In early July 2008 Johnny Merrell woke up after spending four months in coma, the result of extensive injuries he suffered during an altercation with a fellow inmate at Attica Correctional Facility. When he awoke he was so tired of his life behind bars that he decided to pick a fight with another inmate in the hopes of being killed.
He never got the chance to pick that fight, however, as prison officials told him he would be released that day. He briefly thought his struggles were over, but soon realized he now faced a different set of seemingly insurmountable challenges. He didn’t have money, a place to stay, a job or even a change of clothes, and the Rochester he returned to was vastly different from the one he’d left 27 years earlier.
"I got locked up when I was 14. There were no cell phones. It was Beta as opposed to VHS to DVDs. It was albums as opposed to CDs," Merrell said. "Streets change, landmarks have changed and been renamed. Everything is just so dramatically different."
Upon his release Merrell was plagued by fears that he wouldn’t be able to embrace the changes he faced and reintegrate into the community he once called his own. Sometimes these "paranoid thoughts" overtook him, and he said he wondered how he’d survive in such a foreign environment.
"It would be easier to just go back to what I knew, crime and getting money the easiest way," he recalled thinking at the time.
Fortunately, Merrell did not travel down the criminal path, but instead turned to Monroe County Reentry Services at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, where he found support, assistance and friendship in a team led by Program Director Ann Graham.
"By accident someone pointed me in Catholic Family Center’s direction. It helped me feel focused and reinitiate myself," Merrell said.
A growing issue
Each year thousands of New Yorkers face challenges similar to those Merrell struggled with. The Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee recognized the hardships faced by former offenders when it designated "Prodigal Sons and Daughters: Easing the Transition From Incarceration to Home and Community" as an education priority on the 2008-09 Public Policy Agenda.
"It’s really shocking how poorly the system works for people coming out of prison or jail," said Brigit Hurley, chair of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee’s re-entry subcommittee and parish social-ministry coordinator for Catholic Family Center.
Incarcerating offenders without putting in place any sort of plan to help them better themselves during their incarceration or upon their release is simply shortsighted, Graham said.
"It’s like having a leaking roof that you keep patching and patching, and eventually you’ve got to buy a new roof. We’re at the point where we’ve got to buy a new roof," she said.
Indeed, the nation has seen explosive growth in the population of the American corrections system in the past 25 years, according to a March report released by the Pew Center on the States. One in every 31 American adults and one in every 53 adults in New York state is incarcerated or on parole or probation, while 25 years ago only one in 77 American adults was involved with the correctional system in one of those ways, according to the report.
Nearly one in every 100 Americans was incarcerated at the start of 2008, and the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of incarcerated residents, according to information provided by the Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee.
"We (Americans) love locking folks up," Graham told the Catholic Courier. "What people tend not to think about is 98 percent of those people who went in will come out, and they will not be better for having gone into prison."
In New York 23,000 former offenders are released each year, with more than 2,500 former offenders returning to Monroe County, she said. In Rochester alone at least 20 people return from the state prison system each week, according to John Klofas, a Rochester Institute of Technology criminal-justice professor working with the Rochester Police Department. Many of these people face challenges similar to those Merrell faced upon his release.
"People come out of prison with a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans and $40. Forty dollars isn’t enough for the cheapest hotel for a night," Graham said.
Many times their incarceration has resulted in fractured relationships with family members, meaning they often have virtually no support network after they’re released, she added. With no support, no money and often no education, many of these former offenders turn back to crime in order to support themselves. In fact, 30 percent of people released from prison are arrested again in the first six months following their release, with 68 percent arrested in the first three years after their release, according to information provided by the diocesan Public Policy Committee.
A chance for success
Such a high recidivism rate among former offenders has a negative effect on public safety, and the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services recognized this fact in 2006 when it offered grants to counties willing to work on the issue of re-entry, Graham said. After Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks applied for and received the grant and Catholic Family Center put up matching funds, a host of agencies came together to form the Monroe County Re-Entry Task Force.
The resulting Monroe County Re-Entry Services at Catholic Family Center encompasses several programs. One of these, Prodigal Sons and Daughters, provides case-management and support services for high-risk or high-needs parolees and those released without community supervision. Only 8 percent of the more than 250 people assisted through this program in 2008 have returned to prison, Graham said.
Program staffers help these former offenders adjust to life on the outside and access housing, employment and the resources they need to survive without returning to crime, and this approach has proven successful, Graham said. Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes also recently began exploring the re-entry issue with the help of a grant the agency received at the end of 2008, said Executive Director Ellen Wayne.
"The project isn’t a program in the traditional sense, but rather funding to mobilize resources around the issue of re-entry," she said. "We hope to establish a task force that will then help create and mold more effective programming. And at present, we are in the very elementary stages of that process."
Hopefully Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes eventually will be able to help former offenders overcome the many barriers standing between them and success, Wayne said. By designating the re-entry issue as an education priority, Hurley and her colleagues on the diocesan Public Policy Committee hope more Catholics will learn more about the issue and become involved in such efforts, she said.
Catholics have a long history of working with the imprisoned through various visitation and rehabilitation ministries (see related stories on pages A10-14). This likely stems from Jesus’ direction in Mark 25:35-40, when he told his disciples to care for those in need, welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned, said Mercy Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities.
"And Jesus says, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.’ That’s the call," she said.
Christians are called to care for the vulnerable and poor, and most people coming out of prison fit that bill, Hurley added.
"There’s a lot of indignities that (formerly incarcerated) people face around looking for a job, looking for housing, and being treated as less than a person because of their history," she said. "We need to be all about mercy. And if no one else can see beyond someone’s prison background, Christians should."
This is what the father did in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, she said. In this parable, found in Luke 15:11-32, a father divides his property between his two sons. One stays with his father and tends to the property, while the other leaves and squanders his father’s money. When the son who left eventually returns the father is so overjoyed to see him that he throws a feast in his son’s honor. Similarly, Hurley and Graham said, Christians should welcome back their formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters.
"If we’re the church and there’s no redemption here, then there’s no redemption. We have to lead by example. If this is not our task, whose is it?" Graham asked rhetorically.
Hurley hopes people will be a little more open to and understanding of former offenders after learning about the re-entry issue. This might eventually open some more doors for these people, she said.
"We really just want people to have more understanding. I think long term, we need to make sure Ann Graham’s (re-entry) program is replicated in every county," Hurley said.
Hurley and Graham both are willing to visit parishes and educate parishioners about the issues surrounding re-entry, and both Catholic Family Center and Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes are seeking volunteers and welcome community input. Catholic Family Center is seeking volunteer mentors willing to help such people as Merrell get their lives back on track for good.
"I have tried every day to stay focused, stay positive, because I refuse to let myself go back through that experience (of being incarcerated) again," Merrell said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The diocesan Public Policy Committee has posted a package of resources, facts and involvement opportunities related to re-entry issues on the diocesan Web site. This information may be accessed by visiting www.dor.org, clicking on the Catholic Charities link and then clicking on the public policy link on the left side of the Catholic Charities page. Catholic Family Center may be reached at 585-232-7645, and Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes may be reached at 315-789-2235.