WHAT CONVICTED ME TO GET INVOLVED IN PRISON MINISTRY?

My involvement in prison work came after having been through over a decade of experiences that, as of today, completely re-oriented my priorities and aspirations. In a nutshell this was primarily due to a series of deaths in my immediate family and the resulting gradual decline into clinical depression, which precipitated resignation from 5 years of ministry employment (in an area I was very passionate about), the slow disintegration of our once thriving business and finances to almost bankruptcy, the emergence of chronic health problems (diabetes, neuropathy, severe sleep apnea among others), failures in my personal judgment as a church elder, in my marriage and family life. While these years profoundly affected and changed me, the pain of them has been sublimated by a revitalized and completely new passion for more genuine faith, for unveiling widespread social injustice, and for living purposefully…not narcissistically as our self entertainment obsessed culture and manipulative advertising industries are increasingly…and exponentially…promoting.

Inspired afresh by Matthew 25:36, where Jesus likens Himself to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, I pro-actively sought out those who reside at the heart of our society’s undefined category of untouchables. It’s not the poor, the sick, or the starving…advocacy for them seems to evoke compassion (or at least a kind of ‘survivors guilt’) among the advantaged and privileged, largely because no fault or fairness is attributed to them in causing their plight.

Receptivity to the prisoner’s need, however, is nuanced by the almost universal assumption that they are somehow inherently ‘bad people’, or at the very least people who made a needlessly ‘bad choice’.

This social ostracization and prejudice is an image harbored by even the most well meaning and open minded people. While it is true that congenitally or environmentally induced psychopathic and sociopathic personalities are frequently among them, very little consideration is given to the fact that the vast majority of offenders have been subject…often since birth…to a family or environment of either poverty, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, or physical / sexual abuse (usually some combination of two or more of these).

Less than 5% of those currently incarcerated in Canada today have committed violence or are considered violent. Most have resorted to non-violent crime as a way of coping with addiction or some other desperate need precipitated by no longer being able to continue surviving…in a way that is legal…after too many years of no opportunity or atrophied personal growth.

All this, of course, has the opposite effect that the atmospheres of love, security, financial stability, and healthy communication (that most of us enjoy throughout our childhood and formative years) has had on those of us who nonetheless (at least unconsciously) consider ourselves organically ‘stronger’, more ‘responsible’, of ‘better character’ or ‘moral aptitude’ etc….as if we somehow chose to be born into blessing, advantage, or affluence!

The truth is today’s runaway living on the street and selling their body to survive is tomorrow’s addict committing increasingly heinous crimes to support a drug habit, and disdained by their communities. Understanding, compassion, and support in turning around the effects of their disadvantages seems to expire around the age of 19 to 21…as if the maturity, character, and wisdom that has solidified for most people by that age happens by some magical process or osmosis.

This is precisely why 60 to 70 percent of all released offenders in Canada are back in prison for similar or worse crimes within 12 to 18 months of their initial incarceration. This is why the majority of children of incarcerated individuals end up trapped in the same cycle as adults. This is why prisons are overcrowded, funding to adequately rehabilitate offenders is misallocated if not decimated, and the safety of our communities is exponentially worsening.

Add to that the decreasing funding for policing and, despite the excellent and dedicated work of…and snowballing strain upon…these fewer and fewer RCMP and local police, the problem continues to worsen (despite the self promoting, shallow or ill informed claims of campaigning federal and local politicians).