Second Chances at Life
It is 6 P.M. on a sunny Saturday, and the men of Onesimus House, a transitional home for ex-offenders, look forward to an evening of fellowship and food.
The group leader looks around at the 20 or so people now living at this home in rural Chesapeake, Virginia. Surprised, he notices three familiar T-shirts. Those shirts were hisuntil he donated them recently to the ministry's clothes closet. Nothing sits still for very long. Everything is in transition here. Worn-out clothes, and people, get a dream-come-true second chance at life.
Each week, at least one bus from nearby Powhatan Correctional Center pulls up to the front door of Onesimus Housenamed after the repentant slave chronicled in the epistle to Philemon. The bus's arrival means Powhatan is discharging more inmates to this aftercare program. In a typical week, about 100 inmates seek admission to Onesimus, looking for more help than the $25 cash the state provides following release.
The ones whom Onesimus welcomes are the fortunate few. Onesimus staff and volunteers feed, clothe, and shelter these ex-offenders. More importantly, they give them a fighting opportunity to beat the odds for going back to prison.
Epidemic of Recidivism
Christians need to study more carefully the chapter in the handbook of outreach on prison ministry and aftercare. Prisons are a huge "growth industry" in 21st-century America.
Some 2.2 million people (one in every 136 U.S. residents) are doing time in prison, according to FBI statistics. Add to that number another 4 million or more on probation, parole, or awaiting trial in local jails. This past year, prison populations grew 4.7 percentthe largest annual growth spurt in nearly ten years.
This up-trend in incarceration has been developing for decades, though. Since the late 1970s, the population in U.S. prisons has nearly quadrupled. No other nation, relative to its size and population density, incarcerates more individuals than the United States. A 2006 study by the Pew Charitable Trust entitled "Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America's Prison Population 2007-2011" projects continued growth in the prison population for years. By 2011, the number of women prisoners will have grown by 16 percent. The male prison population will have increased 12 percent. These numbers are at least twice the projected growth rate for the overall U.S. population by 2011.
With tens of thousands of new prison beds added in recent years, one might expect that crime would be down. That's not universally the case. During 2005 and 2006, the FBI says violent crimes in some regions rose. Robbery, for example, rose 10 percent in the Midwest, according to half-year statistics for 2006.
As prison populations have soared, the number of prisoners who are freed has also increased significantly. Prisons free at least 600,000 each year.
But most freed inmates have few marketable job skills. The lack of a job is a major risk factor for an ex-offender to commit a new crime. Researchers say the repeat-offense rate nationally is stubbornly high, at more than 60 percent.
The Justice Department also recently noted that black men make up 41 percent of all inmates, and Hispanic women are 1.6 times more likely than white women to be imprisoned.
Nationwide, churches and Christian ministries have responded to the steady growth in the prison population. Some 3,500 organizations now do prison outreach. These groups range from single, church-based outreaches to global organizations such as Prison Fellowship. PF has more than 24,000 people on its volunteer rolls worldwide.