The United States leads the world in producing prisoners. In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the US. Eighty-five percent of these individuals are non-violent offenders who will eventually return home to live in our communities.
Whether we pay higher prices for goods and services as a result of theft, or come into direct contact with someone who has committed a crime, all of us are affected in some way by the actions and decisions of these individuals. We can no longer live with the illusion that if we just put enough bad people behind bars, our society will be safe.
The barriers to successful re-integration are overwhelming for offenders who lack basic education and job skills. Even minimum wage jobs can be out of reach for individuals with a criminal record. An offender can lose everything while incarcerated. Unless there is a family and a job waiting for her, it is unlikely she will secure shelter, furniture, transportation, and medical care without the help of community agencies.
I have seen inmates go through this process multiple times. If a woman has exhausted all of her options for free resources, she may choose to return to an abusive partner who pays the rent and most likely got her in trouble in the first place. If that is not an option, the more resourceful woman will survive the only way she knows how: stealing, selling drugs, or selling herself. If arrested again, she becomes another statistic in a process called recidivism.
Can prison ministry really make a difference? The answer is “yes.” I have seen people turn their lives around because someone cared enough to mentor them. We will not heal every hurt or find a solution to every problem, but I believe Jesus calls us to love the unlovable, share the Gospel, and show mercy to everyone touched by the criminal justice system. The outcome is not our responsibility. The healing comes from him.