We don’t like to think about what happens to a person who is incarcerated. We like to think even less about what happens when he is released back into our community. Here is a true story:
Charles was a normal 18-year-old high school graduate when he decided to go for a drive with his friends. They thought it might be fun to have a few beers along the way. The result was a tragic accident that resulted in the death of Charles’s friend. Charles had never had a traffic ticket, accident, or arrest prior to that horrible day. He was subsequently convicted of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison.
After serving eight-and-a-half-years of his sentence, and at almost 32 years of age, Charles was released, at 9:00 am on a Tuesday morning.
Charles’ family sent an outfit of clothing, but was not allowed to send any money for the day of his release. On his release day, Charles changed into his new clothes and was put out the door of the prison with no money, no identification, and no phone. Because he had no family living in the area, Charles had arranged for a friend to pick him up. Since the only thing the family was allowed to send was one set of clothes, Charles’ family sent a suitcase to a UPS store in the area to hold until his release. This suitcase contained clothing, money, a credit card, a birth certificate, and a Social Security card. Unfortunately, UPS required $50.00 and identification to release the suitcase, both of which were in the suitcase. UPS phoned the family, and Charles was finally allowed to open the suitcase, pay the fee, and pick up his belongings. He then went to the local driver’s license office where he was able to obtain a state photo identification card at a cost of $25.00. Charles will never be able to have a driver’s license to go to work, grocery shopping, or to church. His friend dropped him off at a local hotel.
Charles’s father drove ten hours to meet him at the hotel in order to provide transportation for him while he was looking for a place to live. Because Charles can never drive, he had to find living space in an urban area that was walkable and with good public transportation. Unfortunately, rents in large urban areas are much more expensive than those in the suburbs. After much searching, several suitable apartments were located. At each location, when he truthfully disclosed his felony to the apartment manager, he was turned away. After a week of living in a hotel, Charles finally located the only apartment that would accept him. He paid the first and last month’s rent, a month’s damage deposit and all utility deposits from the money his family had saved for him. Charles excitedly moved into the apartment and was filled with hope for a new life.
Three months have passed and Charles has been unable to find work. After applying for jobs that he is well qualified for, he is always turned away. One interviewer asked him, “Why should I hire you when there are many other applicants who do not have a felony conviction?” Charles is still looking for work, but is very discouraged.
Early on, Charles was transferred to a character and faith-based facility where he was a model prisoner during his stay. While there, Charles took every opportunity to better himself, ultimately obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a state university (at his family’s expense). He then shared his knowledge by teaching several classes to other inmates. Through all of this, Charles maintained a positive attitude and never lost his faith in God.
Charles made a terrible mistake when he was eighteen. He was sentenced by the state and he successfully completed that sentence, all the while trying to help others along the way.
Now the moral of the story:
Charles is blessed to have a supportive family with the resources to help in every way possible. Can you imagine the distress of this situation if no one is there to help you? No one to send money? No one to drive? No one to help with deposits and rent? This is the case with the vast majority of people who are released every day back into our communities.
Charles and I have spoken about this on many occasions. “With no hope, no future, and no way to support themselves or their families,” Charles says, “many of these people are forced to resort to desperate means to survive. They may end up selling drugs, engaging in prostitution, theft, robbery or other crimes.” This ultimately leads them back into the system, where the whole process begins again. If this is allowed to continue, people like Charles, whose only crime was an auto accident, will likely become career criminals because they have no other options available to them.
The people of God need to become aware of the plight of these forgotten souls. Are you willing to open your heart and give of yourself to help those less fortunate? Are you willing to give them a chance? Sometimes that is all they need. There are approximately 1,600 inmates released from prison into Pensacola each year, not including those from the county jail. These are your neighbors and they are also children of God.
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. ---Matthew 25:40
The author of this article works with the diocesan Commission on Prison Ministry and wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identity of “Charles.”