Calling on all dioceses and denominations to help confront the crises in the criminal justice system, the Rev. Jacqueline A. Means, the Episcopal Church's criminal justice officer and director of prison ministry, has said that "the challenge ... is enormous."
Attending the American Correctional Association's 135th Congress of Correction and visiting a prison August 6-11 in Baltimore, Maryland, Means said she gained a "wider perspective of the enormity of the problems" that impact inmates, staff, families and especially children.
"The churches need to hold joint forums on the problems and the good things that are happening," said Means, "and pledge to begin a united effort as the faith community, regardless of our own agendas."
The conference highlighted problems such as overcrowding, racism, medical care, mental health, disabilities, violence, prison rape, gangs and addictions. They were countered by reports of successfully-reformed juvenile systems, community and faith-based partnerships and arguments for treatment over punishment.
Means was accompanied to the ACA conference by the Rev. Marjorie H. Holm, chaplain at a Virginia prison. They joined a tour of the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, where a federal suit had been filed because of past conditions.
They also visited The ReC, a unique Reentry Center for Baltimore's ex-offenders, which features digital learning laboratories, training, identification, jobs, housing and child support services. The center, created by the mayor's office, also offers business incentives to employers like tax credits, a bonding program and reimbursement for on-the-job training.
A meeting with Bishop Robert W. Ihloff of Maryland signaled the beginning of planning for a week of camp for inmates' children next summer.
"If one child learns about unconditional love, it will be worth it," said Means. Five dioceses have camp programs and more are planned for 2006.
Means also met with Maryland's secretary of public safety and corrections, Mary Ann Saar and her deputy for operations, Dr. Mary L. Livers. They discussed camps, creating comfortable visiting rooms that would "bolster family relations"; mental health training; the possibility of inmate-run hospice care; a hope that churches outside prisons might create day care centers for the children of prison staffs and RESTART, a new Maryland corrections reentry program.
"In the face of the destruction brought on by criminal acts," said Chaplain Holm, who ministers on Virginia's death row, "God calls the people of the Episcopal Church to represent his grace in an ever hurting and vengeful world. There's an urgency in our ministry to respect the dignity of every human being."