I walked out of prison more resilient than I was at intake, a miracle considering the harsh nature of prison. At intake, I was completely defeated. My addiction had progressed to criminality, and everything in my life that had any value to me was stripped away. I was filled with shame. The Christian volunteers I met while in prison helped me see that I am not defined by the worse thing I ever did. None of us are. They helped me to chart a path to forgiveness and hope.
Along the way, I embraced the limited opportunities available to me. I earned excellent performance reviews in my job as a clerk, and I volunteered as a peer educator to end the culture of violence inside the Texas prison. I also served many hours each week in the chapel.
My experience is atypical. The Texas prison system has a long way to go before it can truly be called a correctional institution. There are opportunities such as GED courses, vocational training, and treatment programming. Sadly, only a small percentage of those released each year ever participate in these programs, because people must pay for vocational training, and treatment is limited to those with the direst need. This is why almost half of those leaving prison are rearrested.
I credit the selfless volunteers for helping me to overcome the odds. They reminded me of who I really am in the eyes of God. They treated me as a valued member of the community, worthy of forgiveness and redemption. I can think of no more effective way of changing someone’s life than inviting them to be part of your community.
This is why reentry proved so difficult. I left prison filled with hope but found a wall of rejection. I felt like an outsider inside the church, too ashamed to admit where I had been the past six years. It took me months to find a job, and I had to accept public assistance. I was lucky to live in a county with resources like Goodwill. Almost half the counties in Texas lack adequate resources to address the mental health, substance abuse, transportation, vocational, or basic needs of those leaving prison.
I grew discouraged along the way. I learned this is a common experience. I met people who had seriously considered committing a new crime in order to return to prison. One woman’s home environment had grown intolerably toxic while she was away, and she longed to be back in a prison cell.
I remembered the promise one prison volunteer made to me. He said there would come a time when God would take my dark past and transform it into my chief asset. He said this to give me the hope to get through the discouragement to come. It worked. After seven months, I found my dream job.
The community of faith made a difference in my life. Today, I work to find alternatives to incarceration and improve reentry for those attempting to start new lives. My strongest allies come from the Christian community. They galvanize fellow Christians to be instruments of change inside prison, in the community, and at the Capitol.
National Reentry Week is April 24-30. This is a time to reflect on how we welcome back into our communities the nearly 70,000 Texans released from prison each year. Will they find a forgiving community willing to embrace them without shame, or will they find rejection? Will they leave prison ready to work, or will they fall even further behind? Will they return to a state that is dedicated to preventing incarceration, or will they walk out believing that the odds are stacked against them? A Christian response to these questions will do more than improve reentry; it will strengthen communities so that people never have to go to prison in the first place.
Douglas Smith is a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.