This article was sent to me yesterday and I am sharing it with you today. Christians, do we not have a duty to gather up those from the highways and byways? Please prayerfully read this and ask God what your part is in the picture. Sin breaks people, Community Bible College cares.... This was published in the Houston Chronicle November 7.
I had been told that he was a Baptist preacher and had worked as a prison chaplain in the Texas Department of Corrections for more than 30 years. When he walked into the restaurant to meet me for lunch he fit the stereotype one might expect. Wavy hair combed straight back, a western-style jacket and boots. When lunch was served he asked that we bless our food.
But as soon as he began to talk about the plight of prisoners and ex-offenders any preconceived stereotypes quickly shattered. For the next hour he spoke quietly but passionately about the desperate circumstances of individuals who had been released from prison, the inhumanity of the prison system, the apathy and cruelty of society and misguided public policies.
I was having lunch with Emmett Solomon because friends of mine had recently welcomed home a son from five years in the penitentiary. Their son's story is not unfamiliar. He developed a drug problem as a teenager that he was never able to whip. After four or five run-ins with our court system he found himself in Huntsville.
It was an agonizing time for his parents, who were embarrassed their son had gotten into such serious trouble, petrified that he would be seriously harmed and haunted about what he might be enduring in prison. Any parent can imagine their relief when the call came that he was finally being paroled. Soon after the joyous homecoming, however, the reality began to sink in that the hardships were by no means over.
No one wanted to employ an ex-felon. No apartment complexes wanted to rent him an apartment. They learned that he was barred from scores of licenses. Forget getting any credit. My friends have made do, allowing their son to live at home and finding him a job in a family company. But as I watched them struggle with trying to help their son get back on his feet, I wondered what becomes of the vast majority of ex-offenders who have no such support systems.
For years at the TDC Emmett Solomon had asked himself the same question and did not like the answer. So in 1993, he left TDC and formed the Restorative Justice Ministry Network. For the last 15 years, Emmett and his group have met men as they walked out of prison, welcoming them back to society and offering whatever help they can.
When people are released from TDC after serving their time, they are given $50 and a bus ticket home. Each day at 2 p.m., one or two buses leave Huntsville headed to Houston with 50 to 100 inmates released that day. It just so happened that Solomon and I were wrapping up our lunch at about 1:30 p.m.
“Would you like to go down and meet the guys being released today?”
Frankly, not what I had planned, but I agreed. When we arrived at the bus station, there was one unmarked bus, full of men, sitting with its engine idling. Solomon and his assistant, Bill Kleiberg, headed to the bus and motioned for me to follow.
I was not sure what to expect and have to admit a little apprehension about getting on a bus crowded with men just released from prison. I wondered if they would be belligerent because of the treatment they had endured or if there would be that sort of last-day-of-school air on the bus because their ordeal was finally over.
There was neither. The men sat quietly, waiting — obviously something to which they had become accustomed. Mostly they looked lost, staring into space or vacantly out a window. As I walked down the aisle shaking hands and chatting with those who would respond, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness from men just given back their freedom.
Suddenly, from the front of the bus, Kleiberg shouted, “My name is Bill. I am from the church and I am here to help you. I was released from TDC 12 years ago, just like you are being released today and I am here to tell you there is hope.” Instantly, the mood in the bus was transformed as the men eagerly snatched up the information packets Solomon's group had prepared on where they could find help in their home cities. The men suddenly became more animated, asking questions about the information we were handing them. I was amazed how deeply they seemed to appreciate even this small act of kindness.
At the rate we put people in prison in Texas we need to be concerned about what happens when they are released. Worldwide, the incarceration rate is about 160 individuals for every 100,000 people. The second highest incarceration rate is Russia at about 650. The highest is the United States at 750. In Texas, the rate is about 1,000. That is, at any given time, about one person in 100 in Texas is in a prison or jail, six times higher than the world average and higher than even the world's worst dictatorships. Even if we stop putting people in prison at the current rates, we will be releasing 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners each year for many years to come just from TDC. Many thousands more will be released from county and city jails.
Most of those released do not have a family to take them in as my friends' son did. Solomon told me that only about 5 percent of the men released are met by family members. The odds are heavily stacked against those with no support system. With almost no chance of finding a job or a decent place to live, most fall back into trouble within a few years. TDC studies show that about one in three is back in prison within three years. If you extend the time frame to five years and include other prisons and jails, the recidivism rate is more likely 60 percent to 70 percent. Since most of these inmates are also fathers, long absent from serving as any positive role model for their children, the cycle will likely be handed down to the next generation. The fact that Texas has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates and still has three cities with violent crime rates in the top 10 in the nation suggests that what we are doing now is not working.
In the Gospel of Luke, there is a story about a man whose son has come home after deserting his family. The father rejoices that his son was dead, but is now alive. He was lost but now has been found. The truth is that we as a society would just as soon that these lost sons and daughters stay lost. We have branded them with the mark of Cain, made now more indelible with ubiquitous, easily searchable computer databases. Their crimes will never be forgotten. They will never be forgiven.
Driving back from Huntsville, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be coming home on that bus. To arrive at the Houston bus station with no one to welcome me, no one to offer any help and with nothing but $50 dollars in my pocket. I tried to think what I would do if I were that person. I had no idea.
There are unquestionably many government policies that should be examined in the search for a solution to this dilemma. Many will be surprised to know that Texas is actually in the forefront of developing programs that attempt to prepare inmates for release. But there are no easier answers. Employers' and landlords' reluctance to employ or lease to ex-felons is hardly unreasonable and, given the potential liability issues, some would argue it's simply being prudent. Add that many ex-offenders, even if given a second chance, will disappoint us and it is easy to understand why society would just as soon wash its hands of the individuals.
There will be no solution until we as a society begin to feel differently about ex-offenders. People of faith should be in the forefront of such a transformation, for the principles of mercy and forgiveness are the cornerstones of virtually every great faith tradition. We can continue what we are doing now and likely get the same sad results, or perhaps, we can find another way. I think a soft-spoken Baptist preacher from East Texas has, at least, pointed in the right direction.
King is a frequent contributor to Outlook.