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

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

Church and community involvement critical for inmates’ successful re-entry

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Thousands of inmates are released from jails and prisons each year in Alabama. Within two years of release, most will be back behind bars again, repeating a cycle that leaves their families destitute and rudderless, while taxpayers continue to pay for incarceration but nothing that approaches real “correction.”

What’s a law-abiding, church-going citizen to do?

You could go to prison — there’s always a need for volunteers and mentors and teachers and chaplains. Or you could invite an ex-offender to your church supper or his kids to your child’s birthday party. Or you could take a chance on giving an ex-felon a job so he or she can earn an honest living and gain the self-respect and trust to stay on track and provide for his or her family. 

Why should you?

If one-on-one interactions with people who have been convicted of serious crimes aren’t your thing, you can always donate supplies or books or Bibles or money to the organizations that face those issues and people head-on.

But why should you? 

Jesus mentions prisoners specifically when commanding people of faith to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25). In purely pragmatic terms faith community involvement makes sense in the face of America’s (and especially Alabama’s) inordinately high rate of incarceration. The simple fact is that our society puts so many people in jail that in all likelihood you know somebody serving or likely to serve at least a few years in prison.

Ministers are certainly aware of the toll mass incarceration takes on their congregations and communities. 

In a 2016 study of 1,000 mainline and evangelical pastors conducted by LifeWay Research almost 60 percent of pastors said they had church attendees with incarcerated family members, and 50 percent said they had church attendees themselves who had been sent to prison in the previous three years. 

Nearly all of those surveyed said churches have a responsibility to care for families of prisoners and to provide resources and support for youth and adults released from prison. However, only 1 in 5 churches is actually doing so. 

Pitching in

Moreover 38 percent of pastors admitted they have never even talked about the growing prison population in a sermon. Many of the churches that are talking about and engaged in prison ministries are not doing so in an organized fashion. Mostly efforts are limited to individual members who feel called to become personally involved, the LifeWay poll revealed.

Yet faith-based ministries and re-entry programs can provide critical turning points in the life of an incarcerated person. For instance the Christian-based Jump Start Alabama re-entry program in the Bibb County Correctional Facility is modeled after a highly successful program that has operated for more than a decade in South Carolina. 

For now it’s being run primarily by a minister from a nearby Brent church and an inmate who voluntarily transferred from South Carolina to help “plant” the Jump Start program in Alabama.

The Jump Start Alabama pilot program is in its infancy, said Mitch Haubert, pastor of Brent Presbyterian Church and executive director of Jump Start Alabama. 

“Basically in Alabama it’s just me and Kevin right now,” he said of inmate Kevin Caraway. “He’s working on the inside and I’m advocating on the outside.” 

Local churches such as Brent Baptist Church and Six Mile Baptist Church have been pitching in with bringing meals to share with Jump Start participants. 

A transition home in nearby Greensboro has been secured and is being renovated and furnished in anticipation of the participants.

Helping a program like Jump Start can be as one-on-one as becoming a mentor or volunteer in the prison, or as long distance as prayer and financial donations. The program is expected to cost about $60,000 per year to operate. 

Jump Start Alabama makes four promises to participants when they leave prison:

  • A full-time job
  • Transitional housing
  • A community to embrace them
  • Structured accountability.

But Haubert said church and community help is needed to deliver on those promises. An individual willing to befriend and mentor a soon-to-be-released inmate can make the critical difference between successful re-entry and the failure of recidivism.

“We need mentors to talk with these guys and tell them, ‘Hey, I’m a father. Here’s what Christian fatherhood looks like,’” Haubert said. “We need somebody to walk alongside of them.”


Christian-based program helps inmates get jumpstart on life outside of prison

When Joliet Jake is released from prison in “The Blues Brothers” movie his release is portrayed as the classic cliché: He leaves wearing the same suit of clothes and harboring the same bad attitudes he had when he entered the place. In the movie, as in real life, it’s a recipe for recidivism.

Successful release

In Bibb County Correctional Facility, in Brent, there’s a cadre of inmates who are “on a mission from God” long before they ever set foot outside the state prison. 

The Christian-based Jump Start Alabama program combines Bible teachings with discipleship and around-the-clock accountability in an effort to grow participants’ spirituality and prepare them for successful release and re-entry into law-abiding society.

Alabama’s recently initiated pilot program is modeled after South Carolina’s Jump Start, which boasts tremendous success in reducing recidivism: a 5 percent reduction for program graduates versus national statistics showing 60 percent of inmates return to prison within the first two years. 

Unlike South Carolina’s program Jump Start Alabama taps into another faith-based success story unfolding at Bibb County Correctional, the inmate seminary program operated under the Birmingham Theological Seminary (BTS) Prison Initiative. 

Ten inmates graduated from the two-year seminary program last summer, and another 11 inmates are studying in the second seminary cohort that began last fall. 

These students lead, minister to and live with nine teams of fellow inmates in the prison’s 106-man Character Based Housing Unit. 

Two South Carolina state inmates — Adam Green and Kevin Caraway — volunteered to be transferred to Bibb County Correctional to help launch both programs. 

‘Daily surrender’

Mitch Haubert, pastor of Brent Presbyterian Church, serves as BTS Prison Initiative coordinator and executive director of Jump Start Alabama. 

One recent January morning in a small office down the hall from the prison chapel, Haubert was working with Caraway to put the final touches on a new website being developed to educate churches and communities about the program.

Jump Start Alabama is organized in three phases, Haubert said. Phase 1 is a 10-month, in-prison discipleship and character development program teaching inmates how to live successfully on the outside. 

In the year-long Phase 2 inmates who successfully complete Phase 1 will live in a transitional home in Greensboro. “It will be a structured environment intended to continue the Christian community, character and accountability fostered during the first ‘inside’ phase,” Haubert explained. “The structure will assist men who have been incarcerated to negotiate the greatly multiplied decisions and responsibilities of society.”

In Phase 3 graduates of the program will transition to the local community of their choice. 

Jump Start Alabama needs the faith community’s involvement now and as it grows. And, as the inmate who is helping to establish the program in Alabama points out, it’s in the churches’ and towns’ best interest to do so.

“Ninety-five percent of us will get out of prison,” Caraway said. “I’m the guy who’s going to be your neighbor. Local churches, pour into us now. Build a genuine community with us. Be involved. Show us how to do life on the outside.”

While Caraway says inmates do “have to have that daily surrender to Christ,” he also points out that average church and community members can help inmates readjust to life outside of prison by helping them with surprisingly pragmatic things, such as how to:

  • Get a job
  • Be a good employee
  • Run a household
  • Operate a computer
  • Use a smart phone.

‘God’s way’

Perhaps the biggest thing that inmates need to know in order to stay out of prison, Caraway said, is how to have fun. Mentors help soon-to-be released prisoners realize that fun looks different in a Christian community, Caraway pointed out.  

In the South Carolina Jump Start program, now in its 12th year, newly released participants’ “night on the town” was often at a local church, Haubert said. 

“During a recent visit to the South Carolina Jump Start program, I saw them on a Friday night at the church, praying there, eating there, watching a movie together,” he said. “They were having fun God’s way.”

For more information about Jump Start Alabama contact Mitch Haubert at 205-928-0364 or mhaubert@brentpc.org.