When Starting Over Needs a Helping Hand

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John LashI found out a few days ago that next week, a dear friend of mine will be released from prison. I plan to pick him up and deliver him to the halfway house where he’ll spend the next nine months. My friend started his prison career when he was 18. Today he is nearly sixty. For more than 35 years he has lived in prison, being told what to do, what to eat, when he could go to the bathroom; told what to do in just about every facet of his life.

Remarkably, he is not institutionalized, though that is rare. Now, you may be tempted to remind me of the old man in the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” who couldn’t handle it on the outside and eventually killed himself. Please don’t. I loved the movie, but it isn’t much of a reflection on the reality of life in prison, or of what it’s like to be released.

The truth is people who are released, whether they are 16 or 60, need a lot of help to reintegrate into society. At theRefuge of Hope, where my friend will be spending the rest of the year, a safe space is created for that reintegration. Residents are given classes in budgeting, finding and keeping a job, dealing with substance abuse, and many other skills that folks on the outside take for granted. They are also responsible for cooking meals and taking care of the home and property where they live (which is quite large). After a few months, they find work and begin to save money for the next stage of their journey.

The basis for all of this study and work is the Bible. Residents study from “Genesis” to “Revelation”, and they live day in and day out seeing its lessons applied to life. The teachings of the Bible permeate the entire enterprise that is the Refuge of Hope, and because of this the nonprofit running the program is not eligible for federal or state funds.

Some have criticized the religious focus of the programming, saying it is exclusive or unfair to those who don’t share the Christian faith. My response to critics is that they are free to start their own sanctuaries, based on whatever principles they like, and God knows we need more of them. The state has very few facilities dedicated to transition for adults, and no real residential programs in place for juveniles. A few privately run for-profit halfway houses have sprung up, but they tend not to last.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about aftercare, since most of my work is focused on keeping kids away from courts and out of prisons. It is something that bears our consideration, however.

Criminal justice policies have swollen the ranks of prisoners over the last few decades, nearly tripling since the mid 80s. Almost all of these started their time as young men, and the fact is most of them will be released at some point. When they are released, they will need help, and government programs are currently doing very little. Private programs like the Refuge are trying to fill the gap, but a lot more work and support are needed.