[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
The rise of mass incarceration means that the number of former prisoners is greater than ever. Returning citizens who receive spiritual and livelihoods support upon their release from prison fare markedly better than those who do not, with lower rates of recidivism. As former inmates themselves, Dwayne Harmon of Fresno Pacific University’s Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) program and Ron Muse of MCC East Coast bring distinctive perspectives about the difficulties that returning citizens face. In this article, Harmon and Muse reflect on those difficulties and respond to questions about their work and how community members can be more responsive to the needs of newly released prisoners.
What work are you doing with incarcerated individuals or returning citizens? What motivates you?
Harmon works with both incarcerated individuals and returning citizens through Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a program of Fresno Pacific University that accompanies offenders living in a half-way house and prepares them for reintegration into the community. As someone who spent 20 years in and out of prison, Harmon knows first-hand the obstacles returning citizens confront upon their release. “I took courses to become a water technician and had numerous interviews,” Harmon shares, “but the moment they found out I was an ex-felon everything stopped . . . no more emails or phone calls.”
Harmon also works with incarcerated individuals through the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), an Insight Prison Project program in California that supports incarcerated persons in developing new perspectives on their life choices and the life circumstances that resulted in their imprisonment. Insight’s 18-to-24-month curriculum utilizes tools of restorative justice to better address crime and violence within communities and is offered in numerous prisons, jails and reentry facilities for men, women and youth. During the year-and-a-half that participants meet together for the course, many of them speak openly for the first time about their crimes and the impacts of those crimes on themselves and others and reflect together on what their futures might look like after prison.
Harmon also works with Ahimsa Collective, a network of people creating relationship-based ways of addressing violence through restorative approaches. The Ahimsa Collective engages men about what has impacted their lives adversely and encourages them to identify ways to deal with their own victimization so that they can begin to acknowledge the impact of their crimes on others.
Muse, for his part, serves as chaplain in the county prison of Philadelphia and supervises religious services, provides counseling, shares the gospel and offers resource literature to inmates. As a pastor, Muse also helps returning citizens make the spiritual and life adjustments necessary for them to successfully reenter their communities.
What has been most challenging for you as a returning citizen?
“I was released from prison on March 26, 2006, and made the decision to complete my education so I would be able to find a respectable job,” Harmon shares. “I received my bachelor’s degree in organizational management to create better opportunities for employment. But as an African-American man and ex-offender I found more barriers than opportunities.” Harmon continues that he spent three-and-a-half years looking fruitlessly for meaningful work. Not finding any, “I did what I had to do. I worked in ship yards, picking up cigarette butts, because that’s the job I was assigned. I worked in the construction field as well as a union iron worker, but I kept running into walls of discrimination.” Harmon observed that there was “no one who looked like me in positions of authority. I would be hired for time-limited projects, like helping to build one of the women’s prisons in California. I would usually be given the most strenuous job on construction sites and instead of moving me to a different job when the contract was finished, I would be let go.”
What does support look like for returning citizens?
Harmon points to the blessing of having a loving mother and father. “Their love was unconditional,” he states. “They loved me enough to let me go out on the streets and figure it out for myself. But they never turned their back on me.” Harmon continues:
The church was also there for me. I converted to Islam for over 20 years while repeating cycles of recidivism. My home church was always there with prayer, clothing, inviting me to their space. I’m grateful for that support and it’s a well I’m drinking from today. I made the choice to go to church and figure out what it meant to hang out with people I saw as winners. I started choosing something different that I never gave a chance to before.
Harmon also underscores his own motivation. Before his incarceration he was a student at Arizona State on a football scholarship. In prison, he became a jailhouse lawyer and realized how important education was. It made a space for him to go inside and pull things out. “I became very creative inside and out,” Harmon notes. An Arts in Corrections program provided him with an opportunity to pursue creative writing, film-making and photography, activities that sustained him through difficult times. Harmon underscores the importance of support he received from the California Department of Rehabilitation upon his release that helped him reintegrate into society. He also notes that his parole officer assisted him in getting a $500 loan to get his photography business started, financial assistance that helped keep him on his feet.
Muse emphasizes that support must come from the communities from which returning citizens originate, because those communities have typically already dealt with and overcome the obstacles that hinder returning citizens from avoiding recidivism and establishing themselves in secure livelihoods. It is transformed people who transform people, Muse insists. Most secular and Christian programs fail to adequately support returning citizens, Muse contends, because they rarely have staff persons who themselves have experienced how God can transform the lives of prisoners and returning citizens and who are thus well-positioned to give relevant advice to released prisoners. In many organizations that work with returning citizens of color, Muse observes, most of the decision-making is done by degreed or compassionate white people who have not themselves been through the struggle, yet think they have the answers or solutions to the problems returning citizens face. Support looks like partnering with communities of color who are already doing the work and getting results.
What would you want people to know about returning citizens?
Both Muse and Harmon highlight the humanness of returning citizens. They are more than statistics or labels. Know that people who come out of prison have skills, they emphasized. Many were able to develop skills while in prison. They can use those skills if only given a second chance. Sometimes ex-felons feel like jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Given more opportunities to use their skills and draw upon their experiences, they can be successful.
What would you say to people who want to be helpful to returning citizens? What can or should they do?
“Our communities need to be more involved and recognize that mass incarceration has negative effects for all of us,” Harmon argues. “We need circles of people to support people through the transition—every day. That support should come from the community, not just the church.” Harmon explains that
Returning to our communities feels lonely because you are often on your own and it’s all an uphill battle when you come out with $200 in your pocket and a bus pass. Our communities need to provide more in the way of circles of support and accountability. Returning citizens also need advocates. Someone who can be there day in and day out. Not just on Sunday mornings. Provide assistance navigating housing, employment, transportation. Help to implement an action plan.
Muse insists that people seeking to work with returning citizens prayerfully discern their motivation and equip themselves. “As a soldier of Christ, make sure that he has called you to this demographic of people,” Muse urges. He concludes with sober counsel:
For some reason white people think they can serve anywhere their little heart desires. As soldiers we cannot choose our place of deployment. Understand that mass incarceration has many parts and we have to find what part God desires for us to play if he has called us to it. If you are called, now it’s time to get trained. Training is mandatory. Most people fail with this demographic of people because they failed to realize the constant demand from inmates and returning citizens and they burn out fast.
Together, Harmon and Muse remind people accompanying returning citizens that their work is a high calling that must be approached with great seriousness.
Dwayne Harmon works with Fresno Pacific University’s Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program. Ron Muse is prison ministry advocate for MCC East Coast.
Get involved: prisoner care kits
In partnership with Crossroads Community Center in North Philadelphia, MCC East Coast is welcoming donations of prisoner care kits to distribute to people in the greater Philadelphia area who are currently incarcerated or who are participating in reentry ministries after leaving prison.
MCC East Coast staff member Ron Muse shares that receiving a gift of basic hygiene supplies when he was incarcerated made him feel “loved in an unlovable place.” For more information on assembling prisoner care kits, visit https://mcc.org/stories/mcc-welcomes-donations-prisoner-care-kits.