Prisoner Reintegration: It’s up to all of us

As of late, the reintegration of prisoners has been given a renewed sense of importance in policy initiatives. ‘Late’ is probably the right word to use here, as up until recently this barely got a mention. Schemes like Pay for Success in the U.S. and New Zealand’s Clean Slate Act recognised that, with half of offenders returning to prison after their release, successful reintegration was key to fighting crime and ensuring safer communities. Moreover, this wasn’t going to be achieved by stigmatising offenders- they needed to be given the opportunity to start afresh.

Yet despite some positive policy initiatives, high recidivism rates remain. And that’s because it’s not just the responsibility of policy makers to help prisoners reintegrate. As Fred Brunell from Prison Fellowship pointed out to me, it’s something that we’re all answerable to. An attitude of “it’s not my problem” creates a divisiveness that fuels cycles of crime, rather than the community support that helps break them.

As a largely volunteer based organisation, Prison Fellowship is a key example of how ordinary members of the community can help to break cycles- within families, communities and individuals themselves. At the individual level, a second chance can begin even while a person is still in prison. As the prisoner prepares for release, Prison Fellowship’s volunteer “coaches” go into prisons and work on a transition plan, targeting the prisoner’s specific strengths and weaknesses and envisioning a better future. Once the offender is released, community support becomes focal in setting this plan into action.

Prison Fellowship’s primary initiative, “Breakfree Communities,” sets up a support network within their area for the prisoner. These volunteers can be instrumental in kickstarting positive change, with help ranging from business support and employment contacts to mentoring around substance addiction. Demonstrating that help doesn’t necessarily need to come from the great arm of government, BreakFree Communities simply tries to bring back what Fred argues is lost in our modern world- a close circle of community support, where “if your next door neighbour was hungry you’d feed them”. With many offenders isolated from family and friends after their release or lacking in positive role models, people in the wider community may be the only help they can turn to.

As noted by Fred, positive relationships can be very powerful amulets against recidivism. And whilst some may need to be more dependent on wider community support, for others the role of family can also be very positive and influential. Several of Prison Fellowship’s programs work to build and maintain positive family relationships, particularly for the children of prisoners. Angel Tree is one good example of this, where parents on the inside get to send Christmas gifts to their children. Relying again on the goodwill and kindness of everyday people, the actual presents themselves are donated, however the cards accompanying them are written by the prisoners. This not only helps to recognise and ameliorate the devastating effect that prison has on children, it also helps the prisoner in reintegration through strengthening key personal relationships. Furthermore, it’s not just at Christmas time that the family is acknowledged. Throughout the year, Prison Fellowship holds meetups and even camps for the children of prisoners, helping to model a better way.

Significant barriers to achieving reintegration still remain, however. What Fred calls the “big six” of reintegration -employment, accommodation, budgeting skills/financial support, drug and alcohol support, pro-social modelling and mental health- still need our time and investment. And it’s a worthwhile investment to make. Fred estimates about a million dollars within two years would be enough to break trends. He acknowledges that this may sound like a lot. However, the payoffs for that million could be huge.

“Some people might say a million bucks, you’ve got to be dreaming! And the answer to that is, well, if you prevent just one prisoner from going back in there, that’s $90,000. If we save 10 prisoners from going back in, for at least a year, then we’ve saved a million dollars.”

Yet while we wait for that million to come along, it is heartening to discover all the small ways that everyday people can help. Policy and budgets for many of us are an abstraction that we only really come across in election time, and even then they may be something we feel we have little control over. However, evidently there are a range of ways in which Prison Fellowship facilitates the help of people in the community, with even more ideas still in the pipeline. For example, accommodation is currently a major obstacle in reintegration, not in the least because it is difficult to set something up from the inside. Even if an ex-prisoner is able to find a place to stay, they may be denied housing on the basis of their convictions. In response, Fred proposes the idea of a kind of accommodation register, a kind of “first port of call” with the range of halfway houses and accommodation options that are available. A register could also open up a way for community members to help. As Fred says;

“not only are there the institutional organisations, but there’s a whole heap of people out there in the community with goodwill, and who say okay, it might be a bit risky but I’ll give it a go and I’ll let my garage out to a prisoner, and give them a bed, that kind of thing.”

Small acts of charity can make all the difference, and it is these acts from everyday people that Prison Fellowship looks to facilitate.

Yet whilst there are many people full of acceptance and forgiveness, we also live in a society strongly geared towards punitive measures. For Fred, it is changing this mindset that is the biggest barrier, and it manifests in various ways.

“In the community, it’s found when people say ‘just lock them up and throw away the key’. In volunteer organisations, I think it’s hidden away in people’s mind. I think it’s found in volunteer organisations where people see their role as maternal figures whose job it is to tell people off all the time, rather than model a better way. And I think that in the institutions, in [the Department of]  Justice or whatever the institution may be, it’s when people think that their job is to punish people, to make life hard.”

This punitive attitude applies even when ex-prisoners are out, even when they have supposedly “done their time”. It is also something that money and policy can’t fix, but we, as members of society, can.

What this comes back to is the spirit and attitude that all of us hold in approaching reintegration. The collective mindset of society has a powerful role in shaping the individuals in it. Within our power is the ability to either help forge new, positive lives for prisoners, or to contribute to the punitive attitude that provokes re-offending. While we often look to policy or the government to solve all our problems, policy is only a bit of paper without the spirit of the community behind it.  From donating a gift to a prisoner’s child or leasing out a room, there are a range of ways we can all set the scene for reintegration, changing communities and changing lives.

By Nicola Corner

Prison Fellowship is always on the look out for new volunteers, particularly for the role of coaching offenders pre-release. If you’d like to help, please contact Fred at fred.brunell@pfnz.org.nz or visit the Prison Fellowship website  http://www.pfnz.org.nz/ to learn more.