Carmel Presbyterian launches

prison outreach program

By HILARY HANLON

THE NATION’S prisons are bursting at the seams, with 2.4 million Americans (and quite a few from other countries) presently incarcerated, and 1,000 inmates added each week. One in 10 children has a parent who is a felon. In the wake of these statistics, churches and other volunteer organizations are offering help for the families who are left behind and programs to assist prisoners returning to society once they are released. Carmel Presbyterian Church is one of those responders heeding the call to bring restoration and opportunity to those affected by incarceration.

“The man who has been in prison returns to his family penniless, a stranger and feeling impotent. What he needs is the rebuilding of his self-esteem, a job and the confidence to return to normal life,” said Bill Ziering, who began the prison outreach at Carmel Presbyterian Church a month ago.  During the past 40 years, Congress added a number of new offenses to the federal criminal code, mandatory sentences have been increased and law enforcement has been stepped up, resulting in a surging nationwide prison population. Building and maintaining prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.

“Don’t get me wrong, crime must be dealt with swiftly and completely, but our justice system needs looking at and our attention needs to be on those families who are ‘sentenced’ along with their family member,” explained Ziering. 

Carmel Presbyterian is one of 3,200 registered fellowship organizations listed with the International Network of Prison Ministries.

On Sept. 8, representatives from 10 prison outreach groups from around the state met at Carmel Presbyterian to share their unique approaches to reducing prison recidivism and meeting the needs of the families left behind. One such group was Kairos, an international volunteer organization dedicated to women who have been incarcerated or are related to someone who is.

“The journey of a loved one of someone in jail is difficult. Often the woman left behind experiences misunderstanding and rejection. It is important she knows there is an accepting community just for her,” said Marilyn Elkins, Kairos program committee chair for California. 

Others at the forum shared personal testimonies about their incarceration experiences. Answers may soon be coming from California’s government also.

 “I attended an event recently that included several of our state’s government officials who concluded they wanted to partnership with groups like ours — helping to fund job training and counseling for inmates’ successful re-entry into communities and their families,” said Jim Romig, director of Post Prison Ministry, Bridging the Gap, in Monterey.

The approach at Carmel Presbyterian Church is three-pronged: Inmate counseling, family support and aftercare. Each of these avenues of outreach will be led by a trained and experienced leader who will maintain links with sister groups nationwide.  

“It is time for the church to be the church and to say to prisoners and their families, ‘We are with you in your brokenness, and as we have been forgiven and restored, we offer that to you,’ ” said Ziering.