Teamwork Needed to Keep Ex-Prisoners Out for Life

mle-formal-photo.jpgBy Mark Earley
President and CEO of Prison Fellowship,
and former Attorney General of Virginia

The vast majority of inmates, prison cells are not their permanent address. Most prisoners will serve their sentences and then return back into our communities. What kind of neighbors will they be?

If current trends continue, over half of them will be rearrested and back in prison within three years. These high failure rates represent a threat to public safety and increased cost to taxpayers. With more than 735,000 men and women coming home from state and federal prisons each year, making sure they are ready to be peaceful, productive citizens is a critical public safety concern.

That’s why Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest outreach to prisoners and their families, launched the Out4Life campaign back in 2007. Out4Life is a holistic approach to prisoner reentry that harnesses the strengths of both government agencies and nonprofit organizations to help offenders make a successful reentry into society. Out4Life is neither a reentry program nor an event, but is rather a long-term campaign to develop coalitions that will be able to reduce recidivism across the country.

Out4Life kicks off in each state with a conference attended by local and state government officials and community leaders and organizations—both faith-based and secular. The main goal of the conferences is to build lasting, self-sustaining coalitions to provide reentry services to ex-prisoners. By coordinating services and programs, the coalitions make sure that all offenders’ needs are met, and that no resources are wasted through duplication. As the coalitions develop, Prison Fellowship provides information and resources to strengthen their work, and channels of communication to increase their cooperation.

The needs of released prisoners are overwhelming. A bus ticket and twenty dollars hardly suffice to get these men and women back on their feet. They must find housing, reliable transportation, jobs, medical care, education, and personal identification documents. Many need addiction and/or mental health treatment. Many need help reconnecting with their families and their children. And, many are trying to do all this with little grasp of the new technology that now saturates society.

Transitioning from prison to community is obviously more than just switching addresses. It’s also about crossing cultures. On the inside, men and women have very little control over their daily lives. But on the outside, they face a bewildering barrage of decisions about what to wear, what to eat, where to go, and how to spend their time. On the inside, being stoic and tough is often important to survival, but on the outside, offenders have to relearn social norms and manners that allow them to interact acceptably with others.

Out4Life unites the hands of government, nonprofit groups, and business in coalitions because the government alone cannot help offenders overcome these obstacles. Navigating the challenges of reentry requires a guide – a mentor who provides the counsel, accountability, and encouragement of an enduring, nurturing relationship in a supportive community. A study by Pennsylvania University of one of Prison Fellowship’s intensive reentry programs confirmed that having a mentor is the key factor in helping released prisoners avoid falling back into criminal behavior. Staff and volunteers from faith-based and nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to build these relationships of trust.

Out4Life draws together a broad range of community groups because the needs of returning prisoners are so numerous and diverse that no single organization can meet them all well. Teamwork helps ensure that no returning prisoner slips through the cracks.

In its early stages, the campaign is meeting with success in states across the country. Collaborating with the Department of Corrections and local groups, Prison Fellowship launched the first Out4Life initiative with a conference in Louisiana. This event has spawned five coalitions involving more than 300 organizations and agencies. Conferences have occurred during the past year in Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, and Minnesota, and more are planned for the coming months in Ohio, Virginia, Texas, and Oregon.

Leaders in these states have shared high praises for the Out4Life campaign. Larry Norris, Director of Arkansas’ Department of Corrections, believes that “successful prisoner reentry can only occur when government, business, faith and community leaders work together. The Out4Life conference is focused on developing ways we can all come together to make Arkansas communities safer.” And Gayle Ray, Tennessee’s DOC Commissioner, explained at the Out4Life conference in Tennessee that “groups like this – faith-based groups and other folks – can really be helpful in our efforts to lower recidivism even more.”

Lowering recidivism by helping men and women transform their lives is Out4Life’s mission. There is no simple solution to breaking the cycle of crime, but by relying on the strength of public-private partnerships we can make significant progress. The Out4Life campaign is self-explanatory, it hopes to help men and women make it out of prison cells for good – and permanently become contributing members of our communities.

Mark Earley, former State Senator and Attorney General of Virginia, became President of Prison Fellowship on February 1, 2002. As Presdent and CEO of Prison Fellowship, Earley oversees the national ministry founded by Charles Colson in 1976, which has since spread to 113 countries in addition to the United States.

For more information on Out4Life, visit here

For more information on Prison Fellowship, visit here

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  • Nancy Church said:

    I am trying to help some people get to support groups in Colorado Springs, Denver and Grand Junction. I work at a church and am very familiar with Prison Fellowship. However, I am having a very difficult time finding any support groups for ex-prisoners. Do you have any suggestions?

    Nancy Church
    Union Congregational Church
    Crested Butte, Co


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