For the fourth time in his pontificate, Pope Francis will wash the feet of inmates at a prison on Holy Thursday this year.
The pope, who will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, has previously spoken of the importance of reintegrating former prisoners back into society.
In the United States, 65 million people have a criminal record, which can limit access to employment, housing, and education, according to James Ackerman, the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian ministry serving prisoners.
“Nearly 700,000 men and women will return to our communities this year alone. Thus, it is smart...for us to implement a more restorative approach for to criminal justice, re-entry, and, in particular, employment for people with a criminal record,” said Ackeman at a prison reform panel at the National Press Club on March 28.
Lily Gonzalez was one of the panelists at the “Second Chances: Removing Barriers to Returning Citizens” event. She shared the difficulties she faced in pursuing an education after being released from prison, in which she spent extensive time in solitary confinement.
Homeboy Industries, a ministry founded by a Jesuit priest, Father Greg Boyle, helped her through their “pathways to college program.”
“It really did take a village,” reflected Gonzalez, who said that the generosity of others helped her pay for her books and parking. However, she continued to face obstacles due to her criminal record after she graduated from college.
“I had a bachelor degree and no one wanted to hire me,” she said.
This barrier to employment and other necessities to reintegrate into society can often feel like a “second prison” after one has served their time, according to Ackerman. A conviction can become a life sentence to joblessness, which can increase the likelihood of future arrests.
This issue has led several U.S. states pass laws that “Ban the Box,” which prevents inquiries about someone’s criminal record on initial job applications, postponing the inquiries until later in the application process.
“I think that when you have a box on the application you are asking the person, 'Tell me about the worst thing that you have ever done in your life,' and then as a recruiter I'm going to judge you based on that. I wouldn't ask anyone that, and I don't need to know that at that point in the process,” said a human resources executive with Butterball Farms, Bonnie Mroczek.
She shared the positive results Butterball has seen hiring former inmates.
“We've been hiring returning citizens for 23 years. We've had tons of success with it and we are sharing information with other companies about the success that we've had,” she said.
“In states and localities where there has been an evaluation of Ban the Box programs, we see that there is about a 40% increase in people with records getting hired as a result of simply postponing an inquiry about their record,” added Judy Conti, who is the federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.
“If you haven't met me, you haven't had a chance to talk to me and get to know who I am,” said Dennis Avila, one of the former prisoners who shared his story.
“I have convictions that involve drugs and firearms … If you just look at some of the worst things that I have done, you would just think that I was this crazy person, which isn't true at all ...coming out of prison and trying to get a job to sustain me and my family was really really hard.”
Avila had a son when he was convicted, and he was not alone in that fact. There are 2.7 million children in the U.S. with a parent in prison, according to Prison Fellowship.
Avila eventually went on to found his own nonprofit organization that uses music to positively impact people from challenging backgrounds and circumstances.
“We are proud that today a full 25% of our field staff are people who were once caught up in the cycle of crime and incarceration, but today are now part of the cycle of renewal,” shared the CEO of Christian Prison Fellowship, who spoke of the importance of engaging prisoners in “a dignified manner and help them to become healthier and more productive citizens.”
Prison Fellowship is currently active in 428 prisons across the country. According to their website, the ministry is “founded on the conviction that all people are created in God's image and that no life is beyond God's reach. As Christians, we believe that Jesus - Himself brought to trial, executed, buried, and brought to life again - offers hope, healing, and a new purpose for each life. He can make even the most broken people and situations whole again.”
The fellowship was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson in 1976 after he served seven months prison for his involvement in Watergate as a former aid to President Richard Nixon.
Colson rediscovered his faith during his time in prison. In a book entitled “Loving God: The Cost of Being a Christian,” Colson wrote the following about founding a prison ministry that has impacted the lives of thousands of people:
“My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious -- all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure -- that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation -- being sent to prison -- was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”