Even as a teenager, Cary Sanders’ life already looked hopeless.
SANDERS: By the age of 17, I had been arrested 17 times.
He got sent to a state prison in South Carolina. One night, five years into his nine year sentence, he sat alone in his cell on the verge of suicide. He wondered if life was even worth living.
That’s when he remembered the Bible under his mattress – a gift from another inmate. He started reading. An added article in the Bible explained how he could have a new life in Christ.
SANDERS: I became a believer as I encountered God's word.
Sanders began to serve out the last four years of his sentence with the hope and joy of Jesus. But as his release neared new worries began to fill his mind.
SANDERS: Often, as I looked outside of my prison cell window, I really couldn't see a world past the prison fences. I remember at night, I would sit there and look, and when you're looking at a prison cell window, you can't see past the razor wire, you can see the light glistening off of the razor at nighttime. And to me, it was like the world just ended there.
Every year, more than 600,000 men and women—who have been convicted of serious crimes—are released from U.S. federal and state prisons. Within three years of release, as many as two out of three of them are rearrested. And more than half go back to prison.
That’s partly because they just don’t know how to live life on the outside. But just like they do behind bars, Christians are stepping in to help…giving prisoners a chance to find life, hope, and freedom that truly lasts.
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.
I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.
SOUND: HIGHWAY AMBI
The Eastern County Transitional Living Center ot ECTLC sits just off a busy highway in El Cajon, California.
BROWN: So as you look it’s 101 rooms... The two story is all families. The single story is women, I have about 10 rooms that are families and then men.
Harold Brown is the director. The yellow, renovated two-story motel can house up to 500 people. Men and women who were once homeless.
BROWN: These are standard single, women's single, men's. Five bunks in a room.
He says when a new resident or family arrives, center staff first provide for their physical needs. Families get their own room, while single men and women share.
Residents also get clothes, hygiene items, and meals.
Some of the people who come here for help are ex-offenders. They’re struggling with a variety of problems: addiction, trauma, tragedy, physical and mental illnesses or they just can’t find a job or housing on their own.
Brown knows the struggle ex-offenders face on the outside firsthand. He was once a homeless addict with more felonies than he could count.
BROWN: Started using drugs when I was 12… I wound up burglarizing homes to feed my addiction, homeless for three years, four years in and out of prison. I did three, five year sentences.
For as much time as Harold Brown spent in prison, he never changed. He always went back to a life of crime.
Then one day, he found his way to a Catholic rescue mission in San Diego. He crashed at the mission for a night, but before he left the next morning, he realized something.
BROWN: It hit me if I walk out that door. I'm gonna die. I'm 30 years old. life's going nowhere.
Brown refused to leave the mission. The staff gave him a Bible.
BROWN: And later that day, at a chapel service, I gave my life to the Lord.
Jesus disrupted Brown’s cycle of destruction. But he still wasn’t ready to go back out into the world. He didn’t know how to live without drugs and crime. Plus, how was a guy with a mile-long rap sheet going to get a legitimate job?
Brown had to relearn how to live. So he stayed at the rescue mission. Staff let him fix toilets, showers and hot water heaters.
BROWN: I did that for 11 years. 11 years… When I left I was the director of facilities.
He never imagined heading up a transitional center of his own. Brown says he’s working to give all homeless men and women—especially those with a criminal record—what he got at that rescue mission. The boundaries, accountability, and support to truly change.
BROWN: We're developing priests and kings for the kingdom of God. That's our goal.
Time in prison and homelessness often go hand-in-hand. One study found that a person who has been incarcerated even just one time is seven times more likely to be homeless. Someone in prison more than once is 13 times more likely to become homeless.
Byron Johnson is a sociologist at Baylor University. He studies the impact of faith-based programs in a variety of areas. Johnson says there are a few reasons ex-offenders have higher rates of homelessness.
JOHNSON: Prisoners do struggle because as you can imagine, your every movement is controlled. Someone's watching you 24 hours a day. And then a lot of them just go from that environment to one where they're now in a big city and no one's looking over their shoulder at all. And so that's a pretty frightening prospect to go from complete structure to no structure.
For many former prisoners, release also comes with an overwhelming list of tasks and choices.
JOHNSON: For a lot of offenders coming out, they maybe don't have a job lined up. They don't have transportation lined up. Even housing is a difficult thing for many, because some of them have been alienated from their families.
Sometimes all of that uncertainty pushes men and women back to what they do know: crime. That’s part of why the United States has some of the highest recidivism rates in the world. Byron Johnson says the church has struggled to know how to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
JOHNSON: The biggest problem that we have is the re-entry phase. How can the church respond there? That's very difficult.
But more and more ministries are learning.
Successful reintegration programs give men and women three main ingredients: time to slowly transition into the outside world, job training or skill-building, and community.
Baked into that recipe are the hallmarks of effective compassion: help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual.
At the Eastern County Transitional Living Center, the time component is critical. Men and women can live there for a year. That gives them an opportunity to unlearn toxic behaviors and to detox from bad relationships and patterns. They also get a chance to attend life classes, Bible studies, and counseling. They can get their high school GED and take college courses.
The center’s staff also teach residents how to provide for themselves. Harold Brown says homeless men and women, including former prisoners, have to learn how to take responsibility and respect authority.
BROWN: There's a myth out there that if you give a homeless person a job, that's all they need, and that that's not what they need. Not initially anyway, eventually they do need that job... they have to be prepared to actually be a good employee, report to a supervisor, even become a supervisor.
To give residents work experience, staff start by assigning them jobs around the motel: cleaning, maintenance, and working the front-desk.
SOUND: FRONT DESK AREA
BROWN: So a lot of skills are being taught behind the desk. They answer phones and direct phone calls.
Later, residents get jobs off-campus—at restaurants, a meatpacking plant, and in landscaping.
SOUND: CHAINSAW AMBI
One center work crew is cutting down trees and pulling weeds for a business next to the motel.
Getting work experience makes it much easier for residents to get hired once they leave. A good reference is especially critical for someone with a record.
The center also provides its residents with a community. Harold Brown says discipleship and mentorship from staff—and camaraderie with peers who are walking through similar struggles—make the changes stick.
BROWN: The core of our program is to introduce them to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then prepare them to be successful people out in the community.
Jonathan Heuberger is one of the center’s success stories. He’s tall and strong. 6 ft. 3. 260 pounds. He came to the center 16 years ago. Back then, he was a five-time felon who had spent more than a decade in prison. He was strung out on meth and on the run from the police … again.
HEUBERGER: I figured my life was just going to be addiction and prison.
Then a member of a biker gang tried to help him. He dropped Heuberger off at the center. There, staff shared the Gospel with him, and he broke down.
HEUBERGER: At just the right time Christ died for the ungodly. And that was that day for me.
A few days later, police came to arrest Heuberger. The officers had dealt with him before, so they were surprised at the man they found.
HEUBERGER: They saw a difference in me... And they said, Don't leave. And we're gonna make everything disappear.
Jonathan Heuberger ended up staying at the Eastern County Transitional Living Center for the next six years… caring for the property and helping mentor other residents. Eventually, he became a pastor, and today, he directs the men’s program.
HEUBERGER: It's funny. I used to come to this hotel… before it was a ministry. I used to come here and do dope…Yeah. Came full circle.
Heuberger says the reasons ex-offenders like him end up back in prison are complicated. Sometimes it’s just because the way prisoners are released doesn’t work.
Most states give released prisoners what’s called Gate Money. It’s supposed to cover immediate expenses—transportation, housing, food. California gives the most: $200. Prisoners in Alabama leave with as little as $20. Some states like New Hampshire don’t give any.
Heuberger says when someone leaves prison with little or no money and no plan… things are bound to head south.
HEUBERGER: You warehouse somebody for a few years, and they learn how to be a better criminal. And they get out with their $200 and with no hope, nowhere to go. What do you expect them to do?
That’s where Christians can step in.
HEUBERGER: I think that exiting prison, if you had a Christian organization or a Christian or anybody else like that, that wanted to spend time and help you, I think that that would be a help.
Heuberger wishes someone had done that for him. But at the same time, he doesn’t know if he would have been willing to accept help then. Sometimes people end up back in prison simply because they aren’t ready to change.
HEUBERGER: The problem is that if you're not ready, you're not ready… it's got to be in God's timing. And you’ve got to be at the end of yourself I think.
Being connected to a ministry like ECTLC is powerful for ex-offenders for many reasons. But one of the biggest things transitional centers offer is social capital.
Social capital is the network of relationships between people that enables society to function. Think of the guy at church who tells the college kid about an internship at his company. The newly married couple whose family and friends help them buy items for their first home. The stay-at-home mom who offers to watch her neighbor’s children so she can go to a job interview.
Michael Hallett is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida. He’s written numerous books and articles on crime, prison, and society.
HALLETT: We've got a near complete breakdown in family structures and the kinds of social capital that were still available when I started my career almost 30 years ago.
Hallet says as the family has broken down along with key institutions…many men and women leaving prison don’t have this critical network of relationships. The web that most of us don’t realize helps our world go around.
HALLETT: There's been a collapse of social capital, as much as there has also been a collapse of economic capital, right? And so the social profile of a typical inmate today is is an individual who has been traumatized, has been excluded. Who is even more likely to be a racial minority, and who will return to a collapsed environment and even more collapsed environment, then they came from before, except now they're going to have the stigma of having a criminal conviction.
Building social capital in the lives of former prisoners takes time and intention. It takes people purposely building relationships with them and helping them create a network of connections so they can find work, housing, and community.
That’s what Carey Sanders found at JumpStart Ministries. JumpStart is a two-part prison ministry in upstate South Carolina. The first part is traditional prison ministry–helping men and women currently in prison. The second part helps them after they leave.
Sanders says both parts were critical for him. After he got saved, he began attending JumpStart’s prison meetings.
SANDERS: I can unequivocally say that believers coming in from local churches made an incredible difference in my life by sharing the gospel, by modeling for me what a believer looked like.
Then, as Sanders’ release neared, part two kicked in.
He began to wonder how he would make it outside prison walls. Tasks that seem like simple logistics to most people… grew into mountains ahead of him.
SANDERS: How am I going to get a driver's license? Where's my social security card?
And Sanders knew he wanted to keep living for Jesus…but what did that look like outside prison?
SANDERS: I still couldn't conceptualize how that was going to affect everyday life upon my release?
Jumpstart volunteers helped him deal with those questions…by having him think through what life after prison would be like: where he would live and what he'd do for work. The ministry also helped him dream big. A JumpStart volunteer helped him get into a local university.
SANDERS: And to make a long story short, I ended up and received a scholarship for undergraduate work there and next year I’ll wrap up a doctorate degree there. So God is still in the restoration business.
Today, Carey Sanders is JumpStart’s executive director. He says JumpStart helps inmates nearing release by helping them create a detailed exit strategy. A plan is key to success.
SANDERS: So typically we have a set of questions that they will be asked to help them realistically think through their reentry, such as… what vehicle are you going to use? What family dynamics are you going to face? Who's gonna pay for the power and the water bill?
But not everyone has good answers for those questions. For those who don’t have a solid support network outside of prison, JumpStart offers a twelve-month residential program. Ex-offenders live in one of a dozen residential homes. Residents work, attend church and counseling, have mentors and get the support they need to make lasting changes. Again, that year helps men and women solidify healthy behaviors and decision-making.
SANDERS: We also have a very holistic approach to help them overcome the barriers they're going to face upon the release. Barriers such as the logistics of a driver's license, social security card, transportation, housing, employment, clothing, hygiene items, life skills, all of those things. Our program incorporates evidence based practices, so we can help them transition from a prisoner to a productive citizen.
The program works. Of the 3,500 men and women who have completed the program, just 4 percent or 140 of them, have gone back to prison. That’s compared to the national rate of 50 percent.
Sanders says Jesus and hands-on support make all the difference for residents like Jeremiah Holcombe.
HOLCOMBE: I'm almost in the seventh month.
Holcombe became a Christian in prison. He was serving a seven-year- sentence at a South Carolina state penitentiary.
HOLCOMBE: I was doing drugs pretty much for 20 years up until about age 35 or 36 when I finally get in trouble with the law. And I got locked up when I was 38 years old.
During his time in prison, Holcombe saw men winding up back behind bars after their release. He didn’t want that to be his story. So after he completed JumpStart’s inside program, he decided also going through the release program would be the best next step.
For much of his adult life, Holcombe had relied on his grandmother to provide for him… spending any money he did have on drugs.
Leaving prison, he wanted to provide for himself.
HOLCOMBE: I knew ahead at least had that option of coming out of prison to have a place to go you know. Of course I had family there and all that but I didn't want to be a burden on no one…now looking back on and I know, that was the best choice I could have made.
After his release, JumpStart helped Holcombe get settled fast. The ministry gave him clothes, food, and a place to stay. He has a mentor. He even got his driver’s license back just eight days after getting out. And now he has a job building home surveillance systems powered by solar panels.
Jeremiah Holcombe says other inmates questioned why he’d want to join a program after his release.
HOLCOMBE: So why do you want to go there, you know, once you get locked out, and you get free, you're pretty much going back to where you're locked up.
JumpStart’s structured program probably would feel like another prison if Holcombe’s heart wasn’t in the right place. And if the rules didn’t come with relationships.
HOLCOMBE: If you do abide by their rules, and what they teach you and show you and provide for you, there's, I haven't seen a way you know, that the, you couldn't be able to, you know, transition back out into the community and to make it on your own after that.
But not everyone can go through a residential program after their release.
That’s where Christian employers can step in. Christian-owned and operated businesses can offer more than just a paycheck. They can provide the space for character development and change.
Josh Hester and Filipe Inacio started their men’s hair products business five years ago. It’s called Firsthand Supply, and it’s headquartered north of Boston. As entrepreneurs, they’ve taken a lot of leaps of faith.
Today, they’re taking a new one.
SOUND: AMBI… Guys eating, hanging out
A black van pulls up outside the Firsthand warehouse. Six guys pile out. They’re in their late teens and early 20s. They’ve come here with Straight Ahead Ministries.
You first met Straight Ahead in episode two. The ministry helps young people released from the juvenile justice system get a strong start. Part of that involves helping them find work.
Josh Hester and Filipe Inacio are partnering with Straight Ahead to offer shifts at their warehouse. This is the first time they’re meeting their new workers.
Hestor and Inacio hand out breakfast croissant sandwiches from a local bakery. As the guys eat, Hestor explains the vision for their business.
He tells the young men that working here will be more than just mixing and bottling hair products. It will be about building relationships.
HESTOR: Like if you've had a crappy day yesterday, we want to know about it, not so we can steep in it but like, that's a part of your life, man. And like this, this should be a place to talk about it.
HESTOR: Do you guys wanna you guys want to do a quick tour?
As they walk through the facility, Inacio and Hestor show the guys where they’ll be working up to 20 hours a week.
INACIO: So these these boxes right here is where all our ingredients go into. And we heat them up…This is beeswax. This is what beeswax looks like and we use it in a lot of our products.
If the Straight Ahead participants are a good fit, they could eventually get hired full-time.
Inacio and Hestor say the arrangement holds a lot of opportunity for them. They have a huge new order to fill, and they need the extra hands.
But Inacio says they also know that hiring young men without much experience and with rough backgrounds carries risk.
INACIO: There is a possibility that you get someone who was just grateful to be here and wants to, you know, get back up and get going. There's also the possibility of you getting someone who may be is still figuring things out. And being part of that process is painful, I think, both personally, but as a business.
But it’s a process Josh Hestor says they want to be a part of.
HESTOR: We actually have an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to walk through business right and like you can still grow a business and still invest in people.
Jason Ludwig is a Straight Ahead staffer. He says opportunities like this are critical for these young men.
LUDWIG: So besides…the barriers of their criminal records you're also dealing with a bunch of teenage boys…These guys never worked before so they don't know the first thing about you know, doing an interview at all the first thing what it means is about showing up a job and like putting in a full eight hours.
But learning those skills comes with growing pains.
Two days a week, the young men from Straight Ahead also work at a carpentry shop run by a Christian. It’s called the Cornerstone Creative.
SOUND: TABLE SAW, SANDER
Today, they’ve been working on building a reception desk. But after a few hours, two of them get into an argument.
AMBI OF ARGUMENT
Before it gets physical, supervising Straight Ahead staffers step in. They try to calm the two men down. After several minutes, it works. The guys walk off in separate directions and then eventually shake hands.
At a regular workplace, the argument could have come to blows. And both men could have gotten written up or possibly fired. Another bridge would have been burned.
Staffer Jason Ludwig says here, thanks to this Christian employer, the men get supervision, patience, and intervention. They have room to build work and relationship skills.
LUDWIG: The young guys are full of testosterone and you know they're gonna make each other mad… Confrontation is part of life but how the confrontation… there’s a way to do it.
And for Christian employers, having the support of a ministry like Straight Ahead makes hiring, training, and mentoring ex-offenders easier. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The employer knows they’ve got the support of the ministry to deal with behavior and work issues. And the ministry has a way of helping men and women transition to the outside world.
Carey Sanders at JumpStart says now local businesses regularly call looking to hire their residents.
SANDERS: Now, we have more employers than we have participants.
The solar panel surveillance company that Jeremiah Holcombe works for is owned by a Christian. Holcombe says when he leaves JumpStart it will be helpful to have the ongoing support of his Christian boss.
HOLCOMBE: Every, every morning at 9 o'clock, we have a meeting…We start the meeting with prayer and prayer requests every morning… I've never been in that type of environment before. So you know, I mean, it's, it's a plus to help me keep on that path.
Holcombe says he does hope to see the guys he knew in prison again. But not in the way that happens all too often… thanks to support.
HOLCOMBE: I remember back when I was in prison, you know, I told a couple of people there. I said, you know, you may see me again, but you won't see me on that side of the fence.
Practical help like housing and job training is vital for former inmates transitioning to life on the outside. But spiritual support is just as important, and sometimes harder to come by.
Next week, we’ll return to Texas to visit ministries that emphasize discipleship and mentoring … to ensure that the good work begun behind bars, carries on to completion.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Sarah Schweinsberg. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.