Life in Jail: Update

Posted on March 12, 2016

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What’s life like in jail? I have no idea what it’s like to be an inmate, although I’ve been going into the Tuscaloosa County Jail on a weekly basis now since 2000. That, I know, sounds like some puzzle. Why has he been going into the jail now every Tuesday night for fifteen years and he still doesn’t know what life is like in jail?! The guy must be slow learner.

I started going in when a friend, Carlton McDaniel, who knew I spoke Spanish, asked me to go in with him to minister to a Mexican prisoner who had accepted Jesus Christ, but spoke little English.

I was reminded of the immediacy of the growing prison and jail population in Alabama by the rise of violence in our community. In the past few weeks the Mayor, Walt Maddox, has addressed the “tragedy and heartbreak” caused by recent homicides in the city. Both he and Police Chief Steve Anderson called on increased measures and funding to meet the emergencies of substance abuse, mental health, corrections, job training, and other issues.

These are all tied to a prison and jail system where those who are leaving our “corrections system…[are] ill-equipped and ill-prepared to enter a modern workforce.” The rate of recidivism, is, in fact, between sixty and eighty percent, or six to eight of every ten who are jailed eventually return to crime and jail and prison.

This is an astounding statistic that those of us working in the system—like the Christian Jail Ministry—now casually just take for granted. It would be as if every seven or eight of ten freshman entering Stillman, UA, or Shelton State flunked out before graduating, and then returned to their freshman year, and did it again! Pretty soon someone would have to say, “what’s happening here?!”

And, our next question would be, “what are we doing about it?”

The answer is complex. However, it can be done.

It is going to take money, but also devoted, experienced, intelligent, people who can make a program that succeeds in the business of reentry and restoration

Reentry and rehabilitation is like training up a child to be a successful adult. For us, in this instance, a successful adult is one who has passed through the post-jail, post-prison experience into a successful and fulfilling life that will not only keep them out of jails and prisons but also be spokespeople and encouragers of others.

There are hundreds of agencies, churches, homes, foundations, and people across the country devoted to helping prisoners make the transition from inside to outside. See a great Bible BTW, Free on the Inside, which directly addresses the prison population preparing them for the “outside,” that’s where you and I are.

Right here in Tuscaloosa County I know many people of good will, from the Mayor on down and up, who see a real, almost an emergency, need for an organization for ex-inmates to step into when they get out of jail or prison.

The District Attorney, Lyn Head, has been active in organizing a committee from across the community representing government, private business, and the churches. Head, along with the Mayor and some of the local judges, like Judge Brad Almond, local ministers and priests, and others, know that this is as much a rehabilitation program as one of public safety.

The challenge is to create a program whose high aim is nothing less than the reentry and complete rehabilitation of men and women who need a hand up from the rest of us to become successful, contributing members to our society in all respects.

Call it something that people will recognize, like Project Tuscaloosa, a model “Lend Them a Hand” program for the State.

I suggest that the Mayor task a force to do this. Build on the momentum and experience already in place done by the District Attorney. Use the Mayor’s office and his instant credibility with the community, especially the faith-based communities and private enterprise, plus the resources in higher education and bring the disparate elements together under one roof and one organization.

Right now we have scattered drug rehabilitation programs, halfway houses, occasional job training, church and Christian-based ministries, a catch-as-catch-can assortment of programs all marching to their own drummers. We need them coordinated and working together under “Project Tuscaloosa.”

When a prisoner returns to life from jail or prison here in Tuscaloosa County, she can go to the umbrella organization, Project Tuscaloosa, and there continue with the work already begun in jail or prison (you have to start there even before release) of reentry and rehabilitation. It will include a place to live, family support, a rigorous, almost military-style discipline, job training, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and a deep engagement with a church or faith-based organization.

Published as “Let’s Do More to Help With Life After Jail” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday February 7, 2016.