March 23rd, 2011 at 5:15 pm
Johnny Flowers was released from prison a little over a month ago. As he stood in front of the Wall Unit in Huntsville, he said that the on the first day he was out of prison, he was scared – so scared that he said he felt safer inside the prison.
He had no place to go. He had no one to help him make better decisions. And no one to help him re-enter into the society which he had been absent from for the last 20 years.
But for Johnny, he found hope. He was able to connect with Pastor David Valentine at Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville. He and his church wrapped their arms around this fellow Christian brother and committed to help him get back on his feet. They helped him find a place to live, a job as a cook and go through the detailed process of getting a driver’s license.
Johnny represents the more than 70,000 men and women who are released from prison each year. Typically about 10 percent of released offenders have family who comes to meet them, but for the other 90 percent, they have to maneuver through the first few days of freedom on their on, raising the risk of committing a crime once again.
In Texas, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders is about 26 percent, much lower than the national average of about 50 percent. Part of this reduction is from ministries like Welcome Back.
Welcome Back Ministry was established seven years ago through the Restorative Justice Ministry Network of North America. The ministry greets offenders being released from the Wall Unit in Huntsville and helps them walk through the next few steps they need to take to begin a smooth re-enter into society. Before 2011, the Wall Unit was the only release point in Texas for men offenders. Recently, TDCJ expanded the release points to five locations around the state. On a typical day at the Wall Unit, about 25 men are released on parole or because they have completed their sentences.
David said that these men are typically in shock when they are released. This is primetime for someone to prey on these men and women; therefore, a primetime for the church to come in and help.
“They have been traveling for days (to get to the Wall Unit), and then they are put in a holding tank,” David said. “They probably haven’t had a good night of sleep in days or even showered. Many of them are in shock… Then around the bus station, there are drug dealers, prostitutes and panhandlers.”
Through Welcome Back, the men are greeted by a Christian volunteer ready to offer a helping hand. The night before the men are released from prison, a volunteer enters the unit during the exiting process and shares some advice to help the men reenter society well. The volunteers also give the men a stack of brochures that list more than 150 ministries in Texas by zip code so that they will be able to find the help and support they need once they return to their homes.
“The hardest thing for any man or woman being released from being in incarceration is the decision making,” David said. “The decision making process has been taken away from them during their stay within TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice). They are told when to eat, when to shower, when to do this. So for years they are dependent on someone making decisions for them.”
The next morning, the Welcome Back volunteers stand near the family welcome center outside the Wall Unit to greet the men whose family did not come to Huntsville to pick them up. The volunteers walk three blocks down the residential street by the prison to arrive at the city bus station. Volunteers are here to support these men in the first few hours in their newfound freedom and help them make wise choices to instate a new trajectory for their lives.
When they arrive, the ex-offenders have a $50 check from TDJC to help them survive the next 24 hours and a bus voucher to get home. When they arrive at the bus station, they are greeted by Suzy, a volunteer from Conroe, who comes to help pass out free cell phones to the men.
Welcome Back has partnered with a national cell phone company to provide inexpensive cell phones loaded with $15 worth of minutes. The partnership will provide this amount of minutes for seven months to help the men have a way of contacting parole officers and have a way to be contacted in the midst of the job application process.
Other volunteers stand outside to offer words of encouragement or to help the men find additional clothing in the donation bins they have brought to the parking lot. Before two hours have passed, the men are stepping onto buses headed to Dallas or Houston – cities where they can catch regional buses to their hometowns.
But before the buses are loaded, Bill Kleiber, the director of the Welcome Back ministry, gathers the men in a circle and asks them to grab hands. Some being uncomfortable with this will just link pinkies. Bill speaks truth over the men, letting them know that the Lord cares for them and values them. He also explains a brochure they received that has more than 150 ministries across the state ready to help them find jobs and clothing as well as resettle into society. Bill prays and the men load the bus.
Bill and the other volunteers pray that these men that are released from Huntsville each month will walk forward knowing that there are people who want to help them take a different path from that day forward. For Bill, this is a special ministry since eight years ago he stood in the exact same place as these men on the day he too was released from prison.
To learn how you can help with the Welcome Back or start one at a regional release point near you, contact Emmett Solomon or Bill Kleiber at the Restorative Justice Ministries Network.
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