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Prison: Fixing the Revolving Door


A troubling report issued last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that five out of six state prison inmates released back into society were re-arrested, most within three years. Five out of six! Sounds like our prisons have become finishing schools for career criminals. The correctional system is obviously not “correcting.” Building more penal institutions to mass-incarcerate law-breakers may rid the streets of some crime (for a time), but this revolving door approach is hardly producing a safer society. Plus, it’s appallingly expensive.

So if punishment doesn’t deter and rehabilitation doesn’t rehabilitate, what will it take to turn offenders around? Well, take a look at what happens when an inmate is released. He goes home. The only home he knows. The same street, the same friends, the same drug traffic that got him locked up in the first place. He may have a court order requiring him to get a job and a parole officer to enforce it. So he gets on the phone and starts making cold calls to begin his job search. Now, we know where that’s going, don’t we? Who wants to hire a felon with an active criminal record? It doesn’t take long to become discouraged. And even though a condition of his probation prohibits his hanging out with known criminals, these are the only neighborhood friends he has—and the only ones who are making any decent money. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why five out of six former prisoners are soon re-arrested.

A halfway house may help. It keeps an offender off the street (for a time). And it may lead to some training and an entry-level job. This is good. But the odds of re-arrest don’t change much. Sooner or later, the offender returns to familiar friends and surroundings. And the door continues to revolve.

So, what’s the answer? In a word: community. Take Willie Gatson, for example. Willie was 13 when his family moved into our neighborhood seeking a healthier environment. Unfortunately, Willie kept ties with his old friends and that led to trouble—big trouble. By his mid-teens, he was embroiled in serious criminal activity. Though he kept this darker life concealed from his parents and away from our neighborhood, his parents were very concerned by his frequent “spending the night with friends.” Then tragedy struck. Willie was arrested and convicted for armed robbery and murder. He was given a life sentence.

Seven years later, he was released from prison and returned home. He needed a job. Badly. He would go back to prison if he couldn’t find work. That’s when he called me. He told me prison had really changed him—for the better, he said—but he couldn’t even get an interview with an employer to tell his story. He wondered if I could help.

One of FCS’ programs at the time was Home Resource, a building materials and home furnishing recycling business. In addition to providing affordable home improvement supplies to the community, Home Resource was a practical job training ground for neighborhood young people. It was a good place for young adults with poor employment records (or police records) to develop a work ethic and establish a marketable employment history. It was just what Willie needed.

In the months that followed, Willie did indeed demonstrate a changed attitude. He showed up for work on time and followed through on assigned tasks. His parole officer was pleased, loosened restrictions and removed his ankle bracelet. Willie expressed an interest in learning how to work on air conditioners. We encouraged him to enroll in a technical school and offered to adjust his work schedule to accommodate to his education. Within a year, he was hired by a reputable HVAC company. He has never re-entered the criminal justice system.

Obviously you can’t base an entire strategy on one success story. However, Willie Gatson is not an isolated case. There are many other community-based programs that combine work, training, accountability and spiritual values to create an alternative place of belonging for offenders. Hope House in Chicago’s rough Lawndale neighborhood, for example, houses 50 men in their residential facility. Participants share lives and experiences, attend daily sessions on spiritual growth, learn marketable skills, work productively in the community, and support each other in their transition into healthy community living. Among the 2,500 men that have participated in their program, recidivism is astonishingly low. Community is key.

FCS is does not operate a halfway house for offenders, nor do we have an addiction treatment program. What we do instead is move into neighborhoods with higher crime rates and create safe, healthy places where residents can flourish—places where family members released from prison can return to wholesome streets. Our “re-neighboring” strategy replaces crack houses with stable homeowners, turns liquor stores into coffee shops, reinforces quality schools that educate, and creates legitimate jobs that replace the street economy. Healthy communities produce healthy offspring. By developing vibrant, hospitable, engaged communities, we replace the revolving door with a wide open door of opportunity. One neighborhood at a time.

This article originally appeared here.

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Bob is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through FCS Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community.