US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Are prisons failing when it comes to preparing inmates for life on the outside?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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In a story that sounds more like it would have taken place in The Shawshank Redemption, an inmate released from prison last week after serving more than 13 years did the only thing he could think to do when he became a free man: He went back to the scene of his original crime and got himself arrested again.

Christopher Miller was first convicted in 1999 for robbing a shoe store in Toms River, New Jersey and given a mandatory minimum sentence of just under 13 years. When he was released last Friday, he took a bus to Toms River and went back to the same store, unarmed, and stole $389 from the cash register, along with the cell phones of two employees. He threw the phones in a garbage can at the shopping center and didn't even keep the cash, which police reportedly found in a gutter behind the building. Miller was easily found just a few blocks away and arrested, almost as if he was waiting for the police to come take him home.

Toms River police chief Mitchell Little offered the following explanation of Miller's actions to NBC News New York: "Maybe that's the only life he knows, and the only thing he could think of was going back to the same store and doing the same crime again--getting caught and going back where he was taken care of and told what to do and getting meals and shelter and everything else."

Sadly, I think that Little is correct. Adjusting to life outside of the prison structure is a serious problem for inmates who have served long sentences, and is just one of the problems with the nation's current incarceration system. Some ex-offenders have no social contacts, no resources, and literally nowhere to go. It has especially become an issue for those suffering from mental illness, who sometimes get themselves arrested because prison is the only place where they can receive stable care and supervision. 

In the face of high recidivism rates, some states have looked into ways to better prepare inmates for the transition out of prison. Texas is one state that has implemented limited programming to attempt to reduce its prison population, with some success. In 2012 I interviewed a former Texas inmate who detailed some of those programs, which included such basics as how to look presentable for a job interview. The need for much more extensive programing is clearly there, he told me, but funding challenges prohibit more inmates from benefiting from this kind of assistance before their release.

Texas is also home to the fantastic nonprofit organization Bridges to Life, which provides prisons with a restorative justice program geared toward rehabilitation. But the program also gives inmates an opportunity to hone their social skills by interacting with people outside the prison culture--a critical tool needed for adjusting to life after incarceration. Such grassroots efforts are one way that individuals can volunteer their time to help those in prison prepare for the day when they get out, and to help make sure they stay out, all without adding an additional financial burden to the prison system.

If one thing is clear from Christopher Miller's case, it is that simply reducing the prison population isn't enough. Major efforts are needed to help the people released from prison to redeem themselves and to live healthy and productive lives once their prison term is behind them. For a pro-life church, protecting and improving the lives of this vulnerable population should be a serious concern.