“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat… I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Jesus (Matthew 25:36, 40)
When Jesus identifies himself with the person who is hungry, weak, the prisoner, or the stranger, he challenges his followers to always see another person’s potential, value, and humanity, and to respond in tenacious faith to what God may do in the life of their neighbour. Yesterday and today, that belief drives Christians to invest themselves in the lives of their neighbours, even in prison.
On Sunday nights from 6:00-7:30,
A team of women and (even a few men) from Beulah Alliance Church and West Edmonton Christian Assembly go to visit with women in a prison on the west end, here in Edmonton. About thirty-five women from the prison come out to join them for coffee and snacks, and to experience the Alpha program. They eat together, pray together, share stories, and learn about the Christian Faith. One woman attended the program 3 or 4 times without showing any desire to embrace Christianity. When asked why, she said, ‘Because I feel cared for.’
That honest statement points to the genuine heart of why those doing this ministry do what they do: To support these women in their struggle to heal, to confront some of the darkness and pain they carry, and find answers to who they are so that they may succeed. In these gatherings, caring relationships are formed, some of which are able to carry on after a woman is discharged into the community.
Marilyn Johnson, one of the leaders in the team has observed that it is very good to have men participate in these visits as well, so that the women have an opportunity to have a healthy relationship with a male presence.
Because of the success of the program and the trust earned, mentors in the program have earned escort privileges to take some of the women to church on a Sunday morning. (If a women is from the medium security end, then she would also be escorted by two guards.) But this means so much to the women, to have the opportunity to get out of prison and be welcomed by a church community. They have hard deadlines that do not budge, of course. The women must be back by 10:00 am, sharp! But the efforts of these churches gives them an experience of belonging, which means a lot.
Their efforts have been very well-received by both the women, and by their families, who have expressed profound gratitude; even from a father from Manitoba, who was all in tears.
Prison can be a place of restoration
“I am glad God brought me into prison. If I was still out there, I would probably be dead!”
This statement by a woman visiting the program reinforces an observation made by Marilyn others that many of the stories told by the women had a common theme: Wrong place! Wrong time! Wrong friends!
For many of the women, prison can offer them an opportunity; a solid interruption to unhealthy choices, circumstances and relationships. Many of the women are eager to use this opportunity, and having people come into the prison to walk that road with them, is really valuable.
Challenges On the Outside
Much work goes into helping a women succeed on the outside, but the challenges following release are significant. Generally the women will find themselves immersed in the same set of circumstances and troubled relationships that fuelled their wrong choices and bad behaviors. A top indicator for whether a person succeeds or fails on the outside is whether or not they have healthy supportive community. But finding this can be very hard.
The organizers of the program really want to support the women once they are on the outside, but there are major challenges. One simple difficulty is to keep in contact with women once they have left the prison. Their home communities are all over Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, so many are simply separated by distance. Many are sent to half-way houses, and may not even know where they are headed a week ahead of time.
For the women who stay locally, they may have some success for a while and stay in regular contact. But then they might do something that they are ashamed to admit, and pull back. As well, the team is forced to keep some distance in relationships, and they struggle with whether to open their homes and give out personal information. One reason for that caution is that some of the women can be manipulative. When volunteers begin this work, they take a course on what they are or are not allowed to do; including sharing personal information. Many of those guidelines continue to apply even on the outside.
But within those guidelines, there is much that can be done.
What can we do to provide supportive community to people coming out of prison?
1. Run support groups like celebrate recovery that can provide both support and accountability.
2. Get together socially! Meet for coffee or get food at a restaurant. Go for walks, or get out to have fun together.
3. Provide work opportunities. There are businesses that are willing to work with people coming out of prison, and do much to provide that supportive community environment.
These activities may take some organizing, but this engagement is very meaningful to anyone trying to pull their life back together after prison.
A Success story: A woman in her fifties formed a relationship with the group while she was still in prison. She had killed someone many years ago. Now she has been out for two years and is doing really well. She calls up Marilyn and others from the program to get together, and she is so excited when she gets to be with them.
By: Mike Van Boom, based on an interview with Marilyn Johnson