- (Reuters/Amelia Whitaker)
The U.S. Department of Labor is giving out $20 million to organizations that place former prisoners on the path to redemption by giving them jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor expects to award 17 prisoner rehabilitation programs across the country $1.21 million apiece for helping employ former criminal offenders, The Associated Press reported. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis announced the decision at a community event in Newport News, Va., yesterday.
"This money coming from the government is great," said Garland Hunt, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison ministry. "It is $20 million well spent. The healing of these former inmates is critical to our nation. The cycle of crime needs to be stopped."
Newly released convicts have trouble assimilating into society, Hunt said, given the stigma their crimes have on their lives after leaving prison. They reenter society disoriented and out of date, he said, having at times spent decades without freedom. Used to the monotony and regimentation of prison life, Hunt added, they become restless with so much time on their hands and so little to fill it with. The end result is often a recipe for disaster.
"Prisoners can reintegrate best when the church welcomes them, their families put their arms around them and organizations can aid them in getting employment and financial support," Hunt said. "It's hard when they face rejection from society and job prospects. When they get frustrated being unable to get money or a job, they often return to what they know in a life of crime."
Sister Susan Van Baalen, executive director of Prison Outreach Ministry, Inc. and the former chief chaplain of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said Christian kindness goes a long way in making former prisoners feel loved as they restart their lives. Such support is crucial, she said, as they often face distrust and fear from other people in society.
"As Christians, we should welcome former inmates home," Van Baalen said. "We can't fold our arms in front of us. We shouldn't give them a handout but a hand up. We can't let go of the ideas of reconciliation and forgiveness."
Tim King, the communications director for Sojourners, a social justice organization, said rehabilitating prisoners in the first place illustrates a bigger problem with prisons. As he sees it, the criminal justice system is a complicated mess of taxpayer costs. Once a single prisoner finishes their place in it, he said, they often return after realizing they lack of options in the outside world.
"We pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep somebody locked up," King said. "If we can help them find work when they get out, it means they become contributing members of society again and our costs go down. Justice should not be about just punishment but also restoration. Right now, we punish people for their crimes and then we punish them again by limiting opportunity once they have served their time."
Incarceration is a particularly controversial issue in America, said Jesse Lava, campaign director for the social advocacy group Brave New Foundation, as the U.S. holds more people behind bars than anywhere else. Over 2.3 million people are in prison, he estimated, and that number rises to 7.4 million when one includes those on probation or parole. One way of changing it, Lava argued, is inspiring action in the Christian community.
"We know that Christianity says nations are judged by how they treat the most vulnerable members of society," he said. "All I'll add is that the United States supposedly has one of the most heavily Christian populations on Earth yet we also have one of the most brutal prison systems – and certainly the biggest prison system."
"If Christians don't see disconnect there, they should feel free to consult the New Testament and see what they find," Lava concluded. "They might be surprised."