By Deacon Bill Hickson
There are many programs that seek to address reentry and restoration at the local level within Iowa by working directly with people returning to their communities from incarceration. Most programs are connected with churches of various faith traditions.
Our organization is one of them—Jail and Prison Ministry of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Formed in 2005, our program provides volunteer mentors and Circles of Support and Accountability to provide encouragement and advice to reentering citizens.
To be successful, the most important area for people to address, in addition to a foundation of faith, is employment. Even in normal times, employment is a major challenge for those returning from prison. A fortunate few may have jobs waiting for them from trusted former employers or family members. The majority, however, have perhaps burned bridges with employers or developed poor work histories due to drug usage and absenteeism. So, the challenge is great to find work. This has a ripple effect in other areas of their lives: no work means no housing, no transportation, and inability to adequately provide for other basic needs.
Most reentering our communities from prison begin by taking low paying jobs in fast food, or applying through temp agencies in order to build up their work history and get references for better jobs. The process was always slow, even in a good economy. Since the downturn, it has become a greater challenge to maintain enough work hours to provide for their needs, let alone advance.
Many released from prison must first go to a state-run residential facility (halfway house) and work the program there before being released on their own. While at the residential facility, they must pay rent to the facility, almost equivalent to an apartment. But also, while there, because they are still considered incarcerated, they are not eligible for assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps. When they do earn enough to begin to transition to an apartment of their own, they must continue paying rent at the facility during the transition, which can take a couple of months. With a low-paying job, what would normally take 2 months to accomplish often takes 6 months or more.
We provide funds for their basic needs, and assist them with rent and utility deposits to get them started in their own apartments. We help get them into transitional housing programs, get them vouchers to food banks and thrift stores, and refer them to community resources that will help bridge the gap.
The compassion that I see from our volunteer mentors and Circle members is amazing. It is a perfect response to Christ’s command for us to recognize him in our neighbors. Even when we struggle to find solutions to their challenges, they experience first-hand that people care about them, and that they have value as human beings. They are treated with dignity and respect. Restorative Justice programs such as ours help our clients recognize that while we all make mistakes, forgiveness and restoration is possible. Jesus taught this, and he challenges his disciples to implement it.
Deacon Bill Hickson participates in the Jail and Prison Ministry Program, which is sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. For more information or to volunteer: https://catholiccharitiesdubuque.org/jail-prison-ministry