In the current Better Life Integration and Support series, we’re looking at the ingredients of healthy reintegration.
In the previous edition, we addressed the importance of mentors and volunteers understanding the Reintegration Structure.
We picture this Structure as a bridge that begins in the Correctional Institution and extends into the community. We envision the four essential components of the bridge as the support, the onramp, the main body of the bridge, and the offramp or exit. Each one of these stages requires specific types of support.
In this edition, we will look at SYSTEM. In other words, what works within the STRUCTURE of Reintegration to make the process function effectively?
Specifically, what can a mentor, volunteer, and community of faith provide to help a parolee have a healthy reintegration experience and move towards becoming a contributing member of their society?
At Better Life, we believe that a clear and healthy pathway can be created to support the the best possible outcomes for an individual’s reintegration.
We’d like to suggest a System that develops through three invaluable questions.
Let me underline that these questions are ones you can ask in conversation together with the parolee during the first month of parole.
In other words, everything that you and the parolee experience together is a product of developing a trusting relationship, which the reintegration pathway is built on.
So let me encourage you—don’t feel like you have to rush. Let the relationship develop, and out of the relationship, ask these three questions that allow a pathway to be created.
The questions are:
Where have you Been?
Where are you Going?
How will you Get There?
1. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
This is such an invaluable question. It’s obvious that a parolee has been places that have had a serious impact on their life.
It’s a question that addresses their crime, and in relationship to their crime, the conditions that they now have for their parole.
It’s also a question that address an individual’s challenges in life. For instance, a therapist once asked a group of men in a high security prison how many of them dreamed as little boys that they would be in the place where they are now? Of course, not one of them raised their hand. No one dreams of being incarcerated as a young boy, or young girl.
What we know is that a parolee has had certain experiences and responded to those experiences in a way that wasn’t healthy, wasn’t contributing to society.
On one hand, we don’t enter the work of providing reintegration support as a therapist, a psychologist, or psychiatrist. It’s not our role to provide professional therapy. But knowing a person’s story not only makes a caregiver aware of the comprehensive help that a parolee needs, but also recognizes the importance and supports the fundamental and life-giving experience of being known.
To emphasize this point, a parolee may not believe this is true. They may experience shame, or guilt and may have had their desire for secrecy reinforced over and over again within the context of a prison. Sharing their past may not come easily. However, we understand that hiddenness and secrecy do not bring about healing and growth into our life.
Our starting point on the road to a healthy reintegration is a person’s story.
Listening to their story (not judging or questioning, but listening), communicates the value you place on them and the care you desire to give them. The details of an individual’s story may come out over time, but as trust is built, this will be the outcome.
Before we move onto the second question, let me circle back to the connection between a parolee’s story and their conditions of parole. This is important because the most often asked questions by faith communities are, "Will we be safe? Will our community be safe? Will our children be safe?"
In response, there are a number of conditions that a parolee must follow. Some conditions are general and will apply to all parolees, and some are very specific, depending on the parolee’s crimes.
For instance, an individual who has had a sexually related offence, or an offence against a minor, will have very clear conditions restricting them from settings where there are minors present.
So, in summary, through a parolee's story, we also learn of their parole conditions and supervision and can understand how best to provide safety for our faith community and for the offender. (Parole conditions also will be proactively shared with the faith community representative supporting reintegration.)
Through listening to the parolee’s story and offering support we begin the journey of providing a trusted relationship foundation that healthy reintegration is build upon.
2. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
The importance of this question may not be so obvious.
But a Better Life board member, a criminal law lawyer, puts the question into perspective like this:
What would it be like for you to be judged every day of your life for the worst day or moment of your life?
It’s hard to even envision, isn’t it?
What the question illustrates are the challenges that a criminal history and incarceration bring.
For instance, one ‘lifer’ who went on to experience faith and become a prison chaplain himself, tells of his experience on the day that he was released for parole. The prison guard looked at him and said, "See you back soon!"
Often this is the sentiment communicated. It's informed by the way many inmates become institutionalized, and can sometimes begin to feel it's easier to stay incarcerated than to face the many challenges reintegrating back into the community will bring.
As we ask a parolee the question "Where are you going?", we are inviting the parolee into the experience of envisioning their life in a new way.
A way that is often impacted by the hope of their faith, and how their faith practices can allow them to see both themselves, and life around them in a new way. In many respects, this is one of the most important areas of support a caregiver can provide.
While the diversity of faith beliefs envision hope, love, forgiveness, grace differently, I was impacted through my conversation with an Imam who asked, "Adam, how can we hold an individual’s past and crime over them for the rest of their life, when God tells us that he forgives those who earnestly repent? If God can forgive, why don’t we?"
Again, there are distinctions between the many different faiths, but the Imam’s question was an important one to answer and have clarity on for any caregiver who is providing reintegration support.
We could ask, and answer, what elements of my faith can enable the parolee I'm working with to both envision and experience a life of forgiveness and contribution within our faith tradition?
3. HOW WILL YOU GET THERE?
In many respects the answer to this question will be informed by the parolee’s answer to question number one, Where Have You Been?
Through listening to the parolee’s story certain elements, specific needs, come to light.
It may be, on one hand, that the parolee is very mature in their faith. In fact, they may be at a place in their faith that they can provide support and help for others. We have seen numerous parolees use their incarceration as a ‘wake up call,’ where they either come to faith, or become serious/committed in their faith.
There are also Prison Chaplains who do an amazing job of helping inmates grow in their faith so that they are actually more mature in their faith practices when they reach parole than many in their faith community. In other words, we shouldn’t assume that all parolees are in need of others to teach and train them.
On the other hand, most, if not all faiths, recognize that we ‘never arrive.’ There is always a deeper experience of our faith that we can enter into.
Again, this is why the first question, ‘Where have you Been’ is so important. Through your conversation with a parolee, you will recognize the level of experience they have had in their faith practices and engagement, and whether or not they are in need of professional therapy, or education, or housing, etc. Their story, their needs, their path forward will be distinct and unique to them.
Better Life’s recommendation is that through the first month, or even first quarter of relationship building, you create and make an agreement of what the next period of time together will look like.
For instance, you may agree to a six month period of studying or practicing an element of your faith together.
The agreement may also include intentional conversations about other critical areas. Perhaps, the parolee is also undergoing addiction treatment, or mental healthy therapy, for instance. A part of your regular time together may be to incorporate space to talk about how they are feeling as they address their challenges of addiction.
You’re not engaging with the parolee as a therapist, but you are giving opportunity for them to talk about their experience.
What we call a Commitment of Trust Agreement can be invaluable because it specifies healthy relationship boundaries, the expected frequency of meeting, the duration of support (e.g., We will meet for six months and then we will evaluate), and even what you will focus on in your time together.
As an example, the invaluable organization (CoSA - Circles of Support and Accountability) uses a very similar agreement that is phenomenally effective in reducing recidivism (reoffending) with parolees who have a sexual offence history.
What Better Life has discovered is that the benefit of a parolee engaging in the practices of their faith community—prayers, services, etc.—are enormous. Many faith communities are welcoming and supportive to parolees attending their community.
However, what often provides the highest impact is the individual’s experience of relationship. This may be in the context of a member of the faith community regularly meeting with the parolee for coffee and conversation. It may be inviting the parolee into a small group that engages in providing support together, or having the parolee experience an existing small group as a means of experiencing healthy relationship.
Let me encourage you, use these three questions like tools in your tool box to help you provide support that leads to a parolee’s healthy reintegration.