Friday, April 6, 2012

Counseling the Incarcerated - A Different Release For Prisoners

There are over 1, 700,000 incarcerated men and women in jails and prisons across America. This presents a great opportunity for ministries and individuals who take the gospel to prisoners. It also presents a unique set of challenges and, in some cases, difficulties for Christian counselors who work with the prisoners and their families. To illustrate the unique challenges let me begin with an illustration I often used when I taught criminal justice at Wheaton College and Trinity International University, both in Illinois. I began by putting a series of words on the chalkboard:

1. Homeless
2. Unemployed
3. Alcoholic
4. School drop-out]
5. Person with AIDS
6. Victim of Physical Abuse
7. Cocaine Addict
8. Victim of Sexual Abuse
9. Prisoner

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I asked my students to carefully look at the list and see if there was a common theme or relationship. Students often responded with what was easily apparent such as, they are all hurting people, or they all need God, or They all need a support system. I then would help them think in nontraditional ways about prisoners by informing them that all the words on the chalkboard (or most of them) could in fact describe the same person! When we begin any intervention or ministry with a prisoner, we must first take into consideration that the prisoner's situation or plight may be multifaceted. There is no one single reason that a person turns to crime. Conversely, there is no magic bullet or simple solution for restoring a prisoner to the community as a functioning and stable citizen.

Counseling the Incarcerated - A Different Release For Prisoners

Needs: Working with prisoners involves networking. Care giving includes involving the church, especially upon release, and meeting basic needs such as literacy, discipleship for the growing Christian, and mentoring. At release, that support system becomes critical. Released prisoners may need assisted housing or temporary shelter, job skills, help in finding employment and a church home, and they almost always need professional counseling.

Fear and Anxiety: While prisons differ in terms of their size and structure, the majority will expose the prisoner to intimidation and predatory violence. A highly structured environment that takes away responsibility and meaningful decision making and replaces it with blind compliance to the structure and rules of an institution takes its toll on the individual and does not prepare the person for reentry into society. In many maximum-security prisons, gangs flourish, violence is common, and the possibility of sexual intimidation or rape is high, causing extreme fear and anxiety. The person who wrote a bad check or stole an automobile and the person who committed an armed robbery, rape, or murder will face the same predatory environment after conviction. The one exception is the pedophile or child molester, who usually is looked down upon by all prisoners and is often victimized, if not brutally beaten.

Depression: It's not difficult to understand why a prisoner would be depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts or attempts. The process of being sent to prison is humiliating and stressful. In many ways, the public, the press, and the court shame the individual. The loss of a job, reputation, and family would be enough to put any individual into a state of depression. Over 80 percent of inmate's marriages will end in divorce, and the longer an individual is in prison (more than three years), the less support system he or she will have when released. Not all depression that a prisoner experiences is debilitating. That which comes from guilt rooted in accountability and genuine repentance of his or her crimes can be used by chaplains, counselors, or church volunteers to generate or regenerate faith in Christ. Even so, the prisoner who comes to believe that he or she is forgiven and becomes a born-again believer is not immune to depression, of course. Find a therapist to get solution of your problems.

Counseling the Incarcerated - A Different Release For Prisoners

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