By Lois Jackson, Wilmington Delaware Council, Voice of the Poor Eastern Region representative
Two Forms of Prison Ministry
In 1995, a SVdP Conference (St. Dismas) started at the men’s prison in Smyrna, DE. In 2001, another SVdP conference (now called Sts. Perpetua and Felicity) started at the women’s prison in New Castle, DE. All voting members are inmates. Volunteers attend their meetings and contribute in many ways. The Vincentian charitable work of both conferences is to distribute personal care products (soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) to the inmates who are unable to purchase them in the commissaries. The SVdP prison ministry supplies the products to the conferences on a regular basis.
In discussion with the conference members at their meetings, volunteers learned that when an inmate is released, he or she often goes out with no resources, not even the basic necessities of life: shelter, clothing, and food. Volunteers began to pick up inmates as they were released and help them obtain emergency shelter, food and clothing. Volunteers quickly realized the need for a separately organized and funded conference and this is how SVdP Prison Ministry started.
Serving ex-offenders is not different than serving any other person who contacts a conference for help, with the exception that ex-offenders bring with them major obstacles to self-sufficiency within the community—a record of recent incarceration.
It became apparent early on that to best serve this particular population, we had to become more inventive in our service methods and have more predictable sources of funds. Some of the new initiatives included:
· Building relationships with the Department of Corrections wardens, treatment services staff, and probation officers
· Building working relations with service providers in the Diocese, public agencies, non-profits and private sector for transitional and emergency housing, employment, social services, therapeutic and other physical supports that help ex-offenders integrate into society
· Building relationships with foundations and other appropriate sources of funding.
We developed a Vincentian-based “home visit” process for interviewing inmates about one month prior to release. The information from the interview helped us to understand their needs after release, and make the transition to the community a little smoother. We gave our cell phone numbers to inmates at the interview to facilitate communication before and after release. We also gave our cell phone numbers and email addresses to Prison counselors and other staff. (We now freely communicate with prison staff by those means.)
When needed, two volunteers pick up the individual at the prison, immediately upon release, and provide the means for them to live safely and to function in the community. Almost all of them still have obligations to the state, such as frequent visits to a probation officer, payment of fines, and the like. We expect the individual to cooperate fully in his or her successful transition back into society.
Vincentians continue to make “home visits” as needed and assist until the individual’s situation has become stable and the person can act independently. We will often remain in touch with the woman or man, in a more personal way, for long after they have become full citizens again.
The prison ministry is an all-volunteer organization with overhead expenses of only 1%, since its startup.
Working towards Systemic Change
Information from justice councils, reentry newsletters and government agencies highlight the enormity of obstacles facing offenders, while incarcerated and after release into the community. Examples of those obstacles for ex-offenders include housing, child support, women and reentry, employment, education. Professionals in the field call them “collateral consequences”; they are tough and can be numerous for just one individual.
SVdP Prison Ministry volunteers were engaged early in effecting systemic change in the assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners. We were invited by Governor Markell to be part of a work group, charged with producing a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of Delaware’s prison population and corrections system, to be submitted within 90 days. The result was a plan called I-ADAPT (Individual Assessment, Discharge and Planning Team). I-ADAPT identifies the barriers, needs, resources, and plan for “sustainable reentry.” It provides five pillars for supporting sustainable reentry: Employment, Education, Housing, Human Services, and Community Integration. The work group submitted its 31-page report to the Governor in April 2009. Recommendations were introduced in the prison system soon thereafter; acceptance and implementation took a little longer.
SVdP Prison Ministry also established two residences for released men. These houses are unique—they admit men who had been in prison for sexual offenses. There are many issues concerning housing for ex-sex offenders—each of us probably conjures up a host of images, conceptions and convictions at just the mention of “sex offender”. Along with society’s general attitudes there are a host of strict laws governing where they may live, including disclosure of their presence to the surrounding community, probationary conditions, and a stigma that might never go away. SVdP-PM stepped out, in the footsteps of St. Vincent, in providing suitable residences for all men. The residences operate about the same as other group houses. There are, of course, house rules; violation of the rules will result in immediate eviction.
This particular work is not without its challenges and surprises—some pleasant and some very frustrating. Often we volunteers have arrived at a prison for an evening conference meeting and are turned away at the front door because all activities have been cancelled and the prison is under lockdown. Sometimes we learn why we were turned away and more often, we never do. Nevertheless, as Vincentians, we Serve In Hope.