Prison Fellowship and Offender Rentry

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: Hi, and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Len Sipes. At our microphone for the first time is Pat Nolan. Pat is with the Prison Fellowship. He has been there for 11 years. The program has been around for 30 years, and I’ll give out a couple of contact points at the very beginning of the program, (703) 478-0100, or and Ladies and Gentleman, we are up now to 900,000 requests for the radio and television programs of DC Public Safety. Again, we want to thank you profusely. If you have any comments and suggestions, please get them to us. We are at or the address for the program itself which is and with that long introduction, I want to say good morning to Pat Nolan.

Pat Nolan: Good morning.

Len Sipes: How are you doing Pat?

Pat Nolan: Great.

Len Sipes: Pat, this whole issue of prison fellowship, first of all give us a sense as to what prison fellowship is, what it does, how it was started and then we will go into the larger issues of religion and incarceration.

Pat Nolan: Prison Fellowship was founded by Chuck Olson who was President Nixon’s counsel and he was convicted of an offense involving the Watergate Scandal and did time in federal prison, and when he got out, rather than going back to practice law, he said he promised the guys inside he wouldn’t forget about them.

Len Sipes: How long was he in prison?

Pat Nolan: It was seven months, and a lot of people told him that it wouldn’t work. That nobody cared about prisoners, and he said it was pretty clear that Jesus called the church to do this, and he thought he could get people interested, and sure enough he built a ministry. It’s been there now for 30 years, and totally supported by private donations and we have volunteers across the country and around the world. We are in 112 nations around the world.

Len Sipes: That’s a lot, 112 nations.

Pat Nolan: Yeah.

Len Snipes: I had no idea. That’s a huge outreach.

Pat Nolan: It really is, and here in the US we are in most prisons in the country. We try to concentrate on the prisons that send people back to the urban areas because that’s where the greatest concentration of crime is. We are an outreach to prisoners and their families and the idea is not only to minister to them with the gospel which is essential, but also then to disciple and help them turn their lives around and get back on their feet, so we not only have bible studies and worship services inside prisons, but we also have life skills classes. We are trying to match them with mentors from their community that they are going home to. We try to involve them in what we call a “community of care” when they get out, working with other nonprofits and government agencies to make sure that they don’t fall between the cracks. We try to be a one-stop place for an offender to help plug them in to what their needs are, spiritually and physically.

Len Sipes: So it is more than just spiritually. You get down to the life skills that are necessary to help the person on the outside. Do you deal with the families at all?

Pat Nolan: Yes, in fact, we have a program that is probably our largest one which is called Angel Tree, which an offender will fill out an application saying where their children are, who they are and people from local churches then take the responsibility for giving gifts to those children at Christmastime. Prisoners don’t have much access to anything to give them.

Len Sipes: Right, and that is a program that I’ve participated in, and you say it’s the larger part of your program, but let’s talk about incarceration first. I won’t speak for you, but I will simply speak for myself, but an awful lot of these people deserve to be in prison for the crimes that they’ve committed, and I think society in general firmly believes in that. But the devastation that it leaves at home, with 70% of these individuals being parents, and often times with multiple kids, it is just devastating from a financial point of view and a psychological point of view. The kids in the neighborhood really do make fun of them, the fact that your father is in prison. I constantly hear about prison being such an accepted experience; and I don’t find that to be even remotely true. I think from the offender’s perspective, and especially their kids, it’s devastating, and the research is fairly clear that the kids of people who are in prison have a higher percentage chance of being involved in drugs fairly early and criminal activity fairly early. So kids are primary outreach for you guys?

Pat Nolan: That’s where we get most of our volunteers in that. What we do though is, as they deal with the children, and work with them, often times the children will reach back into the parent and try to get the parent involved in our programs. There have been several wonderful cases that you’ll talk about in California, a guy, a drunk driver, he had killed a young girl while he was drunk and totally messed up his life, but his two young daughters, and his wife, as you say were just devastated of course by this, but it totally turned their lives upside down. He filled out an Angel Tree application. His daughters received the gifts and also began to go to church with the couple that had brought them the gifts. That’s not required, but they invite for them, and they developed a very good relationship, Mary and the girls, with the whole church and then the daughters told Joe about this, and he said, “Well, this is crazy. Why are these people helping you? Why are they involved in your lives?” and they had a chance to say to him, “Well, it’s because of Jesus Christ and what he has called the church to do,” and so essentially it converted Joe, because of the love of this couple who had reached out, with no strings attached, but what at-risk kids need, and definitely children of prisoners are at risk, what they need are relationships. It’s not just the gift. It’s that relationship. It’s healthy relationships, and somebody that says, “You matter,” and they care.

As you said, they are made fun of. They don’t have a parent there for their birthday, for their play, for things like that.

Len Sipes: Let’s return to prison and the faith-based community. We have individuals that come out of prison and in many ways they are angry, and in many ways they are looking for something themselves, either they are going to find it in a needle, or they are going to find it in their old gang members, or they are going to find it within a religious body. Now, again, being in that I represent the federal government, we don’t take a stand on whether that religious body is Judaism. It’s not up to us as to promote the Koran or Islam. We take a straight-down-the-middle position, as we must, in terms of the federal separation of church and state, but at the same time, we promote the faith-based concept because we’ve seen firsthand how individuals come out and they are greeted by either a Baptist church, or a Jewish synagogue, or individuals within the Muslim religion and you see firsthand how they go from tax burden to taxpayer, angry nasty person with a chip on the shoulder the size of Montana, to a very gracious hardworking person who is now paying taxes and taking care of his kids and is drug-free, and a lot of times the religious entities, they are the bridge that help move him from point A to point B, and that is one of the reasons why Prison Fellowship, and I wanted you to be on the show, Pat, is because your program has been so successful in doing exactly that.

Pat Nolan: Yes, and as you say, the important thing is that the government has to be neutral in this. Give the offender the choice, any religious body he wants to go to, or if he doesn’t want to, that is fine, but the government can facilitate that and help put them in touch should there be that interest and we just see the difference because it is not only the relationship with individual that we may mentor them as we have, but also the congregation. There is something about feeling welcome in a place with many people.

Len Sipes: Is this the same philosophy as the gangs?

Pat Nolan. Yes. That’s right, except with a healthy relationship.

Len Sipes: That’s exactly right. It is a gang. It is a large group of individuals. They want you to follow their rules, but their rules happen to be within society’s best interests and within that individual’s best interest. So, I’ve seen churches. I’ve seen Mosques. I’ve seen synagogues take that individual and provide not only religious interaction but provide childcare, provide housing, provide food, provide a suit of clothes, taking care of the kids, reuniting the family. I’ve seen that happen firsthand, and I think that’s the power of where we try to do that sort of stuff in government, but the religious bodies seem to do it much better than we do. Again, that offender participating cannot be coerced or forced in any way shape or form to join that religion, but often times they do simply because they feel so comfortably there because taking care of both their spiritual and physical and family needs, and that in essence what a gang does.

Pat Nolan: Yeah, that’s exactly it, but it’s just a gang for good.

Len Sipes: I’d also like to point out that it’s not necessarily the physical things. Time is really, and how you spend your time, is important. In prison, your life is totally regulated, everything you do, when you get up, when you go to work, when you shower, when you eat. You have no choice whatsoever. When the inmates come out they have 24/7 of free choice of anything they want to do. How that time is filled is critical of whether they’ll succeed and go on a straight path or get back in trouble, and Mom has already told us, “Idle hands are the Devil’s labor,” well, the church is a place where they can be involved in positive activities, not just in worship or Bible studies. They can help around there, you know, sorting letters. They could do landscaping, but they are around people that are involved with mainstream society. The alternative is just to hang out in their neighborhood, their old friends, and in many cases how many offenders have I had before these microphones and talked to throughout my career who have basically said the alternative is death. I mean, either you get off drugs, you get a job, you get reunited with your kids, and you live a life that is going to bring you peace and contentment and/or you are going to die.

Pat Nolan: That’s exactly it. One of the inmates in our program at Texas said giving up drugs was the easy part, and giving up my old friends was really tough.

Len Sipes: That is your peer group. That is who you are. That is the very essence of who you are. Leaving that behind is really walking across that bridge, and I’ve seen, and like I have said, and I will say it over and over again, firsthand, as to the literally hundreds of individuals who have crossed that bridge. I’m not completely happy, nor am I completely content with all the things that I see within the faith-based community, but I can tell you that probably they are doing a more powerful job than government, and I’m not terribly happy and comfortable with what I see in government either.

Ladies and Gentleman, we have Pat Nolan, Prison Fellowship, (703)478-100, and the web address is, and Pat, when you talk to individuals about assisting offenders, in many cases, the reaction that you are going to get is not positive, and there was something going through my mind in terms of how to describe this. This is sort of like taking out coffee grounds, you know, it and people don’t like dealing, in many cases, with former offenders, and as I’ve said throughout this program, people do this, and they interact with former offenders either through a religious conviction or through a moral conviction in terms of what is right or wrong, or they do it as I do it from a pragmatic point of view because we want to see them as taxpayers and not tax burdens, and I don’t want my family victimized or my community victimized, so there are all sorts of reasons as to why to support the programs that support offenders coming out of prison, but let’s get back to that larger issue. The average person simply does not really relate well to former inmates. They’ve said, they’ve done the crime, they do the time, as my wife has said in the past, “Give it to the kids,” and she’s vice president of a PTA, and my mother who has been through the Great Depression and the Second World War said, “Give it to the elderly. We’re the ones who deserve it. Let’s not be giving it to people who have harmed other people.” How do you react to that?

Pat Nolan: Well, first of all, it depends what our goal is. If our goal is to punish these people forever, then yeah that’s an okay attitude, but that’s not really justice. If our goal is to have more peaceful communities, to have less crime and to have fewer victims, we have to look at the fact that we release, after doing their whole time, about 700,000 offenders each year.

Len Sipes: That’s a lot of people.

Pat Nolan: These people are coming back into our neighborhoods. And they are within, what I’ve said for years, a 10-minute drive of where you live. If you happen to live in one of those safe suburban communities, those offenders interact with you and your children every day, and the way we handle it now is we give them a bus ticket, and depending on the state, $5-100 and often times the officer will say, “See you in a few months.” It’s just expected that they will return, and often times it’s at midnight when they are put on this bus, and they end up in an urban core area with no place to sleep, and I’ll give you an example. When I got out of prison, bunch of my friends came to take me to lunch at a deli near the halfway house, and it was terrific, and they all sat around, and it was great to see them, and the waiter came, and there were about 11 of us, and they all ordered, and I sat there with the menu and my eyes just darting over it and just all those choices, and I was paralyzed. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t make a choice, and so finally I just said what my eyes landed on and ordered it, and because it was so uncomfortable. Everybody was there, the waiter, you know? And it was just this pained silence while they are all waiting, “Pat, would you please order?” and the reason was that for two years I hadn’t decided, and I had no choices as to what to eat, and here I was paralyzed making a choice about a sandwich.

Think about the guy that gets out that didn’t have my education, my background, my responsibilities, that didn’t have my good family, but had none of that and gets off the bus, and at 3:00 in the morning, in the middle of the city. Where is he going to go? Where doe she lay his head that night? How is he going to be safe? People don’t think of that, but sleeping in a park or under a bridge is not safe. He doesn’t have money to rent a room. He doesn’t have an ID. Virtually ever prisoner released does not have any ID and in a post-911 world, you’ve got to have a picture ID to rent a hotel room, to start a bank account, to apply for a job, and a lot of friends and family, for them, that offender has burnt so many bridges that he is not welcome back.

Now, there is plenty of research to say, and in my personal experience, is that they do go back home in many cases, but even when they are allowed to go back in the house, it is, and again with a lot of restrictions as it should be, but there are in many cases so many people coming back with so few connections that they are literally out on the street.

Len Sipes: What did you go to prison for, Pat?

Pat Nolan: I was a member of the legislature and I was accused of taking a campaign contribution for ,.

Len Sipes: The legislature in ,

Pat Nolan: California. I was the Republican Leader of the Assembly in California and so I did 26 months in prison and 4 months in a halfway house in the federal system, and came right to Prison Fellowship from that, and you know, it’s interesting the background I bring as a legislature, a tough law and order legislature, that had voted for a lot of the bills that caused an increase in prison population and then to experience it firsthand and see how little was done to prepare the inmates for release, and then to go through the transition myself and then to be able to be in a position where I’m able to use, not only my time in prison, my training as a lawyer, but also my leadership in the legislature to help other government officials figure out, how do we make this system work better? How do we make our communities safer, and especially reaching out to conservatives and Republicans, of which I am, to say, you know, we all thought that building more prisons was going to make us safer, but it hasn’t, and maybe we need to spend time, while they are in prison, to do something to prepare them to live these healthy lives.

For instance, you mentioned the friction in a family and oftentimes drugs are involved and most probably 80% of those convicted, even if convicted of something else, because they’ve probably been stealing from the family. Certainly, they’ve been lying to them about their drug use. They probably have not been a good provider, because all of these issues leaves scars. Nothing is done in prison to address that, to try and reconcile that family to help them work through it.

Len Sipes: Well, it’s interesting, we simply say, those of us in the reentry community, we simply say that if you can provide drug treatment, if you can provide mental health treatment, if you can provide job training, and if you can provide a GED and that educational experience, and if you follow that up in the community (those four things), a lot of us do believe you can have a drop in recidivism of anywhere between 15-20%. This is what the research has to say.

Now, 15-20%, that’s a huge savings to taxpayers, that’s a huge burden off of law enforcement in terms of crimes not committed, but yet we don’t do it. We don’t do it. We don’t do it. And so the question, and I know there is a ton of talk throughout the country from advocacy groups, and from faith-based organizations that this is something we should do, that this is something we must do; but, we in essence, and in terms of where we are today, in early August of 2008, we don’t and we are not doing it now.

Pat Nolan: And the public would be appalled at that. I was appalled. As a legislator, voting for more prisons, I was the Republican leader in the Assembly and fought for all the new prisons in California. While I was leader, we built nine new prisons, and only one university in California. I did this because I thought it would make us safer. What I didn’t realize is that nothing was being done to change the folks inside, and only when I was a prisoner did I see. In one of these centers, there was this little guy, Gerardo, just a wonderful guy. The only business he knew was gangs. You know, this guy, if he had any of the advantages I had in life would have been president of a company. He had a great personality, great sense of humor, hard working, dedicated, loved his family. The problem is that the business he got into was illegal, you know, but if he had been channeled, and when he was in prison, nothing was done to reorient him.

Len Sipes: A lot of people are simply going to sit back and go, “But you can’t.” Yeah, they are not going to change. They are not going to be rehabilitated and there is good research that says that they are.

Pat Nolan: But isn’t that the response. You talk to the ,

Len Sipes: No, that’s right. You talk to the , I mean, I come from a law enforcement background. You talk to my friends in law enforcement and its like, “Leonard, you’re really rowing a boat upstream, you are not going with the flow here,” and I’m going, “But, look, you know, Ladies and Gentleman, they come out as taxpayers, or they come out as tax burdens.”

Pat Nolan: Yeah, you are absolutely right, Leonard, and they come out as good neighbors or dangerous neighbors.

Len Sipes: Or they take care of the kids, or they don’t take care of their kids.

Pat Nolan: Yes, in so many ways, it’s a double-positive, or a double-negative for us. If we can succeed in helping them turn their lives around, we not only take away all of the costs to the government and the dangers to society, we add positive benefits to society and the myth is that nothing works. And when I was in the legislature, I basically believed nothing works to change these folks. I would say two things to that. One, is that there is plenty of literature that shows things do work, and we can point to people that have made great contributions. Tim, and whatever his name is, was on the , the actor, Tim …

Len Sipes: Oh, heavens, I’m terrible.

Pat Nolan: He was the “Tool Time” Tim.

Len Sipes: Oh, yes, yes. He was arrested for cocaine.

Pat Nolan: Right, he did time in prison, and yet look at the joy he has brought to people through his acting and stuff.

Len Sipes: Oh, absolutely.

Pat Nolan: But, I would also say to anybody in your audience that’s Christian, Jesus came to redeem us. We’re all sinners, and there are those of us that have been caught and imprisoned for things that we’ve done, and there are those of us who have done things that were never caught, and never went to prison, but Jesus forgives us all. And, redemption, not everybody is redeemed but he came once and for all. He gives everybody the chance to be redeemed, and so our obligation is to reach out, and he was very clear.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s the interesting thing in this. Jesus commanded us to reach out to those individuals in prisons, and it wasn’t a request. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command, yet the average person would rather clean toilets than to go and deal with former offenders.

Pat Nolan: Right, he was explicit and I didn’t realize this until I came to this job. There is a little book in the back of the Bible, called Philemon, and it was written by Paul to a man named Philemon who was a leader a church, and Philemon was a very wealthy man. One of his slaves Onesimus stole something from him and escaped and ended up in a cell with Paul in Rome, and Paul converted him and disciple him, and he sent back this letter to Philemon, with Onesimus, saying, “Please accept him back, not as a slave, but better than a slave, as your brother in Jesus Christ.” The whole letter is about reentry. It’s about saying, “Accept this person who has harmed you, back,” but it also doesn’t say just Olly Olly Oxen Free, it says, “I’ve worked with him. I’ve guided him. I’ve developed him. He can be a leader of the church,” and Onesimus went on to become a Bishop, so he was a great contributor to ,

Len Sipes: A former offender, to bishop. Well, it’s, and I’ve talked to other individuals within the Christian religion, who are former offenders, who are now ministers, but the same thing applies to the Islamic religion. The same thing applies to our friends in Judaism. Across the board, there is this strong sense that this is something we could do, should do, and I’m simply intrigued by the fact that, by and large, in terms of what state government is doing, and what everybody is doing, this whole sense of reentry is not shooting off into the atmosphere. The reentry movement, in terms of provision of programs, the provision and the establishment of faith-based institutions being involved in it, it is not moving nearly as fast as I would like it, and what other people who are in part of the reentry community would like it to be. So I just simply am intrigued that Jesus did provide the command, and the same command seems to be within all religions, yet it’s basically , I’m not saying it’s stalled. I think it’s on the verge of great things, but it’s not moving as quickly as I thought it would.

Pat Nolan: When I was inside, one of the things that inmates said was, when Matthew 25, around 40, comes up, “When I was naked and you clothed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was imprisoned and you visited me,” they said, they’ll read the gospel, but the sermon will mention everything but prison. The next summer, and I’m a Catholic, and the priest read Matthew 25:40 and it came to that and he read it in the gospel but did not mention helping prisoners. Mentioned everything else, and so I went to him and it was unintentional on his part, but one of the problems is, people get sent to prison and we forget about them. They become almost nonhuman, nonexistent, and of course he was very apologetic, and from then on he has preached on it, and we have set up a reentry ministry there working with other churches, so he has been great, but I think it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” and, as you said, people are uncomfortable with it.

These individuals are in every community in the United States, by the boatload, and I keep saying, they are a ten-minute drive from where you live, and where your children are shopping in markets with us. They are in our parks. They are riding on the buses with us. You know, and frankly, most of them don’t get in trouble again, and we are fine. But, they are there, and how much better if they’ve been prepared to be good neighbors, as you say, to be taxpayers, to be contributing citizens to the community, good parents, you know, coach of the Little League, how much better for all us with that? And also, frankly, seasoned by the lessons they learned from prison. Prison can either drive you further away, or it can strengthen you in your beliefs, and that is what it did for me. It drew me closer, and I tell people that I went into prison believing in God, and I came out knowing him, and he was central to my life then, and it helps in every aspect. You know, I’m a better person in the way I treat people and what I do, but one thing about reentry, and I’ve been part of several movements, it’s starting to move, and I would say the real evidence of that was the Second Chance Act.

Len Sipes: That’s Congress talking about the provision of all of the different programs that we’ve been talking about in a fairly limited degree.

Pat Nolan: Exactly, it’s a tiny amount of money, but symbolically, when is the last time Congress ever said prisoners are worth doing anything for, other than giving longer sentences? So this was a major turnaround.

Len Sipes: And nobody argues against longer sentences when it is deserved. They should be provided with those services.

Pat Nolan: Right. That’s right. It should be proportioned to the harm that was done, and use that time. If we are spending that time on bricks and mortar and security, it is not that much time to add the program to it, to then tremendously increase the value of it. The great thing about the Second Chance Act, though, is it was bipartisan and we worked very hard on that.

Len Sipes: Agreed.

Pat Nolan: Two-thirds of the Republicans voted for it, and it was signed by the President. That is a significant change from where Republicans were when I was in the legislature and even up to the last few years, so while it is only a “baby step,” it’s finally a step in the right direction after a lot of movement the wrong way.

Len Sipes: Ladies and Gentleman, we have with us today Pat Nolan, from Prison Fellowship. I want to give out these contact numbers again, (703)478-0100, or The Prison Fellowship has been there now for 30 years. Pat has been with them for 11 years. They are in just about every state in the United States and how many countries, again, Pat?

Pat Nolan: One-hundred-and-twelve (112).

Len Sipes; In 112 countries, and truly I had no idea that it was such a worldwide organization. I really want to thank you and Prison Fellowship for your efforts throughout the years. I think it has been an extraordinary movement, and I’m not quite sure that enough people know about you. Again, Pat Nolan, Prison Fellowship, (701)478-0100,, and Ladies and Gentleman, this is DC Public Safety. We really enjoy your comments, and we respond individually to all of your comments, and we do work your comments into the shows. My name is Leonard Sipes, please everybody have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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