After Incarceration: A Story of Rescue
Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
“We still have a greater need for awareness of members to be sensitive to people who have taken a wrong turn in their lives and to bring them back. … I can’t think of any better place to practice Christianity than bringing people who have really been lost . . . back into the fold.” Elder Dale Miller, director of LDS Correctional Services in Utah
Peter’s story is unusual.
After 30 years of being caught up in the world of drug addiction, he spent 10 months on the run from the police. He was arrested while trying to escape out a window in his home and later went to prison.
While he was there, a fellow inmate invited Peter to attend LDS worship services with him. Peter agreed. The other inmate didn’t attend after that first week, but Peter kept going—every week for the duration of his sentence, in fact. He also participated in the institute program, in LDS Addiction Recovery Program meetings, family home evenings, and other programs the Church offered at the Utah State Prison, where he was incarcerated.
And 10 days following his release from prison, he was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A year later he baptized his wife and their son, and today the family is preparing to be sealed in the temple.
But again, Peter’s story is unusual. Rates of recidivism—of returning to prison or jail after having served a sentence—are high in most places across the world. (In the United States, for instance, it’s estimated at about 70 percent, said Elder Dale Miller, who serves as the director of LDS Correctional Services in Utah.)
What helped Peter avoid such a return—or stagnation in the drug-centered world he knew before he became a member of the Church? Certainly his experience inside the prison was a factor. But Peter and those closest to him say that where he is today is as much because of what happened to him after his release.
Coming to Themselves
Paul and Rebecca McCarty are two of some 1,500 members of the Church who volunteer in Utah’s correctional facilities. Their Church calling is to serve as “transition directors” at the Utah State Prison working with a medium-security unit of men, meaning that they help the men prepare for life following their release. The McCartys also volunteer as directors at the family history center at the correctional facility.
Brother McCarty says that in the course of their five years of service at the prison, they have often heard inmates describe their incarceration as a blessing in disguise. Many knew that they needed to change their lives but didn’t know how, so they would pray, or their families would pray for them. And then, in the “blackest night” of their lives, they were arrested and sent to prison.
“[At first] they think, ‘This isn’t helping me,’” explains Brother McCarty. “But once they’re in prison and they recognize where they are, they can finally … take responsibility. We have heard so many testimonies from residents (inmates) that say, in effect, ‘This how the Lord saved me. This is how He rescued me.’” They express gratitude for the opportunity to evaluate and change their lives.
Fear of the Outside
Change can be somewhat easier in the structured life of prison or jail. After all, Brother McCarty points out, “When you’re in prison, you’re in a very controlled environment. There are external controls that govern what you do, say, [and] eat.” Privileges—such as attending institute classes and participating in family history work—are granted or restricted based on behavior.
But when it comes to life on the outside, most residents experience a “great deal of fear,” said Brother McCarty. Many may not have family support—either because of family dysfunction or severed relationships resulting from a loss of trust. Most don’t have money, employment prospects, a place to live, or even something as simple as ID. Those who are members of the Church may not know the name of their ward or their bishop. For many, the anxiety and fear of rejection is so strong that they won’t even look for jobs. In such cases, they end up on the streets or once again become incarcerated.
In fact, said Elder Miller, a major reason for recidivism is that people simply don't know another way to live.
“They are comfortable,” he said, “and a lot of them feel it’s safer in institutions. [They think:] ‘I don’t have to worry about how to get food. I don’t have to worry about friends. I don’t have to worry about a lot of things I would normally have to go out and do on my own. It takes care of me.’
“Of course,” Elder Miller continued, “we believe in the ability to use agency by making choices. The choices are greatly restricted inside [correctional facilities], so it really prevents their progress.”
However, said Brother and Sister McCarty, if some basic considerations are taken prior to an inmate’s release and in the first 60 to 90 days following it, a great deal of the fear can be alleviated.
Making a Plan
Six months before one of the inmates they work with is released, Brother and Sister McCarty begin making a specific plan with him. They work with him directly but also try to include others in the transition efforts.
“As transition directors,” said Brother McCarty, “we have found that there are two important things a newly released inmate must have: strong family support and help from ecclesiastical leaders.” They work with the inmate and with the families to try to repair broken trust. They also invite an ecclesiastical leader—a bishop or branch president in the case of Latter-day Saints or other religious leader in instances where the inmate is of a different faith—to come meet with the inmate prior to release or at least to begin a written correspondence with him.
Involving these parties early on, said Elder Miller, provides an opportunity for a ward council to become involved under the direction of the priesthood leader. It also provides a way for the family to offer support and be involved.
In addition, said Sister McCarty, by building these relationships before his release, the inmate can anticipate having a support network, someone to “work alongside them so they don’t feel lost.”
But the plan is even more specific than that. Brother and Sister McCarty sit down with each inmate individually and develop what they call a post-release plan. The plan addresses how the inmate, upon release, will deal with challenges, discouragement, and temptations that arise; how he or she will deal with his or her addictions; how he or she will obtain family and church leader support; and how he or she will repair broken fences of trust and strengthen family relationships. It involves four parts:
- A résumé. Many inmates don't feel that they have any accomplishments to list; instead, said Brother McCarty, they see themselves as “born losers” who will “never make it.” Creating a résumé that focuses on the jobs they have had and perhaps educational attainments they may have achieved during their incarceration not only gives them a practical tool for their job search, it also gives them a sense of confidence. “We’re telling them that they are a child of God and that they are a person of worth,” said Brother McCarty.
- A six-month plan. This document involves the inmate writing down all the things he is going to do as soon as he walks out of the prison gates as well as what he wants for his life six months later and again six months after that. That way, Sister McCarty said, they have something in mind.
- A 12-week plan. From there, the McCartys and the inmate break the plan down into weekly goals, with personal contingency plans for situations where their individual goals aren’t met. This plan also includes what to do when the temptation arises to return to former criminal or irresponsible behavior.
- A 90-day plan. Since an a former inmate’s anxieties are typically at their height for the first 60 to 90 days following release, this detailed document outlines day-by-day living. It includes information such as the locations of the nearest transition home and addiction recovery meetings as well as the contact information for the ecclesiastical leader, with whom the inmate hopefully has a relationship at that point. Of course, it’s not possible to anticipate every circumstance the inmate might face after release, but talking through contingency plans “prepares them for a mindset to face challenges that may come forward,” Brother McCarty said.
One reason that the post-release plan is especially important, Sister McCarty said, is that after an inmate is released, she and her husband cannot do anything for them. “Because we are transition leaders,” she said, “they are allowed to call us once or twice in the first month or six weeks.” But by law, they are not allowed to maintain more frequent correspondence with those they worked with inside the prison.
The plan helps them, Brother McCarty added, “to know that they are not alone and that there are many people who want them to succeed.”
The greatest success comes when the support network outside the correctional facility is like that inside the facility, said Elder Miller.
For instance, when a priesthood leader knows the inmate and perhaps his or her post-release plan and even parole conditions (an inmate can agree to have the Department of Corrections release this information to a priesthood leader), he is better prepared to meet his or her needs and to include the ward council, home and visiting teachers, and others in bringing the person into a ward family.
“The tendency when [an inmate gets] out is to go back with old friends,” said Elder Miller, “So the formation of new friendships, of a new circle of caregivers, is critical.” That’s especially true of the first 90 days, he added.
He also said that many former inmates will need extra nurturing. “Part of it is being there for them, every hour almost,” he said, especially when someone is in addiction recovery. “It is very unusual for a home teacher or ward missionaries to stay this close, but … somebody has to be there to help them through that. It’s not so much an organizational issue; it’s feeling cared about by individuals.”
Peter received that kind of support. He credits the man who was serving as the bishop of his ward when he was first released from prison Paul Lefevor, with helping him make the transition to life “outside.”
“When I just needed to talk to somebody, I could call him and go over and talk to him,” Peter recalled. “There were a number times I went over and sat on his front step and talked to him because I was struggling. It was hard for me to find a job when I got out because of the nature of my conviction. It was just hard. He was there for me. He is still there for me and my family.”
Paul Lefevor, who now serves in the stake presidency of the stake where he and Peter live, said that his experience with Peter has taught him that rescue is about “more than social programs.”
“As I talked with Peter, I experienced with him this mighty change of heart that’s talked about in Alma in the book of Mormon,” said President Lefevor. “I saw in Peter a man who wanted to live the gospel beyond any kind of social functions or activities. He wanted to be a better man, and he wanted to do it in God’s way. The missionaries in the prison taught him the word, and that had a powerful change on Peter’s life” (see see Alma 31:5).
And although he recognizes that some people may have reservations in interacting with those who have been incarcerated, living according to the Spirit and getting to know individuals can help people open their hearts and bring people closer to Heavenly Father. “I don’t think there’s any greater joy than to see another brother or sister come back to Christ,” he said.
But it wasn’t just Bishop Lefevor who has helped Peter. The ward has responded similarly. When Peter told ward members about his incarceration, “No one frowned on it,” he said. “Everyone was there to help me become a stronger member of the Church and to learn more about the gospel.”
Ward members and leaders helped him secure housing for his family (he had been living at his mother’s house, while his wife and their children had been living at her mother’s house). They provided clothing suitable for work and church. And they showed him love. “To know that someone is there for me and actually cares about me and where I’m going in my life—that makes a big difference,” he said.
Elder Miller said that this kind of response—opening arms and accepting someone into the ward—is perhaps one of the best things that a member of the Church can do.
“The thing that terrifies inmates who are released is going back to the ward,” Elder Miller said. “This is the one thing they comment on the most. The feeling is that they don't belong, that they’ve done bad things, that people won’t accept them.
“Ward members sometimes don’t know quite what to do when someone comes into the ward that’s new who [doesn’t] look or act like the typical active member,” he continued. “But the ward mission leader, quorum leaders, and members of the ward council can take the lead in helping members know how to assimilate people who have strayed and want to come back.”
This kind of support need not exist exclusively in places like Utah, where there is an LDS presence inside correctional facilities. It’s possible for this pattern to take place with any unit through a ward council.
President Lefevor said that the story of the Savior talking with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8) has inspired him and those he has worked with:
“There’s not one of us who hasn’t sinned,” he said. “All of us need the Savior to return to our Father in Heaven. No matter what position we are in life, we each need the Savior. Whether we’re a little further along the path than others doesn’t matter—we are each here to help one another overcome sin and mistakes and draw closer to Heavenly Father.”
Unfortunately, said Elder Miller, the kind of reception Peter received is fairly uncommon. Sometimes well-meaning priesthood leaders who want to keep their ward members safe tell those who have recently been released from incarceration that “ex-convicts aren’t allowed in the ward.” Elder Miller recommends that bishops who have concern for those in their stewardship call the Church’s legal department’s hotline for specific guidance in such situations.
The scriptures are replete with references to those who are imprisoned, said Elder Miller. He also said that many of the inmates he has interviewed truly want to come back and feel the Spirit of the Lord again. “The idea is to help correct their path and help get them back, particularly to reconcile with God,” he said.
“We still have a greater need for awareness of members to be sensitive to people who have taken a wrong turn in their lives and to bring them back,” he continued. “… I can’t think of any better place to practice Christianity than bringing people who have really been lost . . . back into the fold.”
A New Life
“Rescue,” said Brother McCarty, “is a lot more than just help. Rescue implies that … life is in jeopardy. As we work with newly released inmates, their lives are in jeopardy—not only their physical lives but also their spiritual well being. We need to constantly reach out.
“The Lord loves them so much. They are Heavenly Father’s children, and He is not going to give up on them. Neither should we.”
Not giving up can bring a newness of life (see Romans 6:4), as it has for Peter and his family, something he calls “a miracle.” While his story of rescue may be unusual, it doesn’t need to be uncommon.
“I never thought that I could be forgiven,” he said. “When I was baptized and came up out of the water, that was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Today I really understand what the Atonement means. I know that I never have to go back to being the person that I was.”