This article is the first in a series on ministries based on chapter 25 in The Gospel of Matthew.
There are many social, political, and governmental reasons to improve our nation’s system for incarcerating our neighbors. But, for Christians the primary reason is found in Matthew 25:36 … “I was in prison, and you came to visit me.” In this section of Matthew Jesus says that by caring for those in prison, we please God.
Episcopalians in the Diocese of Atlanta are living their baptismal covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being [i] by visiting, educating, advocating for, and welcoming home those who are and have been in prison.
For Episcopalian Terry Franzen that means visiting women in prison.
Franzen, a retired attorney, and other members of Church of the Holy Family in Jasper, Ga. regularly visit the Lee Arrendale State Prison, which houses almost 1,500 female incarcerated people.
Franzen, profiled in the current issue of Pathways, said they believe that no one should be forgotten by society, and forgiveness is part of their powerful message.
“What you did, what you were convicted of, does not define you,” Franzen recalled saying to those she visits. “You’re really a bigger person than that, and that’s what God knows, and God forgives. But you have to work on forgiving yourself, and that’s really hard.”
Franzen engages in a “ministry of presence” with the incarcerated people. “Many people get nothing,” she said. “They get no letters; they get no phone calls. They have no money. For them to know that they’re remembered, and that people think about them and pray for them is really, really important.”
She also has had her faith strengthened by the example of some of the women she visits.
“The new thing that I’m doing with God is trying to help the women that I work with learn to walk with God every day,” she said.
Read the Pathways 2023 profile of Franzen, including a video of Franzen discussing her experiences as a prison visitor.
Elliot Watts, a parishioner at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, focuses on advocating for eliminating root causes of crime.
Watts, who is co-chair for Racial Reconciliation on the parish’s Faith and Advocacy Network, was invited to participate on a panel at a national conference of educators and nonprofit leaders.
The three-day conference focused on the relationship between universities and neighborhoods was hosted by the National Executive Council (NEC) at Columbia University’s Center for Justice, Morehouse’s Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership, and the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing.
Watts, who is a Barbara C. Harris Justice Fellow at the Center for Racial Healing, participated in a panel “Addressing Policies that Keep Neighborhoods in Poverty,” along with Doug Ammar, Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Project, and two NEC staff members.
Watts said he was impressed by how deeply the discussion delved into issues of mass incarceration and its related effects on education and opportunity.
“The panelists and participants at the conference included those who work in criminal justice, from teaching to lawyering, and also a number of folks who were formerly incarcerated,” Watts said.
The conference was the first step by The NEC to expand its programming in the South, including developing an initiative for underserved law school applicants – potentially in the Atlanta area – by seeking to replicate an existing program that the NEC runs in New York with Columbia Law School, Watts said.
Episcopalian Thomas Fabisiak, an Assistant Dean at Life University who directs the Chillon Project, a college degree program for those incarcerated at Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison for Women, also attended the conference.
“I went to learn from others involved in prison education and present my take on ways to best support those impacted by imprisonment,” Fabisiak said.
Fabisiak, who has directed the Arrendale program for the last seven years, is also co-executive director of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (GACHEP). He said the group is open to all who want to support college education in Georgia prisons.
On May 26, Life University graduates received diplomas at Arrendale State Prison, Fabisiak said. “Fourteen students graduated with their Bachelor of Science in Psychology and 11 earned their Associate of Arts in Positive Human Development and Social Change. All of the students graduated with honors.”
Fabisiak shared the closing statement of one of the students’ graduation speeches.
Each graduate before you has a voice that needs to be heard and a story that must be told. We are experts, with unique strength and spirit. Our lives and experiences are intricately woven into the fabric of society and must not be overlooked. Our existence is a wonder, just as is every person’s in this room, within these fences, and beyond.
I ask that we all go forward recognizing the inherent worth of each other because only then can life be worth living.
Fabisiak’s GACHEP co-director is Patrick Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the director of Georgia State University’s Prison Education Project.
The GSU project graduated its first class of incarcerated students on May 5. Nine graduates from Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Ga. earned associate degrees in general studies, taking classes in a variety of subjects. According to the college, three graduated with grade point averages above 3.9 and the rest were above 3.7. [ii]
Rodriguez’s personal journey from convicted drug trafficker to college program director was described in an Aug. 8, 2023, profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In the article Rodriguez described his reaction to attending the Walker State Prison graduation.
“When I went into that prison, I didn’t go back in as a formerly incarcerated prisoner, I went back as director of a program that confers degrees,” he said. “I was only home for about 40 months at the time. I was still on parole.”
Fabisiak, who is the husband of The Rev. Dr. Jennifer McBride, associate for formation at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, said the NEC Beyond the Bars conference is the first to be held in the South. It’s a recognition of the important prison reform work being done in the South by groups seeking to end the human rights catastrophe of mass incarceration such as The Multifaith Movement to End Mass Incarceration (EMI), Fabisiak said.
However, he said the conference went beyond exploring ideas for supporting citizens returning from prisons.
“Beyond the Bars has gone on at Columbia University for the last 13 years,” Fabisiak said. “The organizers really wanted to focus on looking beyond the bars in the sense of looking to root causes, looking upstream to all of the things that affect those neighborhoods that are also affected by mass incarceration, things like poverty, things like food deserts, gentrification,” he said.
The conference included presentations by individuals and nonprofit organizations working in a wide variety of fields, Fabisiak said.
“They wanted to bring together both leaders of universities and organizations and people who are system impacted to think and talk together about devising practical solutions to address poverty at the neighborhood level, to get people out of poverty, and to create systemic change,” he said.
A goal of the Beyond the Bars conference is identifying how academic and other institutions can collaborate with individuals and communities to reduce the impact of mass incarceration, Fabisiak said. But there are also ways for individuals to participate.
“Well, I would say there are a lot of great ways to get involved in the work. So, if anybody is interested in supporting the work around higher education in prison, they’re absolutely welcome to join as a member of GACHEP,” Fabisiak said during a break in conference presentations at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.
“We have a listserv. And we have semi-regular general membership meetings. And that’s a good way to get connected to the people who are doing this work and to this community across the state. For people here locally, I would say that’s probably the best point of entry.”
Some Georgia jails are now offering a gateway to higher education by providing GED preparation and testing for detainees.
A Game Changer
On July 1, 2023, the 1.9 million people in state and federal prisons in the United States became eligible for PELL grants for the first time in more than two decades.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 created federal Pell Grants, subsidies for students in need of financial help to attend a college or university. The financial aid provided through this act extended to incarcerated individuals. [iii] However, in the early 1990s, the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned prisoners from receiving Pell aid. [iv]
In December 2020, Congress lifted the 26-year ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. [v] The FAFSA Simplification Act restores access to Pell Grants for people in prison and makes it possible once again for thousands to pursue postsecondary education.
Participants in college-in-prison programs are 48% less likely to return to prison. Providing postsecondary education for people in prison could cut state prison spending across the country by as much as $365.8 million annually.
Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing also spoke on a Beyond the Bars panel concerning “Neighborhood Wellbeing” along with Morehouse College President Dr. David A. Thomas; City of Refuge Vice President of Reentry Greg Washington; and Urban League of Greater Atlanta CEO Nancy Flake Johnson.
The Absalom Jones Center approaches neighborhood well-being by exploring the ongoing effects of slavery, lynching, the prison industrial complex, the death penalty, 21st-century police killings, and the ways in which these issues inhibit racial healing in America.
Other opportunities for engaging in prison ministry are being taken by Episcopalians who attended The Multifaith Movement to End Mass Incarceration (EMI) 2023 conference.
Follow-up meetings after the conference have drawn attendees from Episcopal parishes and other faith groups who are now focusing on initiatives, including reform legislation, narrative change, and supporting the return of individuals who have served their sentences.
Restorative justice is one approach being supported by the EMI group.
Group member Ann Colleton of The Georgia Justice Project said GJP is promoting legislation to implement this approach because it puts victims in charge.
Colleton said restorative justice is Victim-centered and allows defendants to answer a crime survivor’s needs instead of a third party. It’s also victim led. A case would only be referred for restorative justice if the victim wants to participate. It considers the trauma sustained by victims. Trained facilitators lead dialogue between parties that can include the victim, defendant, and community members. It’s an alternative that Georgia justice stakeholders are asking for that has proven effective in other states. And, Colleton said, restorative Justice is not soft on crime – defendants answer for the harm they have caused directly to those most affected while remaining accountable to the justice system. Learn more about restorative justice and the Georgia Justice Project.
Another organization partnering with the interfaith EMI follow-up group is a home for women returning from prison. Returning Her Home opened its first home in 2022 and a second opened in April, said Executive Director Nicolle Wiesen. The organization, which is being renamed Whole-Way Housing, will open a home for men later this year.
Learn more about the EMI follow-up group by contacting member Ann Cramer of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
Mass incarceration has a severe negative impact on both those who served time and society as a whole. Incarceration is life-changing and those who have been incarcerated have lost their jobs, homes, family connections, and freedom.
Former prisoners have a harder time finding houses, jobs and making a sustainable salary which creates a sub-class of citizens that are likely to fall into the cycle of criminal behavior again.
Incarceration is linked to adverse health effects that extend far beyond prison cells. The wives, girlfriends, and children of African-American men who go to jail or prison suffer collateral damage. Studies show that the children of inmates do less well in school and exhibit behavioral problems. [vi]
The prison population began to grow in the 1970s when politicians from both parties used fear and thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push increasingly punitive policies. President Richard Nixon started this trend, declaring a “war on drugs” [vii] and justifying it with speeches about being “tough on crime.”
The year 1865 should be as notable as the year 1970. While it marked the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, it also triggered the nation’s first prison boom when state governments arrested and incarcerated increasing numbers of Black Americans. [viii]
Racial disparities in mass incarceration are well documented. According to a report by The Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.[ix] The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class. [x]
Probation allows defendants to get out of jail or prison but under certain rules and conditions. House arrest is like probation, but the defendant is confined to their home. Community service entails dedicating a certain number of hours to non-paid work. A divided sentence is when a defendant serves part of their sentence in jail or prison and the other part on probation. [xi]
Another alternative to incarceration is accountability courts for adults and juveniles charged with drug offenses who have alcohol, drug dependency, and mental health issues.
The first of these courts was founded in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida by Judge Stanley Goldstein. Instead of putting addicted people behind bars, Judge Goldstein invited treatment providers into the courtroom to try a public health approach. Treatment providers developed evidence-based treatment plans and the judge—working as a team with law enforcement, probation, defense, and prosecution—provided the support and strict accountability necessary for the treatment plans to be successful.
The success of these courts spawned a generation of programs focused on treatment rather than incarceration. Specialized treatment courts now serve repeat DWI offenders, parents whose children have been removed from the home due to substance use, juveniles facing criminal charges, tribal communities torn apart by addiction, and veterans struggling with the lingering effects of trauma according to The National Drug Court Resource Center which claims treatment courts have saved over 1.5 million lives and billions of dollars. [xii]
The U.S. has a staggering 1.9 million people behind bars, but even this number doesn’t capture the true reach of the criminal legal system. It’s more accurate to look at the 5.5 million people under all of the nation’s mass punishment systems, which include not only incarceration but also probation and parole. [xiii]
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the annual cost of the justice system in the United States is $254.9 billion, or $776.81 for every person in the U.S. But that figure leaves out the costs paid by families to support incarcerated loved ones who must pay for a variety of goods and services while in custody.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that mass incarceration also disrupts the American job market. Sixty-one percent of people in prison are between 18–39 years old—in the prime of their working life. Removing able-bodied working-age people from the labor market lowers the quality of our workforce and permanently damages their employment and educational opportunities. Research has shown that incarceration may impede employment and marriage prospects among former inmates, increase poverty depth and behavioral problems among their children, and amplify the spread of communicable diseases among disproportionately impacted communities. The societal costs of incarceration—lost earnings, adverse health effects, and the damage to the families of the incarcerated—are estimated at up to three times the direct costs, bringing the total burden of our criminal justice system to $1.2 trillion.
Since 90-plus percent of all people incarcerated will return to our communities, effective reentry programs are key to reducing mass incarceration. However, “reentry” is not a specific program, but rather a process that begins when a person is incarcerated and culminates with his or her reintegration into the community.
The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) began its Faith and Character Based Dorms programs at six prisons in July 2004. Currently, 18 GDC facilities offer the dormitory program, where community partners work with prison staff to affect spiritual and social change in the offenders. In 2011 Walker State became the first GDC facility to take the program prison-wide. [xiv] GDC’s Faith and Character Based programs have been shown to have a treatment effect of 10; meaning someone is 10 times less likely to return to prison after completing a Faith and Character Based program, according to Antonio M. Johnson, director of the GDC Reentry, Cognitive Programming, and RSAT [xv] programs. [xvi]
In 2021, the Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) expanded its representation of indigent defendants before, during, and after sentencing to include a reentry program called Ladders.
GPDC Executive Director Omotayo Alli said she began the Ladders leadership development initiative to reduce recidivism by young people between the ages of 17 and 24.
“Ladders provides transformational education and wraparound services for certain individuals with prior justice system involvement,” Alli said. “Participants receive training and certification for an occupational skill at a partnering technical college. They also receive support in the areas of career readiness coaching, mentoring, and job shadowing.” The Ladders program also includes targeted case management support to improve stability in other areas of need, such as family, housing, and health.
Alli explained that GPDC, which represents 85 percent of criminal defendants in Georgia, is able to identify candidates for the program early through their relationship with defendants.
The nonprofit CHRIS 180 is partnering with the Fulton County Georgia Sheriff to identify barriers to reentry and increase the success of those returning to their community from the Fulton Jail.
When someone is released from jail, CHRIS 180 staff provide hands-on assistance as they return to the community. Ongoing support and resource identification are also provided including, counseling services and care coordination; individualized case management and release planning; thinking for a change curriculum; substance abuse counseling and early recovery skills; individual counseling; life skills training; aftercare support and resources education; GED preparation and testing; high school credit recovery; academic success and culture enrichment workforce development; career readiness training; resume writing and interview preparation; employment and internship matching.
CHRIS 180 also works “upstream” from reentry with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to reduce crime by seeking to interrupt gun violence in Atlanta in the neighborhoods of Peoplestown, Summerhill, Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh, Adair Park, and Capitol Gateway which have a disproportionate problem of gun violence, including homicides.
The evidenced-based intervention is guided by the understanding that violence is a public health issue. The Cure Violence model works by interrupting retaliatory violence through mediation and conflict resolution techniques, facilitating behavior change by individuals identified as at high risk and organizing community members to change social norms towards a nonviolent culture. CHRIS 180 employs “credible messengers,” people who are influential with individuals in communities. These credible messengers are able to build trusting relationships with the people who are drivers of violence in a community, due to their own past experiences on the street.
The ability to gain employment after incarceration is crucial to successful reentry. One innovative program seeks to reduce incarceration by at-risk youth by keeping them from entering the prison system.
Unlock Potential, a program created by Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, is taking what it calls a “first chance” approach.
RBIJ founder Celia Ouellette said while hiring formerly incarcerated individuals can be a powerful step toward social justice “why not provide gainful employment for young people who are at greatest risk of incarceration—before incarceration happens?”
RBIJ launched Unlock Potential in May 2022 with funding from Walmart funds Unlock Potential through the Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity.
“Businesses have an existential responsibility to engage on social issues like race and justice,” Ouellette said in 2022. “By hiring and training at-risk young people, they can interrupt destructive cycles of unemployment and incarceration from the state. Unlock Potential won’t just make our companies more prosperous and diverse – our communities safer – it will grow the next generation of leaders.” See the RBIJ Roadmap to hiring returning citizens.
Some Georgia jails and the Georgia Department of Corrections provide job skills training in areas including landscaping, animal training, firefighting, cosmetology, welding, and other fields.
The Georgia Public Defender Council’s Ladders Program mentioned earlier in this article provides job training and certification for an occupational skill at a partnering technical college. Participants also receive support in the areas of career readiness coaching, mentoring, and job shadowing.
Religious groups have a unique ability to affect mass incarceration. They began prison reform efforts in the 19th Century and are now helping to reduce mass incarceration by advocating for criminal justice reform and providing support to those who are incarcerated and their families. [xvii] They also work to uproot the causes of crime, such as poverty and lack of education, through community outreach programs and advocacy.
Nonprofits like Prison Fellowship and Kairos operate Christian ministries inside prisons and beyond the bars programs to support the families of those in prison. Each April since 2017 Prison Fellowship has drawn attention to their efforts with public awareness campaigns and obtaining proclamations from federal, state and local elected officials. Kairos, which originated in the Cursillo Movement, now serves in more than 400 correctional institutions and 86 communities in 37 states and 9 countries.
The Episcopal Cursillo Movement brings together a diverse group of Episcopalians who share the richness of many modes of worship and broaden their appreciation for the Church. Lay people conduct the weekend with two or three clergy members as spiritual advisors. Cursillo isn’t intended to be a conversion experience, but an enriching and deepening of what is already there. It often provides new insights into faith as well as fostering ministry among lay people.
Learn more about prison ministry opportunities in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Read articles about individuals and groups in the Diocese who are doing important work to create a better justice system, including “Balancing Scales”, “Uncommon Outreach”, “Taking a Moral Stand” and, “A New Hope House”.