How to Reach Out to Families of Inmates
Guest columnist Lauree Purcell
Each November, I have brought a Christmas gift to my church for the child of a prison inmate, as well as some toothpaste and pencils for the inmates themselves. Kingsway Prison and Family Outreach here in Harrisonburg, Virginia, collects and distributes these items to inmates and their families.
Who is helping prison inmates in your community? Are reentry programs available for soon-to-be-released prisoners?
All the recent news about drug sentencing reform has made me more sensitive to the needs of incarcerated individuals. So I sat down with Louise Jennings to find out more about the Kingsway ministry program she founded in 1977.
Louise had a shaky start in life. She admits she wrecked her first marriage and didn’t meet all the needs of her two children because she was addicted to alcohol and drugs. But when she went to a United Methodist church service in her drunken state one Sunday, three women lovingly took her and her daughter under their wings. With the support of that congregation, Louise and her boyfriend quit drugs and alcohol. They soon got married and immersed themselves in efforts to help other people going through challenges similar to what they had overcome. Her new husband’s job transfer brought them to my community, where a new church and minister provided financial assistance and encouragement for them to enter the Industrial Commercial Chaplain Program. After completing it, they began their prison ministry in 1977 and formed the nonprofit corporation Kingsway Ministries in 1983, renamed Kingsway Prison and Family Outreach in 1996 to allow others to help fund their efforts. The program has grown exponentially ever since.
This fall, the Coalition of Prison Evangelists presented Louise with the 2015 Frank Constantino Award for Excellence in Prison Ministries for “sticking to it for so long and never giving up.” Louise’s husband passed away years ago, and she just turned 80, but Louise plans to keep going strong.
Pat Crouse is the associate director of Kingsway, who has been helping there for the past 14 years. Other than Pat, Louise’s long-term staff of volunteers is mostly senior citizens. Betty Wilson does data entry, and Mary Earman sends birthday cards to 1,400 inmates each year. Mary also keeps track of inmates when they move from one prison to another. Paula Moyer handles receipts and thank-you notes and sends birthday cards to the children of the inmates. Bonnie Lough, who has been with Kingsway for 21 years, does a little of everything. Shirley Gibbs, Louise’s newest volunteer, is in charge of displays and resources, and will soon be cleared to go with Louise to lead a weekly Bible study for 22 women at a correctional center 75 miles away. Louise is the chaplain for women at our local jail and sees them one-on-one on Wednesdays. Prisoners in state facilities can lead their own Bible studies, but a chaplain or trained volunteer must supervise the meetings. Whether the groups are Christian, Jewish, or of other religions, Kingsway volunteers often provide the necessary meeting supervision to relieve the prison chaplain to focus on other duties.
The local Kingsway office is a resource center for recently released offenders. Louise prefers to call them released residents. Kingsway does not provide housing or financial assistance, but former prisoners find volunteers there who will listen to their problems and refer them to other agencies that provide food, clothing, housing, employment training, and counseling. Social workers are contacted for deeper issues as well. Kingsway’s Apple Tree Project collects and distributes Christmas gifts to 4,000 inmates and 400 of their children.
In 1997, Louise and her husband helped establish the first Kairos Prison Ministry Program at a nearby correctional center’s in 1997, and Kingsway has been networking with Kairos ever since. Kairos Outside is a similar ministry for wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the men who have completed the Kairos program inside prison. “If they are all believers when they go home after prison, we are setting them up for a happier situation,” says Louise.
Most of Virginia’s correctional centers host reentry resource fairs for soon-to-be-released prisoners to learn about businesses, community organizations, and outreach programs that can help them as they adjust to life outside. Kingsway has participated in these fairs.
“Prison ministry isn’t for everybody because you will see more failure than success,” says Louise. “In prison, there is always someone to talk to. But when prisoners get out, church is just on Sunday and the general public is too busy. Returning citizens [ex-offenders] can’t find the help they need. But we are seeing positive things happen. People have gotten out to better things in their life. It is wonderful to see families restored.”
Who is helping prison inmates in your community? Are reentry programs available for soon-to-be-released prisoners? How do recently released prisoners reintegrate into your city or town? The effort is crucial in helping prisoners stay straight once they are released, reduces crime and repeat offences, and saves money by reducing the need for more prisons.
If you know an inmate, we have some free helpful folders to help them prepare for life on the outside, including staying involved with one’s children while incarcerated. These materials are available in English and Spanish—please indicate the desired language when you make your request. As long as supplies last. Write to MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802.
Also check out a documentary Long Road Back: Ex-offenders Struggle for Acceptance which was produced by Mennonite Media, for sale on the MennoMedia store.