Political attitudes changing

Prisons shifting toward rehabilitation and re-entry programs
May 31, 2004

A SHIFT IN political attitudes toward criminal justice reform marked the Eighth National Prison Ministry Conference, held in the Diocese of Texas.

Corrections officials from Texas - the state leading in executions -- said they had become convinced that rehabilitation and re-entry programs did more to enhance public safety than treating inmates like caged animals, as critics charge.

Nearly 90 Episcopal laity and clergy attended the conference, "Engage in God's Mission - Serving All His People," at the Camp Allen Conference and Retreat Center April 29-May 1.

"The public is increasingly unsure that we -- governors, legislators, corrections authorities -- are achieving what we want" in prisons, said Christina Melon-Crain, chair of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. "Re-entry is our new buzz word, nationally and locally."

"Today's inmate is tomorrow's neighbor," she added. "The president has dedicated $300 million toward a prisoner re-entry initiative."

About 650,000 prisoners are released in the nation annually. More than 60 percent return to prison within three years.

Chaplain Vance Drum, an officer of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, said prison wardens were becoming "more open to treatment and rehabilitation," but substance-abuse programs "have floundered" because of budget slashing.

The longest-serving chaplain in Texas, Drum said his state also had cut the number of chaplains from 144 to 91. "It's only because of the volunteers that we can succeed." The church is failing its children by focusing on pro-life issues only for the unborn.

"Episcopalians have a real shot at influencing national policy," said Boone Vastine, vice-chair of Texas Juvenile Justice Ministries. "We have a lot to bring to the table - credibility, constituency and the ability to pounce on an opportunity when it appears."

He emphasized the need to form deep, broad coalitions, urging Episcopalians to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

Nearly 20 workshops described ministries focusing on prisoners, victims, families, children, chaplains, prison officers, transitional care, addictions and alternative sentencing.

Suffragan Bishop Rayford High of Texas and the Rev. Jackie Means, director of prison ministry and criminal justice officer for the Episcopal Church, hosted the conference.

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