“I tried to do everything right this time,” she choked out between sobs as she sat in my office. Both the chaplain and several case managers confirmed that, during her previous incarceration, Linda had indeed been a model inmate. She had successfully completed a drug treatment program and vocational training in cosmetology. She worked closely with the chaplain in pastoral counseling sessions and attended Bible studies and worship services regularly. Prison staff thought they were witnessing a real Cinderella story.
The transformation did not end abruptly following release. Linda read her Bible regularly and attended services at a local church. Her enthusiastic witness even became a source of conflict with her adult daughter. Despite several months of fruitless job hunting, Linda tried to keep her spirits high.
But when the landlord discovered Linda was a convicted felon living with her daughter, he evicted them. Federal housing policy prohibits felony offenders from living in public housing. For many people, the solution would be simple—stay with another relative. But all of Linda’s immediate family, at least those she could count on for support, lived in public housing. Terrified of putting another family member at risk for eviction, she wandered the streets for a few nights before seeking a place to stay from a familiar source—a drug dealer.
“We Didn’t Bus Them In From Hell”
During workshops at local churches, Chaplain Aghogah tells her audience, “We didn’t bus these people in from hell. These are our kinfolk—our sons, daughters, cousins, nieces and nephews. Stop acting like you don’t know them.”
Many, perhaps most, Christians know someone who has been or is currently incarcerated. Typically, though, we like to think of these individuals as exceptions to the rule; that is, unlike most convicts, they are not hardened criminals, but victims of life circumstances.
Nearly every inmate I met this summer had something in her background — poverty, drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, abuse — that “explained” her criminal history. This does not excuse criminal behavior. But it does point to the possibility of redemption and reconciliation. This is the task of the church. While the state can aim to rehabilitate offenders, only the body of Christ can restore them to right relationship with God, self and society.