Leaving Sing Sing

With much anticipation I went to visit my friend John Valverde in his new paralegal job in Queens, New York. For years our meeting place had been Sing Sing prison, where he’d spent 16 years behind bars.

Each year around 600,000 people are released from prison back to a society that has little use for them. Finding a job is difficult when you have a criminal record, which must be declared on any job application. In a culture that depends on e-mail, credit cards, cell phones, and text messaging, even low-paying employment can be out of reach for a person who is fresh out of long-term incarceration, without training in how to operate on the outside. Many parolees lack basic education, family support, and marketable skills. These problems are a big part of the reason why, nationwide, more than 60 percent of those released from prison will be rearrested within three years.

Valverde, who quickly succeeded in landing his first job, is unusually fortunate: He had welcoming family, a good education—and Rye Presby­terian Church, which sends a dozen or so members each month to visit inmates. For the past 14 years, Rye—a 1,200-member congregation in affluent Westchester, New York—has given moral, spiritual, and practical support to men imprisoned in Sing Sing.

Nancy Steed, a leader of the Rye group, says, “Contact with the men in prison put human faces on the statistics. Before that, my attitude was, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key if they steal my gold chain.’” Her husband and co-leader, Robert Steed, elaborates: “We realized the people in prison did not fit the stereotype portrayed in the media. Instead, they were well-spoken, intelligent, and devoted to their families. Prison work has become the most important of many volunteer projects we have been involved in.”

WITH PRISONS often located far away from the inmates’ home communities, visits from family and friends are rare; for many, a local church may become the only connection to the world at large. Visits from the outside are empowering and life-giving, says Valverde: “We were overjoyed and humbled that people would take time to visit, and to see us as the human beings we really are. They helped us improve and change by giving us a chance to express remorse for our actions and to develop self-esteem and hope.”

Valverde adds reflectively, “We also saw changes in them.” Churches who visit people in prison inevitably change. Experiencing the plight of human beings behind bars awakens a compassionate spirit in visitors and brings the joy of basic human connection developed through dialogue. People of faith call it the Holy Spirit at work.

Church support can take many forms: scripture study and assistance in developing family relations, personal communication skills, self-confidence, and résumé-writing and interviewing techniques. In the case of Rye Presbyterian, working with the men on the inside led parishioners to start a clothing closet for men released from prison and a support group for wives and loved ones of incarcerated men. They also keep in close touch with the individuals as they leave prison and support them in their efforts to reintegrate into society. Once a year, Rye’s whole Sunday worship service is conducted by former inmates.

Churches throughout the country have discovered prison not only as a rewarding ministry field but also a source for church renewal. With America the world leader in incarcerating its own, no church should have difficulty locating a nearby prison. By calling a prison’s volunteer department, church members can find out how to get involved.

“The passion for prison ministry is growing in our presbytery,” says Susan Andrews, the general presbyter of the Hudson River Presbytery in New York state. “With 91 churches and 17 prisons within our bounds, we have ample opportunity to proclaim the gospel by developing personal relationships, reform and advocacy networks, and re-entry ministries to help ‘set the prisoner free.’ Whether imprisoned within security walls or imprisoned within our own fears and prejudices, we are called to the work of liberation in the name of Jesus Christ.”

With the total number of persons under correctional supervision now well over 7 million, several states, most recently Alabama, are turning to faith organizations to assist people in their re-entry back into society.

With such encouragement from state authorities, people of faith hardly have an excuse for not “making straight a highway in the wilderness.”

Hans B. Hallundbaek, a prison volunteer since 1995, is a former businessman, a Presbyterian minister, and an ethics professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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