A look at mass incarceration in Alabama — eighth in a series

A look at mass incarceration in Alabama — eighth in a series

One family’s experience with prison inspires a program to help others

Before the accident Laure and Jerry Clemons had a pretty good life. 

They had been married for six years and were raising a blended family of three girls. A recovering alcoholic, Jerry relied on his higher power — God — and had been sober for nine years. Faith was a central element in their lives.  

“We’re both Christians,” Laure Clemons said, “and we were walking with God.”

But one day in 2001, Jerry Clemons strayed off the path. He got blackout drunk, put his keys in the ignition and drove his car straight into an oncoming vehicle, killing one person and seriously injuring another. He was so badly hurt that he was initially pronounced dead at the scene, but after being airlifted to a local hospital he eventually healed. He started over in his recovery from alcohol addiction. Two years later he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault and began serving a 25-year split sentence of six years in prison followed by 19 years on probation.

‘Inevitable outcome’

During those two years leading up to the sentence — the first with police investigating the accident and the second with Jerry being charged, bonded out and finally standing before the judge — the couple worked through issues of anger and guilt and doubled down on their relationship with God. While Jerry seemed resigned to the consequences of his actions, Laure still couldn’t come to grips with the inevitable outcome.

“I was in denial that he was going to go to prison,” Laure said. “It was unthinkable. I didn’t know anybody who had gone to prison. I wasn’t raised that way. You could have knocked me over with a feather. He went straight from court to the county jail and then the state prison. Immediately our prison experience began for our family.

“I knew that we would stay married and we would stay a family,” Laure recalled. “I just didn’t know how. I had never done prison before.”

She quickly learned that “doing prison” doesn’t come with a user’s manual, especially for families of the incarcerated. 

A communications professional by trade, Laure was distressed at the dearth of how-to  information that would help her learn how to navigate prison rules or explain to children why their daddy was behind bars. She didn’t know to take care of herself financially and emotionally while her husband was gone nor what it would be like when Jerry was finally released.

What began as an effort to educate herself soon turned into her own personal mission to establish a support system for families of prisoners. In 2003, “Extended Family” was born.

The Alabama-based nonprofit offers a wide array of resources for families struggling to deal with the incarceration of a loved one, which Clemons likens to a death in the family. 

Extended Family’s website — www.extendedfamilyhelp.org — features a database listing 236 agencies, services and faith-based organizations offering all kinds of help that might be needed by families of prisoners, such as food pantries, job placement, mental health counseling and re-entry help. 

Resources for families

Many of the resources are in Alabama, but Extended Family has helped families of prisoners elsewhere in America and in other countries so there are links to resources outside the state as well.

“Family members of people in prison have needs in every area of life,” Laure said. “Physical, financial, emotional, mental and spiritual. For some people, they might need to know where they can get groceries to feed their families. Others might need a job to make ends meet when the primary wage-earner goes to prison. They need to know how to deal with the mental duress, the stress, what they’re allowed to wear while visiting their loved one in prison, where to find local counselors or even daycare.”

The emotional toll on the family is often the hardest part to handle. 

“It’s almost as if someone in your family died, but they didn’t die. Bam! They’re gone. But they’re not,” Laure said.

Laure Clemons likes to refer to former inmates not as ex-cons, but as “returning citizens,” because that’s the goal: Get the formerly incarcerated acclimated to living productively in the free world and stop the revolving door of recidivism. To that end, Extended Family conducts “Going Home” workshops in Alabama prisons for soon-to-be released inmates. 

“The Going Home workshop is based on our first year of going home,” Laure said of her husband’s 2009 release from prison. 

Compared with a lot of newly released inmates, she said, Jerry had many advantages: He was a sober Christian, had a supportive family and had remained married throughout the ordeal. He had a house and a car and was able to find a job. 

Life after prison

To help people of faith understand how to help, Extended Family offers a “Going Home Outside” workshop for churches. The organization also created a curriculum for children of the incarcerated, “Extended Family for Kids,” which teaches coping skills to youth who have parents or other close family in prison. 

Extended Family primarily relies on local government grants, private foundations and individual donations to support its work. 

The Clemons don’t charge the Alabama Department of Corrections for the prison-based Going Home workshops, which have trained more than a thousand inmates over the past nine years. There’s no set fee for church workshops either. After more than 15 years in existence, this informal arrangement still seems to be working for Extended Families. 

“We do a lot of ‘trust in God’ around here,” Clemons said.


How Church can help those affected by financial, social strains of prison

When the judge bangs the final gavel and a convicted felon is led away, the prisoner isn’t the only one who will serve a sentence. His — or her — family will also pay the price.

In the 2015 study titled “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” a team of researchers from three organizations — Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design — noted that the United States spends $80 billion annually to incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. 

But it’s the families that pay the most, both in real dollars and in less tangible costs. Among their findings:

  • 48–58 percent of families couldn’t afford to pay the fees, fines and other costs associated with a conviction.
  • 68 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.
  • 65 percent of families with an incarcerated member couldn’t meet their basic needs, with 49 percent unable to afford sufficient food.
  • 34 percent of families went into debt to pay for prison phone calls and visits alone.

Researchers in a separate study released in 2016, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” asserted that the actual cost of incarceration in the United States is closer to $1 trillion. 

“For every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional ten dollars in social costs,” concluded the researchers from the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, Washington University in St. Louis. 

With few community resources available to help get them back on their feet, former prisoners all too often wind up back in jail. A study issued in the summer of 2018 by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as many as five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release. In Alabama about 31 percent of released state prisoners return to prison.

How can people of faith make a difference in such a huge social problem?

“There’s more ways that you can help than you realize,” said Laure Clemons, founder and executive director of Extended Family, a support system for families of prisoners and former prisoners. 

“Treat that person whose loved one just went to prison as you would someone who is grieving a loss through death,” Clemons suggested. “Take them a meal. Give them a gift of stamps so they can write to the prisoner. Ask about the person who is incarcerated and how the visits went. 

Welcome them back

“Invite them into your social life. Invite their kids to the birthday parties and make sure they’re on the field trips. Listen to them. And you can always pray for them.”

It’s important to welcome the formerly incarcerated person into church, Clemons added, and to accept that they may have problems adapting to being out of prison. 

Clemons also said people in the free world shouldn’t cynically assume that inmates’ professions of faith are mere jailhouse religion.

“Christians can make some terrible choices,” Clemons said. “Christians do go to prison. And many of the people behind bars spend more hours praying and studying the Bible than any of us do.”

Congregations interested in hosting a Going Home Outside workshop are encouraged to contact Laure Clemons at 256-927-7997, or by email at laure@extendedfamilyhelp.org.


Faith-based Unlocking Second Chances is Feb. 19 

Unlocking Second Chances is all about empowering men and women of faith to advocate for and help those who have been affected by incarceration.

The ministry gathering will be held at The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham, on Feb. 19, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The event will feature speakers and panelists who will address focused, intentional ministry to those in prison. 

Programs such as chaplaincy will be featured. Community and church efforts to address the key factors of incarceration with the goal of reducing recidivism and changed lives will also be highlighted. 

Sponsors of the event include Hope For Life Ministries, Prison Fellowship and Offender Alumni Association, Birmingham. 

Promotional materials are available for churches. 

For more information go to Unlocking Second Chances on Facebook or contact Jeremy Miller at 205-641-3335. (TAB)