Prodigal Son and All That Jazz

There is a flurry of big bunches of lots and lots of things swirling around our returning citizens in Ohio right about now.

“Returning citizens” is the term many have adopted when they speak of those men and women who, after a time spent incarcerated, join their former community in an attempt to dust off and start again.  More mainstream monikers include ex-offenders and felons.  As anyone who spends time among us knows, we don’t care much for the mainstream monikers.  Rebuff them, even.  We can debate that in a future blog post.

Men and women who return to society after some form of incarceration number in the thousands each year.  Over 85% of those incarcerated around the country WILL leave prison, despite all the urban legends that create a picture of prison as a final resting ground for the errant and immature.  That means, friends, that those who spend time behind bars will eventually spend time back in our neighborhoods.  And that begs a big question:  what kind of neighbor do we want?  And, for purposes of this post, how to do we foster an environment for success when those neighbors show up?

It’s not everyone’s wheelhouse, we know, to be part of this solution.  In the same way that I am not interested in the particulars of how Wendy’s happens to have a staffer ready to make me a fresh hamburger at midnight–only that I know I can count on one when I get there–many have decided that they want safe neighborhoods and avenues in place for people who want to be better, do better on this go-round without having to pick up the scythe personally and chop down the obstacles.  That’s way OK. In fact, in the same way Wendy’s is a better organization because I’m not anywhere near a kitchen, the reentry initiative is best served by those who wake up everyday and feel compelled to contribute to the behemoth in a way that is creative and persistent and God-led.  Dissenters are welcome, if only for Devil’s advocate and perspective that dissipates when like-minded thinkers spend too much time insulated in their groupthink and mutual admiration society.  But the reentry conundrum can do without the true naysayers (read: those who espouse, support and legislate all things ‘not-in-my-backyard’).  I’ll promise to stay out of everyone’s kitchen if those folks find a different platform from which to tear down another person’s hope.

In the 19 counties of our diocese, the efforts to welcome home returning citizens is as varied as the counties themselves.  In the larger counties such as Hamilton and Montgomery, the task force is tsunami-like and the services continue to shape and build on each other.  From faith-based efforts like the HELP Program in Cincinnati to county-based collaborative efforts like Advanced Cognitive Treatment Services in Dayton, the desire to provide a lattice of success for returning citizens exists.  The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections supports and relies on local peeps to drive and shape the movement– and drive they do.  Housing, employment, transportation, life skills…..there are services to address all of these.  Don’t have your birth certificate, social security card or driver’s license?  Someone can assist with that.  Want to restore your voting right?  We have an app for that.  House Bill 86 and Senate Bill 337 in Ohio took giant steps to overcome many of the collateral sanctions returning citizens face in returning to an upstanding life inside society.  The bipartisan effort alone was impressive and should be considered across the country as a best practice.  But with all that energy and with all those services available, are returning citizens in our diocese set up for success?

I’m afraid I have to say no.  Not yet.

There are quantitative measures that we cling to in corrections, recidivism and total incarcerated population among them.  In short, if less people are incarcerated and less people return to prison within three years than in the past, we consider that a win.  And, we should.  But if we expand the measure to a qualitative one, the vignette shifts.  Are less people returning because they have really, truly become better versions of themselves and will make better choices in the future, based on accountability and a sense of worthiness  and a belief that we are responsible to and for each other? Or have we simply escalated all the services and eliminated more of the potholes that keep people grappling for straws and boxed into a life that feels replete of upstanding choices?

They are big questions.  I’m glad we keep asking them.  I’m even more glad to be among the hundreds of people who have rolled up their sleeves around here and said, “I’m in.”  Will God send a thunderbolt when we’ve clicked on all reentry cylinders?  Not likely.  But I think we’ll know it when we see it.  When men and women feel and act differently about their self-worth and their choices WHILE incarcerated so they can act upon those feelings and choices when they return home.  When our measures are less about government service and more about personal service.  When our neighborhoods are no longer categorized and labeled by who did what at one point in his/her life and the determination of how we should treat said person is carved out from that knowledge.  Then.  Then we will be getting somewhere.

Until then, thank you to all the laborers in this overgrown field.  You and your scythes matter. Stay the course.