There is a documentary you probably shouldn't watch unless you're prepared to become engaged in the prison community because "Through the Door," which is about people doing just that, is likely to leave you eager to join them.
Bill Kleiber, right, executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries Network, with Emmett Solomon, his predecessor. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
While the film focuses on Baptist groups doing work in prisons in Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Indiana and Georgia, it expresses acceptance of all faiths and encourages religious communities of all sorts to become involved in work with prisoners, released prisoners and the system overall—from sponsoring rehabilitation programs inside institutions to re-entry programs for released inmates.
I took from the viewing the sad hope that I always feel talking to released or current convicts: sad because our prison system is broken, hopeful because passionate people are doing something about it.
The film reports that every time a person is incarcerated, there is a family that goes into crisis: "A conservative number is that for every person incarcerated, five people are sent into crisis mode."
The Pew Center has more troubling statistics: "Since the early 1970s, prisons have been the weapon of choice in America's fight against crime. Between 1973 and 2009, the nation's prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than one in 100 adults behind bars. This growth came at substantial cost, with annual state and federal spending on corrections exploding by 305 percent during the past two decades, to about $52 billion."
More than one in 100 adults behind bars? That means you're more likely to wind up in prison than you are to get audited by the IRS.
Recidivism rates are complex, but across the board, recidivism rates are consistently between 40 percent and 70 percent. In other words, high.
But is that really a surprise given how both incarceration and re-entry work in our country?
If you aren't familiar with how prisoners are treated when they are released, consider reading the experience of Shon Hopwood, ex-con turned lawyer.
Each year, state and federal prisons release more than 650,000 people (the size of Seattle or Boston), often without providing any support for a successful transition.
I've heard horror stories from lawyer friends whose incarcerated clients, upon being released, have been dropped on street corners without any means to find housing for the night, never mind the month or the year.
If they don't have family, they are marked "ex-con" and are hard-pressed to find a job, which means they have no income, which means they can't afford an apartment.
If they do have family, they are also marked "ex-con" and still can't find a job.
No wonder the recidivism rate—whatever it is—is what it is.
However, there are ways to reduce these rates—ways that are working.
And those ways are pretty common sense: treat people in prisons—and people who used to be in prisons—like people. In other words, do what the groups profiled in "Through the Door" are doing.
The Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, profiled in the film, has instituted the PLUS program—Purposeful Living Units Serve—now in its fourth year.
It's faith- and character-based—two tracks with the same aim (one for people who prefer faith-based, the other for people who prefer character-based).
The PLUS program is offered at 16 different facilities with a current enrollment of approximately 1,200 participants.
People in the program take classes and work on community service initiatives. In particular, a quilting project has stuck.
Participants have made quilts for tornado victims, chemo patients and families of deceased soldiers.
Since its inception, more than 1,000 PLUS participants have completed the 12- to 16-month program.
Of these, around 200 have been released back into the community. The recidivism rate of PLUS graduates is less than 5 percent.
"Through the Door" stresses how non-incarcerated people can and should be motivated by their faith to get involved with prisons.
Bill Kleiber works at a bus station outside of a prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he has been working for 12 years.
He is charming. A former inmate himself, Kleiber lectures the families standing outside the building, waiting for their loved ones' release.
"Go get them something to eat!" he yells cheerfully at them. "They're hungry!"
"Do you have a particular faith?" he asks several men.
"Baptist," one says.
"I'm a Christian," Kleiber replies, "but I trust God to draw us all to our faith … Muslim. Buddhist. It's not my job to fix people; I trust God to take care of that."
"Muslim," another man replies.
Kleiber shakes his hand and says, "I have a lot of Muslim friends and a lot of Muslim chaplains that I work with."
He gets on a bus as it's leaving. He stands at the front. He coaches people on where to make calls, how to figure out their bus schedules.
"Welcome back," he says. "It was just a bad dream. Don't be reliving the bad dreams; it's wasted energy. Go build some new dreams."
Mary Adkins is a writer and lawyer based in New York City. She edits the blog, Life of the Law, where a longer version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. Her other writings appear on her website, and you can follow her on Twitter @adkinsmary. Mary's mother, Clista, is a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics.