Help on the Outside
Second of two parts.
Caring Christians are committed to helping the record number of American incarcerated women make a successful transition back into society once they are free.
Retired Assemblies of God Chaplain Pamela E. Moore is preparing to open a 10-bed transitional home for released women. The faith-based Sanctuary House Ministries in Camden, New Jersey, will provide a multifaceted 90-day re-entry program where women learn life and job skills as well as receive counseling. The 90-day training will feature a discipleship component.
“Housing is the number one need for women coming out of prison,” Moore says. “They have no place to go, so they go right back.”
Gina Hanna, founder of the ministry Beauty for Ashes in Platte City, Missouri, says mature Christian women volunteers can teach incarcerated or recently released woman about self-worth and erecting healthy boundaries in relationships with men.
“So many of these women have never had a stable, Christ-centered marriage modeled to them,” Hanna says.
Breaking the cycle of poverty can be difficult. A mother released from prison usually wants to regain custody of her children immediately, but Hanna says financial stability should be the most pressing goal. Yet never having worked outside the home, and with no husband or job skills, finding a good-paying occupation isn’t easy.
“It’s harder for women to make it on their own,” Hanna says. “Unless they get a support system around them, they may end up using drugs, losing their kids, and going back to prison.”
Manuel A. Cordero, senior director of AG Chaplaincy Ministries, notes that while women generally try to maintain family ties while incarcerated, that isn’t necessarily the case with men. Once released, a woman often discovers a former partner no longer is in the picture.
“When the rate of incarceration goes up, it follows that the rate of release goes up, too,” Cordero says. “Programs on the inside are wonderful and needed, but what happens when these women get out? Is the Church willing to step up and offer solutions to these women and their children, who are innocent victims?”
A study co-sponsored by the Assemblies of God and released May 24 shows prison ministry isn’t a priority for most churches. Few pastors have contact with those who have been released from prison, and two-thirds cite a lack of training or volunteers as barriers to their churches helping inmates and their families.
The study showed that among six Christian faith traditions, Pentecostals are the most likely to have a formal ministry to people leaving correctional institutions, support homes that help with re-entry after incarceration, and provide counseling for those who have been behind bars.
Hanna advocates that churches should be the key component of the needed support system. She notes that many congregations already offer financial courses, parenting classes, single mom mentoring, job training, and addiction recovery groups for regular attendees. With a little tweaking, she says such instruction can be adapted for those coming out of prison.
“There are needs for employment readiness, job skills training, substance abuse treatment, and parenting classes,” Hanna says. “The Church can step in and have a great impact upon re-entry.”
Moore, who has clinical and pastoral training, says explaining the available healing power of Christ is integral for women to truly change.
“Many really haven’t dealt with their past,” Moore says. “They didn’t have good parents, they may have had multiple children with multiple partners, and there’s usually no man in the picture to help.”
Moore says women sometimes have trouble adjusting to a more independent lifestyle because of the mandated routines they grew accustomed to in confinement.
“We want to see a transformation take place inside of them that gives rise to new behaviors,” Moore says. “They feel an abusive relationship is the norm.”
Moore encourages Christians, through their churches, to form friendships with incarcerated women so that they will be comfortable inside a sanctuary once released from inside penitentiary walls.
“When we help people we like to make sure they are worthy of our help,” Moore says. “But this group doesn’t fit that criterion.”
Among other things, church members can offer lower cost housing, free or reduced child care, and employment opportunities to women trying to get back on their feet.
Ordained Assemblies of God U.S. Missions chaplain and minister Susan Neumann hopes to open a transition in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. Neumann is a “community chaplain” whose duties include counseling females newly freed from prison.
Neumann, who attends Poplar Creek, an Assemblies of God church in New Berlin, Wisconsin, notes that more than 90 percent of those incarcerated someday return to their home communities. She suggests congregations can act as a liaison to ministries such as Teen Challenge that help women in need.
“The Church has to get over the fear and stigma of working with women who have been in jail and prison,” says Neumann, one of several AG chaplains involved in such rehabilitation efforts. “We need to get to know them as human beings, with their faults and failures and frailties.”
Pictured: Gina Hanna (second from left) regularly visits women in prison as part of her ministry, Beauty for Ashes.