by  Gale Wenk du Pont

“Returning citizen” or “re-entrant” is the current terminology used for individuals who rejoining society after incarceration in jail or prison. It replaces terms such as ex-con, ex-offender, former inmate, and ex-felon in an attempt to remove the stigma of incarceration and labeling as “bad people,” recognizing instead they are citizens who chose an illegal path, served time for their offenses, and now are trying to re-establish lives in their communities.

The United States spends more than $60 billion dollars annually on prisons and jails, $23,000/year per individual at the federal level and up to as high as $45,000/year at the state level. Locally in Cumberland County, for example, the cost for county jail is about $65/day for each individual who is incarcerated. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of incarceration does not reflect the cost. About 67.5% of those released from prison are arrested for a new crime within three years and 76.6% are arrested within five years. About half of those arrested within five years are arrested within the first six months of release and 56.7% are arrested by the end of the first year.

Why are recidivism rates so high? In part, it is because of the many barriers returning citizens face when they attempt to re-enter society. Among the greatest stumbling blocks are housing, employment, and transportation. Many individuals do not have the required proper identification, such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, or social security card, to even apply for employment or housing. They may not have a high school diploma or GED, job skills, or vocational training. If they have a work history prior to incarceration, it may be intermittent. Recidivism rates decrease the higher the level of education. (Think about someone who was incarcerated at age eighteen for 24 years and then released at age 42.) Returning citizens face the dreaded “check the box” on employment and housing applications, where a criminal record is an automatic disqualification, instead of landlords and employers reviewing each case individually to look at factors such as the nature and severity of the crime, how long ago it occurred, whether it was an arrest without a conviction, and other precipitating factors such as substance abuse and the foolishness of youth which have been mitigated through treatment programs. Even if returning citizens can find employment, they may not have transportation to get to work.

Other barriers to successful re-entry include access to healthcare and other benefits such as Medicaid, disability, food stamps, and veteran’s benefits. Depending on the length of time of incarceration, these benefits have either been suspended or cancelled. In either case, the individual has to go through the process to reapply or have benefits reinstated. Another barrier is broken or strained relationships with family and friends. Studies have shown that recidivism rates decrease when returning citizens have support as they return into the community. Substance abuse and mental health issues are factors for many who have been incarcerated and may require continued treatment with support groups, trained clinicians, and access to medication. The availability of these services is limited, especially since COVID with the growing need and reduction in available personnel. Another challenge is the fact that planning for re-entry from incarceration does not occur until very close to the time of release.

So why should the church support returning citizens? The answer can be found by looking to scripture. When Jesus speaks in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth in Luke 4:18, we hear these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” When Jesus talks about the righteous and unrighteous (referencing the separation of the sheep from the goats), having been in prison and the presence or lack of visitation is one of the examples given. And Jesus offers forgiveness to the criminal hanging with him on the cross with the words: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Jesus’ ministry to the oppressed and marginalized included those in or returning from prison. It  becomes our mission as we serve to be his hands and feet in the world.

What are the ways in which we as the church can support returning citizens? Many individuals who have been incarcerated will tell you that, while in prison, they found comfort in a higher power. Churches can provide a supportive, welcoming worshipping community for those seeking to connect with God. It is also an opportunity for returning citizens to establish relationships with those who have good value systems. The church can provide financial support to obtain clothing, household items, and other necessities until the person is established in a job and is able to provide these items for themselves. Church members can provide transportation to work, school, medical appointments, and support groups until the individual is able to obtain affordable transportation. Churches can provide rooms for substance abuse and other support groups to meet in a safe space. We can provide pastoral care for spiritual and emotional support and assist those dealing with trauma, which is often a factor that led to the reason for incarceration. Churches can provide bible study and devotional groups. Members can serve as mentors helping to write resumes and offering assistance with computer skills or managing finances, especially when programs that offer these services are limited in the area. Churches can also offer bible study/worship and mentoring/visitation for those currently in prison. Interested churches can contact the chaplain at the prison or jail. Of great importance is the offering of prayer.

Another way of supporting returning citizens is to get involved with your County Re-entry Coalition. These coalitions are made up of representatives from organizations offering direct service to returning citizens such as housing, employment, and medical services including mental health and addiction, as well as other organizations and individuals, including faith communities, who want to support returning citizens. I have been a part of the Cumberland County Re-entry Coalition for almost two years, serving on the Executive Committee as the Chair of the Education Sub-Committee. This committee provides education to faith communities, landlords, employers, students, and the community at large on the barriers to re-entry and the benefits of supporting returning citizens. When we come together as the church to work with others in supporting returning citizens, we can help to reduce the recidivism rate and save tax-payers millions of dollars that could be put towards preventative and rehabilitation programs. The success of returning citizens translates into enhanced public safety and fewer victims and crimes. Community support helps returning citizens to overcome barriers and become successful in their communities. It also fulfills the mission to which Jesus calls us.

Gale Wenk du Pont is a retired Occupational Therapist who now does volunteer work with organizations whose goals are to protect and empower communities against racism, discrimination, and violence and improve the quality of life for all residents. She received her B.S. in Occupational Therapy from Temple University and a certificate in Occupational Ergonomics, Human Factors Engineering and Job Analysis from the University of Michigan, Department of Industrial Engineering -Center for Ergonomics. She is a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Carlisle and serves as an Assisting Minister, Outreach/Evangelism Liaison, member of the Youth Ministry Outreach and Activity Team, WeCare Immigration Team, and Home Communion Team. Gale leads worship services monthly at Forest Park and Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Centers. She is the President of the Carlisle Area Religious Council, co-chair of the MLK Commemoration Committee, member of the LSS Towards Racial Justice Task Force, steering committee for Fill-the-Bus/Carlisle4 Kids, steering committee for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Chaplain Advisory Committee for the Cumberland County Prison and Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and member of the Biddle Mission Park Labyrinth Board. She served on the board of Domestic Violence Service of Cumberland and Perry Counties as Resource Development Chair. She has given numerous presentations on domestic violence and workplace violence.