Winter 2007 Volume 6 Number 2

After Prison
Freedom is Far from Easy

By Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07 • Photos by Tony Pearce

During my first week at N.C. Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW), the Rev. Gloria Aghogah D’98, supervisor of chaplaincy services and my field education supervisor, took me to the center of the 30-acre campus-style facility, where a slight elevation provided a bird’s eye view of the entire complex.

The weather was good and most of the inmates seemed to be out on the yard. Looking at the sea of women in their blue, green and tan uniforms—each color denoting custody status—Aghogah asked, “You know what I see when I look out here? A mission field. I’m in the trenches.

“There are hundreds of women here who are in pain, who need healing, who need to be led to God. That’s what chaplains do. We’re here to help point the way to healing.”

Aghogah believes her role is to be a loving and nonjudgmental presence. “I meet inmates where they are and we work from there,” she says. “I’m not concerned about what they’ve done. I want to know … their spiritual needs.”

“Nobody Wants Them”

“What are we supposed to do if nobody wants them?” screamed Yolanda Oxendine, the case manager in the adjacent office. Trying to find housing for a soon-to-be-released inmate with a history of mental illness, Oxendine had met roadblocks at every turn. Telephone numbers of group homes had been disconnected. Halfway houses were full. Not even a temporary placement was available.

  Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07 prays with members of the Multifaith Transition Aftercare Program, a chaplaincy-based re-entry program.

Each year, North Carolina’s 70 prisons release more than 22,000 inmates. Without re-entry assistance, more than half will return to the corrections system. Budget cuts require case managers to handle large caseloads, preventing the attention needed to ensure a successful transition for each inmate. High staff turnover doubles the load for case managers. Most inmates, then, are left to fend for themselves when it comes to re-entry.

Linda epitomizes this dilemma. In her mid-40s, she has been in prison most of her adult life, mostly for misdemeanor property offenses related to drug addiction. When we met during the second week of my placement, she was back for her ninth prison term, sentenced to eight months for parole violation. She was desperate.

  The Rev. Gloria Aghogah D’98, supervisor of chaplaincy services, preaching in the Chapel of the Nameless Woman.

“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”

  Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07 meets with members of the Multifaith Transition Aftercare Program.

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.

This restoration is the aim of the Multifaith Transition Aftercare Program, a chaplaincy-based re-entry program being piloted at NCCIW. Developing this program was my primary task during the summer. The Rev. Betty Brown D’96, statewide director of prison chaplaincy services, who commissioned the program, hopes it will become the exemplar for re-entry services throughout North Carolina.

Through pastoral counseling and mentoring, the program aims to help offenders understand their past, envision a better future, and attain the skills, beliefs, values and resources to become healthy and productive members of society.

For six weeks starting in June, I worked with a group of 11 inmates, ages 18 to 43, who had nine to 12 months remaining on their sentences. We began by reading and discussing biblical scholar Renita Weems’ Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom, and the Blessings of God. The group has continued to meet weekly to pray together and to discuss their lives and their faith. In the fall, they began a study of womanist theology.

  Chaplain Gloria Aghogah D’98 and Walker-Barnes outside the Chapel of the Nameless Woman. Inspired by an anonymous $2 donation, inmates helped raise funds to build the chapel in the mid-’60s. It is dedicated to the memory of the nameless woman Jesus saves in John 8:7 saying, "He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her." KJV

Most important, each participant is paired with a mentor from a local faith community who will help build a support network to provide encouragement, practical assistance and accountability. The mentors visit and write to the women, pray for them, coach them in life skills, and help them to plan for re-entry. The mentor relationship, which extends for three years post-release, is a crucial component of the program. Unfortunately, this is also the most difficult aspect of the program to maintain.

Although I had identified 13 potential mentors, only seven, from four different congregations, eventually attended the training session and were matched with inmates. Yet four months later, many mentors had not followed through.

During a recent visit to NCCIW, the women reported mentors who have never visited and who did not answer their letters. Although such attrition might be expected in a pilot program, it has potentially disastrous consequences. These women have changed from blue to green uniforms, the marker of a rapidly approaching release date. Without a mentor, crucial planning for transition is not getting done.

The program has encountered other snags. Of the original 11 participants, four dropped out in the first two months. And while participation was supposed to preclude transfer to other institutions, two have been moved, including Linda. The oldest participant in the program, Linda was also the most eager. In contrast to women incarcerated for the first time, Linda knows firsthand what lies ahead outside. She knows that she will not succeed without help.

Inmates share a light moment with Walker-Barnes.  

I hope Linda will succeed despite her transfer to another facility. After letting her family down many times, she had been reluctant to contact relatives who were in a position to help her. I encouraged her to try again. During my last week of the summer, she finally reached out to her siblings and told them about her participation in the re-entry program. To her surprise, her sister offered her a place to stay. Her brother, owner of a hair salon, offered her a job while she studies for her cosmetology licensing exam.

The Way Forward

Like any pilot program, there are a few bugs to be worked out in the Multifaith Transition Aftercare Program. Rev. Brown is optimistic that it will eventually be available at prisons statewide. In the meantime, approximately 2,200 inmates will be released each month from the state’s prisons, many with little more than a bus ticket, a change of clothing, and identification.

Within the next six months, they will include Linda and the five women who have been faithful participants in the program. And while few of the communities to which they return will have re-entry agencies, all of them will have at least one church. I pray the doors of that church will be open.

Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07 holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and taught at the University of N.C. at Chapel Hill before entering the master of divinity degree program at The Divinity School. “I know that NCCIW will shape the course of my vocation,” she says. “Somehow I plan to be one of those waiting to embrace our sisters and brothers as they return home.”

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