.

I saved all the copies of those songs. A few years ago, I rediscovered them while rummaging in the bottom of the piano bench, bought myself an auto harp (the new electronic one by Suzuki), practiced awhile, and took it to the jail.

Every Wednesday night we sing our little hearts out and the women tell me it's the best part of our time together. They memorize those songs and take them home to their families or on to prison, sharing them with other inmates.

THANK YOU music and worship lady - whoever you are! You have blessed hundreds with your ministry.

Our Heart's Desire

We had fifteen women in the Wednesday night group. The limit is twelve but I have a hard time saying 'no.' While passing out pencils and notebooks, I commented, to one of the regulars, that some of them might show up for the free stuff.

"Oh, no!" she said. "We discourage that in the block. I tell them not to bother coming to this group unless they want to learn something. "

We read excerpts from Joyce Meyer's new book, 100 Ways to Simplify Your Life. The topic was "Follow Your Heart." They were asked to think about their heart's desire - what God has called them to do.

All fifteen raised their hand to speak. The usual giggling and silliness stopped, for a moment as each listened to the dreams of the others.

"I want to get clean and sober and be an example for others."

" I want to be a good mother."

"I want to be a missionary."

I'd like to join the Peace Corps."

"I want to be a singer on American Idol."

"I'd like to volunteer in a NICU. My children were both preemies."

'I want to build homes for children in Africa."

The responses were both surprising and heartwarming. And while many of those dreams are unrealistic (for now) I believe God put them in their hearts to help them reach for higher goals. And if this moment of dreaming helps the women of Block 12 in their struggle toward sober living I have reached my own heart's desire for the day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Our Nation's Non-Violent Offenders

"Women are the fastest growing and least violent segment of prison and jail populations. 85% are behind bars for non-violent offenses." (John Irwin, Ph.D., Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg, America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners (Washington DC: Justice Policy Institute, March 1999) pgs. 6-7).

THE WOMEN OF BLOCK 12 certainly seem to fit the above criteria. Over the last 7 years I have met several hundred inmates (10 or 12 at a time) who attend our Wednesday evening group. They are housed at the county jail for a variety of reasons: drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, petty theft, DWI, parole violations etc.

None of the women have ever said to me, "I don't belong here." They understand and accept the consequences of breaking the law, but they continue to do it over and over again because their options are limited.

Studies have shown alternative methods (i.e. mental health/substance abuse treatment programs, housing, job training, education opportunities) cost much less and are far more effective in reducing recidivism that locking offenders up for a few months or years and then returning them to the streets with the same coping skills. These women will be our neighbors whether or not we get involved.

Drumming At The Jail

Since the beginning of our ministry, we have been blessed by the talent of several young musicians who volunteered their time teaching the women to drum. Angie, a music therapist got us started several years ago, helped us to chose the right instruments (which our St. Dismas Ministry paid for), and sold everybody on the idea that drumming was great therapy. Next, we had April and more recently Judene and Kristie. Their contributions have been a true blessing!

Drum night (1x per month) is popular - 14 women yesterday. They came to us sad and weary from the stress of living in jail. One has not been outside in the fresh air for 2 years (still waiting for trial and prison). An hour later, everything had changed. We were drumming to our little hearts' content. What a joy to see their faces! We made beautiful music together. The jail captain paid a surprise visit bringing members of her church to watch us. I heard she was smiling!

Thank you, ever so much, Angie, April, Judene & Kristie.

Why Jail Ministry?

People often ask me, "Why Jail Ministry?" Seven years ago, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to write a newsletter for our county jail. You might say I was 'called' to the job - the story can be found in chapter 3 of my upcoming book The Women of Block 12: Voices From a Jail Ministry. A year later, I found myself leading a weekly writing group for women inmates - and I'm still there. It has been the most incredible and rewarding journey of my life.

A recent article by Lois Solomon in the Sun Sentinel talks about faith and character based programs offered by correctional facilities in Florida and other states. She quotes National recidivism rates of 50 - 60% and says that institutions offering such programs are helping to lower the rate of prisoner returns. Preliminary Florida state statistics are indicating recidivism rates as low as 10% for faith-based programs.

Why Jail Ministry? My answer is simple. "I believe it works."

The Women of Block 12

My father used to say, “Those people are cut from a different cloth,” referring to anyone who didn’t act or live the way we did. The phrase was his response to news stories covering crimes of passion, drunk driving accidents, even race riots. It was his excuse for religious wars in the Middle East and the unusual lifestyles of Hippies and Flower Children. With words like, ‘cut from a different cloth,’ Dad somehow justified a person’s actions giving him the benefit of the doubt and placing some burden of guilt on his circumstances. I believe it was a term he used to explain the behaviors of people he didn’t understand and it helped him to make sense of a world that was supposed to be filled with love and kindness.

It was the 1950’s. Our family belonged to a group of educated suburbanites who went to church every week and believed Ozzie and Harriet were our neighbors. Crime was something that happened in the city and people of a ‘different cloth’ rarely crossed our path.

I learned to see myself as better than others and came to define our family and the place we lived as somehow superior. In our neighborhood, people followed the rules – or tried to. Never mind the man who had a heart attack two blocks from home in his girlfriend’s bed or the mother who drove the family car into the garage and closed the door with the engine running. And there was the pastor who favored altar boys and the football coach who slept with cheerleaders. Those were the exceptions. We were different. Our cloth was of a finer grade.

As a child of that culture, I learned to play the ‘judgment game,’ a flawed and cruel custom in which I measured others by the yardstick of my own self-worth. It was easy to play and I’d catch myself practicing whenever I was in the presence of others. On the job, in public, at church, I’d search for comparisons; people who were younger, older, fatter, thinner, smarter, or wealthier. The options were endless and someone always came up the loser.

While my parents served on church committees, I served myself. They taught me to sit in the front pew. I felt safer in the back. From there I could critique the rest of the congregation and give at a distance – checks in the offering plate, groceries for the food pantry – and never touch anyone who was different. Over the years, the burden of these beliefs weighed heavily on my life and I turned inward, pulling my finely woven cloth firmly around me to shut out the world and other hurting people.

God knew I needed a large dose of humility, the kind you swallow when you realize you’re no better than anyone else. So, he called me to ministry at the county jail where I was asked to teach a journaling class. There, in a tiny barber-shop-turned-classroom, I met the women who would change my life forever.

We gathered on Wednesday nights, a mismatched group of strangers crammed into a room just big enough to seat twelve around a table. I handed out paper and pencils to women dressed in orange who lived in suburban mansions, working class row houses and the ghetto. Over the past six years, there have been hundreds of them – mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers. They represent every race, religion and ethnic group in our community.

Any ideas I had about being different have been put to rest. The jail is a great equalizer and the barbershop a melting pot. In that room, no one really cares which neighborhood you come from or the cut of your cloth. We are simply women and the boundaries that separate us have become less defined, ragged, like edges of a torn piece of fabric that you can never quite piece back together.

I came to the jail to be a teacher, but God had other plans. He wanted me to learn. And my instructors are women of a ‘different cloth,’ women who have opened their hearts to teach me about life, faith, and the meaning of friendship.