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The Story of Second Chances

When Death Was Arrested

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 9.13.44 AMOn Monday nights a team of two or three of us file into the back of our local jail and have the opportunity to lead a Celebrate Recovery class as a part of a larger recovery program called Women Recovering with a Purpose (WRAP).

Prison is the first place where I really began to understand the power of second chances. In prison there are countless stories of people who have veered off, danced with addiction and death – but, have made the decision to come back, to heal and be restored by God. Once I heard these stories and gripped the hands of people who had come back to life with such hope, something inside of me broke in half. It was the kind of heartbreak that I never want to piece back together – because I got a glimpse into the vastness of God’s love for people.

On my way home from jail a few months ago, the song, “Death was Arrested” came on the radio. The words hit me hard that night. The lyrics so poetically proclaim the freedom that we have in Christ, the power of second chances and new life. Some days when we meet for CR inside, I don’t feel like I can articulate just how grateful I am to have a God that doesn’t see me for everything wrong that I’ve done, but that sees me and gives me grace even when I don’t deserve it. That night I thought about sending the lyrics to some of the ladies in the WRAP program – but I never did.

Today, marked the 12th anniversary of Celebrate Recovery in our community – I visited Community Church of Columbus to listen to the testimonies of some people who have veered off, have come home and have been transformed by the power and grace of God. They were all so brave and the stories broken, raw, powerful and beautiful.

A few of us sat together – some of us were CR leaders and some still participating in the WRAP program. As the worship band wrapped up the service, they played “Death was Arrested” and I watched as the WRAP ladies were moved by the words I failed to send them so many months ago. As the words drifted over us, I was amazed – that in God’s timing – the power and beauty of the song’s truth would finally reach their ears. Not because of me, but because He is bigger and loves these girls more than I can even imagine. As I watched one of the ladies walk to the alter, I cried happy tears because God is constantly reminding me of His love story and how much he cares for people….beyond comprehensive and reason.

He doesn’t need us to be a part of the love story He is writing, but He invites us to be a part of it – even when we fail to send the words – and for that I’m so grateful.

Full Circle: From Prison Back to Life

Charles in prisonThere are some people you meet and you just know, they’re special. Brian and I would share that sentiment about Charles Hearne after sharing some BBQ with him in Houston, Texas. I had initiated the meet-up because Charles had been working as the liaison between me (a business advisor) and the guys going through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) for the last few years. After visiting the Cleveland Correctional Facility, I wanted to shake hands with the guy who had been so encouraging to me as an advisor and also ask him a few questions about the program.

Anyone who meets Charles would describe him as a humble, kind and ambitious man. He’s well dressed, clean-cut and has a smile that easily spreads across his face at any given moment.

Not only is Charles working for PEP as their full-time Executive Relationship Manager, he’s also enrolled in Business School at The University of Houston. He has been promoted and recognized by the PEP program as a key member of their team – he has been promoted not only for his ambition and talents – but also, because of his ability to completely understand the true value of the program.

He understands it because he graduated from the program when he served a 4-year-sentence for the possession and delivery of a controlled substance.

That time of his life he would describe as rock bottom — he had given up on himself completely and considered his life over.

Charles story starts out like many I’ve heard from the guys in the PEP program. Raised in a single-family home – his mother worked and went to school full-time. He had a strong desire to feel accepted and found that from a rough group of friends. Thankfully, by high school his mother had graduated college and was able to keep a better eye on him – which he attributes to the reason he made it through high school without a record.

Charles decided to enlist in the Military – his plan was to obtain a degree in Nursing and get a job working in a civilian hospital – but an injury to his patellar tendon derailed those plans. After spending months in a hospital for a related infection, Charles started to slip into a deep depression, which would eventually land him back into hanging out with the same rough crowd of friends from high school.

He admitted having moments of clarity when he knew he wanted to get out. He explained that turning his life around at that time wouldn’t just be walking away from the drugs, it would be walking away from relationships and that was the most difficult thing to leave behind – his friends – the people who loved and accepted him. He just didn’t have the strength to alienate himself, like he knew he would need to do to get clean.

So, he ended up getting caught and getting sentenced to 4-years in prison.

He admitted that he threw himself a pretty large pity party when he first got locked-up, he had given up on his life – assumed this was really the end of it all. There was a pastor that visited the jail that he would avoid at all costs – until one day he couldn’t avoid him any longer. The guy prayed for him and handed him a Bible during that visit. I think Charles knew what he was trying to avoid and faced it head-on that day – he knew that deep down there was a God that loved him, despite his mistakes and wanted him to have a second chance. On that day he committed to making the most out of his time in prison.

Around that time a lay-in assignment was delivered to his dorm by the correctional officer on duty, the slip of paper just said, “PEP”. No one knew what it was, except an older guy in his unit, who told him that he’d be crazy not to go. It piqued Charles interest, so he went.

As they all took their seats in the room, a guy walked in with a nice suit and a briefcase, which was extremely odd to see in prison. Everyone sat up a little straighter when this guy entered. He had a presence about him that impressed Charles. He went on to describe the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and then said he wanted to play a video. Everyone in the room was shocked to see that the same guy wearing the nice suit was featured in this video in a jump suit.

This man had a real story to tell. At that moment Charles said to himself, “I want to be that guy.” He wanted to come out on the other side of this thing better. He wanted to not just endure, but better himself while in prison. He quickly realized that the PEP program would give him the opportunities and tools he needed to do just that.

After watching the video, guys that were interested in applying for PEP were given a written test to take back with them. Everyone who passed the test (which included questions about personal finance, business vocabulary, PEP ten driving values and rules of the program) was then given a face-to-face interview. Charles was verbally accepted into the program directly after his interview and within two weeks was transferred to the Cleveland Correctional Facility, where he would await his classes to begin.

He was expecting to start his Entrepreneurship program training with basic business classes, but quickly realized he was in for surprise when the first three months were dedicated to character development (Effective Leadership) — which he now recognizes as a critical component of the program’s success. This program digs deep and has the guys not only reflect on their own character, but also support and offer observations of each other. This part of the program also dives into the spiritual side of their lives, leadership and what it means to be a man. The program then rolls into a more traditional business school regimen – only their training is laced with touch-points from businessmen/women and entrepreneurs that support the program.

There are many high-level and successful executives that support and donate time to seeing these guys become successful. They offer advice in a Shark-Tank-like pitch night and also mentoring opportunities post-release.

Once released from prison, graduates of PEP don’t just get a check and a bus ticket – they get a Transition Coordinator that drives them to their transitional housing and mentors that are ready to help them do everything from find a job to file paper to get a driver’s license.

Not only that, there’s a brotherhood among these men. They support each other once they’re out and even create jobs for one another. The PEP program graduates have an average of 20-days from prison to paycheck – which is incredible. Not to mention the three-year recidivism (return to prison) rate is less than 7% for PEP graduates, while the national average looms at 50%. PEP is doing something right and countries all over the world are looking to copy their model and apply it to their own correctional systems.

I had the privilege of watching Charles interact with the men in the program while in prison. I saw the hope in their eyes as Charles walked through the gym – they gave him high-fives, bear hugs, slaps on the back and handshakes. I could tell that above all else Charles and his story had given them hope.

As Charles and I close our conversation, I ask him, “so, have you had the chance to go back and recruit guys into PEP? Did you get the chance to be that guy in the suit?” I hear him smile over the phone…”I did he says…and I can’t describe the feeling better than to say it felt like I had come full circle.” He said it felt surreal to have some of the guys that he recruited come to the PEP office post-release and thank him for a second chance. I can only imagine how that moment must have felt – and how rewarding his work must be, knowing for certain what’s at stake with each life that enters into this program.

Charles and his suit

As I thanked him for sharing his story with me he expresses how he doesn’t feel like he would be a wise steward of his story if he didn’t share it.

He explains, “I know that I’m a product of the choices I’ve made, but also I’m a product of redemption.”

In his LinkedIn profile, Charles summarizes his plans for his future:

“My dreams have always been larger than the small, country northeast Texas town I was raised in. Growing up, I knew I wanted to do extraordinary things and somehow make a positive impact in the world.”

Charles story is a beautiful story of redemption that has already made a positive impact on so many – and I’m grateful that I get to call him a friend.

What It (really) Feels Like to Get out of Prison

As I continue on this journey, I had the opportunity to talk with someone who just got out of the Indiana prison system. He had been in for 4 years and 3 months – and is just beginning what people call the “re-entry” phase of getting back into society.

What people don’t realize is – it isn’t like the movies. In Oceans 11, George Clooney is released from prison wearing his slightly beat up tux – a big grin, jumps into the car with his best friend and wife and (to us movie watchers) just picks up right where he left off.569050344

This depiction couldn’t be further from the truth.

When most people are released from prison, especially if they’ve served a long sentence, they’re nervous, anxious and scared. Relationships have changed; people have moved on, they’ve lost the trust of people who once supported them. They have to now figure out how to support themselves, sometimes without a support system of people. They’re walking into a situation where the odds are stacked against them.

I pictured it being more like a moment where you felt like you could fly. But, it was described to me as a good feeling, but also one laced with apprehension. It’s not uncommon for some people to not leave their home for weeks. They worry that they might violate their parole or “do something wrong” – it takes some time for them to assimilate back into society again.

One large component of successful transitional programs includes support of the local community, specifically around job opportunities. In the areas that the PEP serves, there is a large level of support for these men when released – second chance opportunities are given to them. Not only that, an even more beautiful thing, the men that graduate from PEP are creating jobs for others getting out of prison.

When I visited the Cleveland Correctional Facility, I sat across from a guy that was passionate about helping others – he saw the need and also the hope that it gives these guys to have a job lined up on the outside. Many people that are incarcerated have the ability to learn a trade job while serving time, but then don’t have any opportunities once they get out to use those skills. This guy was a visionary and was creating a plan to give others a second chance. He saw the need – getting these guys jobs is a first step towards making a new life.

It’s not the only piece of the equation, but it’s an important one that’s sincerely lacking in our correctional system.

Do you know of rehabilitation, transitional or re-entry programs that are successful? I’d love to hear about them – please leave a comment below.

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“What would it be like if you were known for the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

If You Care About Children, You Should Care About Their Parents

I’ve been asked a lot of questions along this journey – many that get to the heart of the matter, why do you care about these people?

It’s easy for our hearts to be hardened when we’ve personally felt the weight of someone’s bad choices affect our every day lives. When loss grips and drowns you each day you wake up, when you look into the eyes of someone you care about and see pain from the absence of someone they deserve to know. It’s real, staggering and can turn your heart cold and on-fire at the same time

I’ve sat in a courtroom with that fire and hatred in my heart towards someone who had changed my family forever. I’m sure many of you reading this may be able to relate.

So, why care? It’s easier to care about children, our educational system, poverty, hunger, etc. And, I’m not discounting those issues, they are real (and big) issues. But, let’s examine how our broken rehabilitation and transitional systems are affecting our country.

Educational Week wrote a summary of the 2014 book Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality,research conducted by Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University-Newark and Christopher Wildeman of Yale University.

“Studies show parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to students’ education, health, and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves. Yet in many schools, that circumstance is a hidden problem, hard for teachers to track and difficult for students and caregivers to discuss.”

At the heart of a lot of our issues comes back to the fact that children are being raised in single-parent homes. They do not have role models in their lives.

As of 2010, 2.7 million children had parents that are incarcerated; 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point. With 76% of those incarcerated returning within five-years, that’s a lot of children without parents in their lives.

As stated by Catherine Hoke, the founder of Defy Ventures, “I have yet to see an after-school program that is more effective than having a father or mother in the home with their kid, raising their kids with the right values.”

Here are the staggering facts:

Only 1 percent to 2 percent of students with incarcerated mothers and 13 percent to 25 percent of students with imprisoned fathers graduate from college, according to a 2013 report from the American Bar Association and the White House.

Children of incarcerated parents have higher rates of attention deficits than those with parents missing because of death or divorce, and higher rates of behavioral problems, speech and language delays, and other developmental delays, according to a study published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that analyzed data from a national survey of children’s health. In separate but related studies, Ms. Turney also found higher rates of asthma, obesity, depression, and anxiety.

So, if children matter, their parents matter. If there’s a way to transform, rehabilitate, transition and support them – with the ultimate goal of reuniting them back into their family – it’s worth the fight.

There are some exciting things happening in the area of prison rehabilitation and transition – some real solutions. Follow along with me as I uncover what’s working and why it’s working – and hopefully how it could impact our community.

A Day in Prison

Walking into the middle of a bunch of prisoners was intimidating. Flanking the entrance of the gym in a long line, we were ushered through a row in the middle of them. Music was blaring in celebration of our arrival. The men seemed all very large in stature, tattoos, muscles, height – intimidating – as I made my way through I was extremely nervous. What put me at ease were their smiles. They all reached out their hands to greet us with a high-five or a handshake. I didn’t anticipate so many of them, 60-70 surrounding me as I made my way into the gym. Guys I honestly would have been scared to make eye contact with on the street.

This trip to the Cleveland Correctional Facility was a long time coming – a promise I had made to myself after first hearing about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program when the founder came to speak at my church. That had been over 7 years ago – but babies, work and life continued to get in the way of my planned trip. When my trip plans fell through I decided to get involved in the program by becoming a business advisor – which I could do online. See, at the heart of the program is this concept – there are people in prison today that are actually brilliant businessmen, they were just doing it illegally. If we can take the “hustle” out of former gang leaders and drug dealers – maybe we could un-tap their potential, rehabilitate and successfully transition them back to society where they can make a positive contribution.

This isn’t an easy process – but the program’s success rates speak for themselves. Out of all of the graduates of this program less than a 7% (3-year recidivism)  returned back to prison rate (compared to the national average of 50%). Not only that 100% of the men have jobs within 90 days of release (average of 20 days from prison to paycheck) and make an hourly wage of ~$11.50 an hour, which is 60% above minimum wage.

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At a high-level, this program works because it hand selects men that are ready to change, they go through a vigorous selection process that includes interviews, written tests and essays. Once accepted they are shipped to the Cleveland facility to start their Entrepreneurship training courses full-time, which cover topics such as: character development, spiritual exploration, leadership, what it means to be a man and an intensive business course where they are challenged to build a business plan from the ground up. That’s where a lot of volunteers and support comes in – there are online executive coaches and onsite coaches that support them through this process. So, when Brian and I went to Cleveland it was to do face-to-face business plan consulting.

The day started with an exercise – asking the volunteers and inmates to step to a line if a statement rang true in their lives. We had in common more then we had thought – broken homes, illegal activities, involuntary rides in cop cars. But, then questions about being shot left us volunteers un-moving, while half of the men stepped forward. Education was also a big difference…many had only completed 8th grade or high school. The exercise painted the story of their lives, our advantages, their disadvantages, our luck, their luck…really only separated by our circumstances and a thin line

We were put into small rooms with chairs nearly 3 feet apart. I sat eye-to-eye with a man who had been inside for five years. His eyes were kind; he gently asked if I was nervous, he said he was – that we were intimidating to him. It caught me off-guard. He went onto thanking me for being there – he talked about how the program had changed his life and then he dove into this business plan. He wanted to start a business in residential concrete design. Our 10 minutes was up quickly and the next guy sat down across from me to talk about his passions and dreams. Most of the men were surprisingly candid, openhearted and humble. They were the types of men you couldn’t imagine would commit violent crimes. They told me stories about their children, families, and their dreams after being released. Their plans for transitioning back into the real world – their anxieties and fears about getting out. Many were just spilling with hope and enthusiasm – excited for the opportunities they’ve received through PEP.

At lunch I was asked to sit at a table with three guys I had just met – one had been in prison for 20 years – this was the first summer he had been in a facility with air conditioning. I asked how he kept his spirits up – he said he focused on the fact that there was an end to his sentence – unlike some others – in for life or death row. His job and ability to seek education was another lifesaver. He has obtained two degrees and taken numerous classes while in prison, when he gets out he plans on driving a truck – as he’s been trained to do while incarcerated.

As I hear these stories, there is hope seeping through our conversations, there’s also an undertone of determination…to change – not go back…transform…change even the darkest, deepest, most painful character issues: things that landed them in prison. Anger was discussed quite a bit. But, the inability to feel loved and accepted, seemed to be at the root of a lot of their issues. These men stood in front of us and admitted they never felt worthy of love until they found this program. They had been cold, untouchable – one guy even confessed to me that he had quit talking all together. Now, so many of these men were open again, felt a brotherhood among the other men and finally – loved.

I sat across the table from a man whom I outwardly had nothing in common with. Tattoos up and down his arms and even his face. He started to tell me about his dream of helping others post-release get welding jobs – well-paying jobs that would allow them to afford to live. He was emotional about it. He told me about his passion for art and plans to create bike art that “glorifies God”. As he tells me about how he was accepted into the program – he started to get excited. He told me about how God orchestrated the whole thing. From a phone call to a postcard to a chilling knock on his door. I saw in him pure, raw and real joy – faith in its deepest form for our God – the one we share and I didn’t see an intimidating prisoner…. I saw God’s son…the man God had made, veering off and coming back home. The hope – big and bright in this dingy room without windows. I lost it – I cried in happiness for a God that even shows up here, for a man who found his way back and for the undeniable hope that comes from having a relationship with God. He apologized for making me cry. I assured him they were tears of happiness and he understood, and before long, pools of tears welled up in his eyes. We shared silence, some tissues and an understanding.

I also was never expecting to dance in prison. One way the program breaks-down barriers is to have everyone “go to the back of the room” and dance up the aisle, if asked to speak in front of the crowd. Brian and I were asked up and we laid it all out in the aisle with a few moves that they guys would tease Brian about later –they promised me they’d give him some dance lessons. But, despite how uncomfortable we may have been – we danced, joyfully, open, free – just like the guys did if they were called up. At one point all of the men were dancing…an image I never want to forget…joy, smiles, celebration – in the darkest place imaginable…prison.

I left the Cleveland Correctional Facility astonished…unable to articulate exactly what this visit meant to me…God is alive, I felt his heartbeat, saw his work and was brought to my knees by the power, strength and love that he had shown these men.

I’m looking forward to going back, not to impart business wisdom on these guys, but to come along side them – cheer them on and grab their hands as I walk through the gym and see that hope again…an unexpected hope in one of the most darkest places possible.

 

Why Prisoners Matter

“We’re all ex-somethings. I wish we’d ask ourselves, ‘What would it be like if I was only known for the worst thing I’ve done?’ Moved by empathy, we’d recognize people for who they are today and not for the mistakes they made yesterday. Millions with criminal histories would unlock their potential.”

-Catherine Hoke, Founder and CEO of Defy Ventures and PEP

When I first heard Catherine Hoke, the founder of the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), speak at Willow Creek — I remember she opened with the question.

“What would it be like if you were known for the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

All of us sat in silence, probably terrified by the idea. She continued, that’s what’s happening every day to people who are incarcerated. They’re labeled, marked, and branded forever. The difference between some of us in the audience and those that are in prison today — is just one little thing that they were caught.

OK, let’s dig a little deeper here — maybe it just isn’t that they’ve been caught. Maybe it’s more — maybe what separates us from them is more than luck. Statistics tell us that it’s also broken homes, educational disadvantages, mental illness, abuse, addictions, etc.

In our current correctional system — we give them a sentence to a place where they can learn their lesson and “pay” for what they’ve done. Once we decide they’ve paid their dues, they’re released.

But, my question is — will they be paying their whole lives?…when are they finished paying? What if someone was willing or wanted to change…ready to transform…what tools and resources are available to them to do that?

We have a big problem right now, according to the last study around Recidivism — which is just a fancy word for the re-arrest of an ex-offender — at the end of 5 years, 76% of people who are released from prison will return.

So, something is broken here. Is it our rehabilitation or re-entry programs or is it that not enough people care about this? I don’t know…but I’m a mission to find out.

At the heart of my journey is a question that I’ve been rolling around in my mind — why do prisoners matter to me (and to God)?

This question isn’t easy for me to articulate, it’s something I feel and sometimes feelings are hard to describe. When I received the story of the first man that I would advise from Prison, through the PEP program, part of me broke in half.

With my heart racing, my hands shaking, I scrolled through this story of a life destroyed by a broken home, bad decisions, drugs and violence. There was a daughter involved that was missing her Dad. But, at the end there was this paragraph about why he wanted to change — he met God. He talked about the joy and peace that he had — the direction, his undeniable faith — that God would be guiding his steps as he was released. As I read his words, I believed him and felt his hope as it lifted off of my computer screen and tugged at something I have always known. God is in the business of changing people — he can do it here and even in prison. This truth is what drove me to leave the comforts of my home, board a plane and visit a prison in Texas last October.

I will be writing about my journey and sharing stories as things unfold, I hope you’ll learn with me and follow along as I go on this adventure.

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