Five Years of Prison Ministry, By Richard Tunstall
Dick Tunstall and I serve on the Editorial Board of the new book, “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked The American Dream” about the state of criminal justice in Connecticut and our country. – Jeff
After 5 years of prison ministry, (2 days/month) at Garner Correction Institution in Newtown, CT, I have the following observations:
1) Each inmate (person) is unique. In other words, instead of categorizing all prisoners or inmates in a certain way, each is a unique person. Whatever way you want to categorize someone, (e.g., by size, intelligence, age, color, etc.), you’ll find prisoners within the full spectrum of all these categories: tall/short, skinny/fat, smart/not so smart, dark/light, etc. In other words, each is unique.
2) They are not shown proper respect. It is one comment I have heard often, “they disrespected me.” I remember one inmate coming into the chapel seething because he was patted down three times on the way to “Catholic Sharing”. We had a situation when a CO kept needling one of the inmates …..already in the chapel………who after taking it for about a minute used the “F” word, was cuffed and spent two weeks in SEG. Should he have kept his cool?…..absolutely. But seeing how the more effective COs perform their duties, you realize they engender more cooperation with inmates. In our Weekend Retreat, we were singing a song when a CO came in, the music stopped and in front of 9 volunteers and 28 inmates, the CO announced, “XXX, XXXX, you need to get your meds.” Gene looked up and responded to the CO, “I don’t take meds now”. The CO said, “The nurse is here, gotta take your meds.”
3) There aren’t enough programs to ensure successful reentry into society. Although guys participate in AA, NA, Anger Management and other programs, there aren’t enough skills development programs to help inmates secure employment once they are released. In one of our sessions, we went around the room with what they’d like to do once released. After 5 guys responded, it became clear they wanted to get into trades such as carpentry, plumbing, sheetrocking, etc. I actually said, “Hey, let’s build a house.” But when they get out (95% are released), they will not have the opportunity to build those skills to realize those dreams.
4) Inmates have kids. During the first few weeks at Garner, I was surprised when many would pray for their kids at the end of the session. I expected few if any would have children – after all, they’re prisoners. They must have thought of that before committing a crime. Or, since many were so young, you wouldn’t expect a kid to have kid(s). If you look at the broader statistics: there are 2.2M prisoners in the US, and 2.7M children of prisoners. What is the impact? Recent studies show the impact is greater than losing a parent or having your parents divorced. The impact is almost always negative! First there is the stigma of seeing a parent being arrested – having the police in a show of force, breaking into a home and forceably cuffing and taking away your Mother or Father. There is the social stigma – how do you tell your friends your parent is incarcerated. There is significant guilt. There is a negative impact on social behavior resulting in increased violent outbursts. There are increased mental health issues. School performance suffers. There is a lowered level of family income since a parent is not able to provide for the family. Because of a loss of parental rights, many children are placed in Foster care. Many children don’t get the support they need to properly handle a difficult situation. There is a term which applies to most children of incarcerated parents: Family Boundary Ambiguity. That is, children are not clear who is, or who isn’t a part of the family. Who is performing what role? With an incarcerated Mother, the situation is further exacerbated. With an increased family dysfunction, there is a resulting individual dysfunction. In high crime areas, there can be a Community of Violence – children experience so much criminal behavior, it becomes routine. They become numb to it – their chances of escaping it are limited.
Again, do inmates have children? You bet! Not only do we see the statistics that confirm this, anecdotally we see the same thing. In fact, in our last session at Garner, I sat next to an inmate with………………..…7 children!
So, you can see with increased incarceration, we are NOT creating a safer environment; we are in fact creating MORE problems – not only today, but more importantly in the future. There are very few good outcomes when parents of children are incarcerated.
Dick Tunstall is on the Board of Malta Justice Initiative and has been involved with criminal justice reform, Faith enhancement and scripture study programs for over 8 years. He is active in prison ministry at Garner Correction Institution, Newtown, CT conducting “Catholic Sharing” sessions every other Tuesday. To reach Dick: firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-377-7053.