Aug 20, 2010

"Jesus cares about these inmates, why don't you?": An interview with Mark Early, CEO of the Prison Fellowship

Mark Early, former Attorney General of Virginia, once endorsed the type of tough on crime policies that he now finds himself advocating against as the CEO of Prison Fellowship, a national non-profit organization designed to "give prisoners the opportunity to experience the radically transforming power of Christ." In our interview, Mark Early spoke about the influence of religion on criminal justice politics as well as its power to change the community's response to formerly incarcerated individuals.

What is Prison Fellowship?

Prison Fellowship is an international organization that conducts outreach to prisoners and their families. It was started in 1976 by Chuck Colson [Special Counsel to Richard Nixon who was incarcerated for a Watergate-related conviction] when he came out of prison. He committed the rest of his life to helping prisoners and their families. We work in all fifty states, primarily in state prisons and federal prisons, providing services to inmates that range from spiritual, vocational, helping them upon reentry, assisting their children and helping inmates reconnect with their kids. In NY, we work in Sing Sing, Riverhead, Bedford Hills, Bayview, and Queensboro. We have been trying to increase our level of programming in some of the NY prisons, but we have to navigate some challenges in the correctional systems to do that.

Many people see individuals who have committed any crime as “bad” people, undeserving of assistance either in prison or once they leave. How does the Prison Fellowship use religion to change this perception among individuals in the community?

We are a faith-based organization that grows out of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The way that we approach people who are followers of Jesus is to remind them of the heart that he had for prisoners and those who were marginalized in society. Specifically, Jesus taught that if you visit prisoners you were visiting him. We use that to motivate people to care about prisoners both while they are prison and as they return into society.

What type of resistance have you had from religious communities?

There are some people who can’t get over the stereotype of someone who has been or is incarcerated. I would say we meet mostly with success and, ironically, much of that success in recent years has been due to the growing population of those who are incarcerated in America. Now with 2.3 million people imprisoned, there are very few individuals who go to churches or live in faith based communities who haven’t had a loved one, or a good friend, or someone they know, in prison.  So, most people now know that not everybody there is a predatory kind of person. Many of them are there because of drug or alcohol abuse.

Do you think that approaching reentry policy with a religious perspective tends to depoliticize the issue for people?

The way I generally think about the depoliticization of the reentry issue is this; In the 80’s and 90’s, and I know because I was right in the middle of it, the focus was getting tough on crime and what that meant was enacting as many laws as you could to keep offenders off the street and keep them in prison longer. Just about every state in the nation did that. So now, we have 2.3 million people in prison, and what I think is now depoliticizing is that there is not a whole left to do on the front end without becoming a military state. You know, you just don’t find politicians vying too much when they are running on who can be tougher on crime. It is not a wedge issue like it once was—it has been replaced by things like immigration and terrorism. So, now what is happening is everyone is realizing that the public safety issue today is not what we can do to incarcerate more people, because since we did all that, now we have to figure out how are we going to get all these people ready to come home so they won’t reoffend, create more victims, and create a destabilization of public safety.

What we find is that whether people are Republicans or Democrats, everyone gets this. It has become my observation that it is more of a common ground issue over the last ten years, because the emphasis has begun to shift. We have to get these ready people to come home or we are going to have the same problem on the back end as we had on the front end and we can’t afford to keep people back in prison. The money issue has forced everyone’s hand.

What the faith based issue has done is gotten more voters into caring about prisoners and caring about issues surrounding prisoners. This interest has been taken part of the conservative base and has made it harder for politicians who might tend to revert back to more of a “law and order” stance to do so. They are hearing from some of their constituents that are conservative on a lot of issues, but on this issue are hearing them say “Hey, Jesus cares about these inmates, why don’t you?” It has changed the equation a little bit on the conservative side.

I have heard you speak and say that you are currently working to undo some of the “tough on crime” policies that you helped create when you were Attorney General of Virginia. Did you believe that many of the policies and legislation you endorsed at that time (i.e. long sentences, mandatory minimums for drug crimes) would help solve the crime problem?

I did. I think unfortunately we were overreacting to problems in the correctional system. In Virginia our highest rates of violent crime were coming from felons who had been incarcerated and released, so there was this huge movement to keep these people in prison longer or not let them out at all. The solution was somewhere in between, to not let be let out on parole as quickly and not let them be let out without an opportunity to let them change their criminal behavior. The answer wasn’t to shut the door for good. We were all thinking about the front end, but not the back end. I think what has happened to me overtime, is that I’ve recognize the need for balance. I don’t have a romantic view of prisoners. Believe me, I have seen too many murder scenes and been involved in the lives of too many victims. I have seen how illegal drugs can devastate communities and families. I don’t have a romantic view, but I do think we can have a balance and we’ve got to dig ourselves out of this hole. Once you’ve put 2.3 million in prison, you have basically increased the prison population ten-fold in 30 years.  And when the demographics of that is tilted towards the minority community where the incarceration rates are so high, you have created a social problem that you cannot solve over night.

But, I do think things are moving back in a positive direction. I also think it could change over night given the political circumstances. I tell all my friends that we need to act now while the window of opportunity is open, while crime is not a wedge issue in politics as it once was.

What contribution do you see the Prison Fellowship making in preparing incarcerated individuals for reentry?

We are a flagship program. We are designed as a reentry program where inmates sign up to be part of the program-voluntarily. We take people from any faith or none, although the spiritual part of the program is based on life and teachings of Christ and we make that clear up front. There is a spiritual and intellectual component, and a physical and emotional one. We have seven core values that we emphasize. The intellectual part of the program is making sure that our participants have a GED and to help them get some type of vocational leg up so they are prepared for work upon release. We might teach them how to tear computers apart and put them back together again, or if the prison is open to having a local construction folks come in we do that. At times, we have had the capability to build a house on site and tear it down to rebuild it. We have partnered with other organizations that refurbished wheelchairs. We also always teach our participants how to develop a resume and put them through mock interviews.

We also try to recruit and train for every inmate a mentor so when they are released they have someone, in addition to family or whoever they might have, in some cases nobody, to meet them at the gate, put their arm around them, and walk back with the into the community to start that long road home. During the following year, we make sure they are staying anchored in a wholesome environment. Many of them also want to get involved in a church and we encourage this. We want them to have a positive social environment and relationships The mentor tries to help them run interference for job, housing, family and any substance abuse programs to make sure they figure all of that out. Participants graduate in a year and the program, which has been studied by the University of Pennsylvania, has very good outcomes. The bottom line of the research is that the most important thing to the success of the program is a mentor. Just like for you and me, someone vouched vouched for us. [Former inmates'] problem is they don’t have any connections coming out of prison.

Obviously, the theme of “change and redemption” is a powerful one. What type of work does the Prison Fellowship do to reach employers and share this message?

One of the things we stress is the recruiting and training of mentors, both to work with inmates in prison and upon their return. If they work with these communities and the individuals return to the community as a mentor and friend and integrate them into communities of faith, there is usually a great network that can provide job. Quite frankly, we find the church to be one of the best networking opportunities for jobs for returning individuals-especially if it’s a church that has a concern for those individuals and they are not just looking at employing them strictly from an employment standpoint.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the Prison Fellowship?

My hopes are for the men and women involved in Prison Fellowship. We view prison not as a ending place, but as a place that can be a sending place. A place where people can take some of the worst decisions they have made in life and turn them into some of the biggest opportunities. We see opportunities for them not only to become law abiding citizens, but citizens who have something to give their community vastly beyond what someone who has never been in prison can offer because of the life experience they have garnered. My hope is that former inmates can become army of leaders of the next generation.