Bridging the gap from prison to society
Christine Nichols and moderator Olivia Hitchcock
The community and faith groups can step up and really make a difference for men returning to society after prison, Mercy House Director Dale White said April 7 during an online discussion of reentry issues.
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, the keynote speaker, talked about why we bother with helping people make the transition.
“So why bother? Many of us are only one horrendous event from being incarcerated,” McNeil said during the event sponsored by Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Tallahassee.
Helping former inmates feel included in the community is important, according to White.
“A volunteer could actually mentor that person while they are taking them to an appointment, or work or to church,” said White, whose program is a ministry of Good News Outreach.
Church communities can help former prisoners grow in their faith, too.
“That’s their gift. That’s their strength,” White said.
Faithful people coming together to help former prisoners, McNeil said, reminds him of the story of how people helped a paraplegic man reach out to Jesus Christ when they lowered the man through a roof.
“We have a great responsibility to do what we can,” McNeil said.
Rob Hawkins, who has been in and out of prison and now is involved in prison ministry, said a Christ-centered approach has been most helpful to him. He called for reentry services to begin when a person is first arrested to better understand why they are coming into the prison system in the first place.
Listeners to the online event also heard from former prisoner Catherine Nichols, who had help from others with finding a place to live and in handling activities such as making doctor appointments. Still, she found people wanted to judge her on her past rather than the future she was trying to build. Attitudes and programs need to change, she said.
“I would like to see more women transition houses, maybe better job training. Maybe while in prison being given a chance to learn different trades,” Nichols said.
“This can happen in any family. It is going to take us all pitching in,” McNeil said. “I can speak for the Sheriff’s Office. We are all in. I am absolutely committed to trying to solve this problem.”
Family time after prison
“The biggest challenge was being reunited with family,” said Catherine Nichols, who was in prison for three years. No one tells you how to do that because every family is different, she said.
Here are some tips to help families with a member reentering society after prison:
Take it slow.
Listen to what people say, observe their body language, too.
Remember, the transition takes time.
Understand everyone’s expectations.
Remember people change while someone is incarcerated.
Panelists for the online prison re-entry symposium. Dale White, center, top.
Rob Hawkins, bottom right