In February 2011, after many years of working in the criminal justice system and still many more at an outreach center in Baltimore, I accepted the position of Director of Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It was a position that I knew would eventually consume much of my time in the area of people returning home from prison: the returning citizens.
The mass incarceration cycle that began in the 1970s is coming to an end as federal, state, and local governments realize that the massive cost of incarceration is draining their budgets. Now they are asking that the Church become a means to assist those returning citizens.
This year, Maryland’s legislators approved the Justice Reinvestment Act and Governor Hogan signed it into law. Some of its most important provisions include:
- treatment – and not incarceration – for low-level drug offenders
- the creation of an easier path for some inmates to be released sooner
- limiting the amount time parole violators spend behind bars
- considering the possibility of people expunging more convictions from their criminal records, among others.
Under these new laws, they are coming home.
More than six hundred thousand people are released from prison in the United States and return to our communities every year. The majority of these returning citizens have no place to call home and find transitioning back into society a huge challenge. For a returning citizen to become a responsible and successful member of society, he or she needs the support of family, friends, and – yes – the Church.
The Office of Prison Ministry was created to respond to Christ‘s call for us to love and care for our brothers and sisters in prison. And we are responding. Our Prison Ministry Council, consisting of religious and lay members, meets quarterly to advise the office regarding the needs of those in and out of prison in Baltimore and its vicinity.
One of the goals of the Prison Ministry Council and this office has always been the production of a comprehensive booklet for those interested in parish-based jail/prison ministry. A few years ago, the booklet Steps for Starting a Parish-Based Jail/Prison Ministry was approved by Archbishop Lori and sent to Pastoral Leaders and Parishioners. I invite you to read it for yourselves and see how you, your parish, or group, can engage in mission to “proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and the sharing of his sacramental life to incarcerated individuals and their families in order to foster hope, human dignity, and opportunities for new beginnings.”
For more information on how to help returning citizens in their journey back to society, check out this resource or contact the Office of Prison Ministry at 410-547-5406.