A few days ago I went to prison. Yes, prison. A men's prison filled with 520 convicted criminals, many of whom committed violent crimes. A fellow coach and teacher of mine recently shared one of his volunteering/mentoring efforts with our class and I must admit that my attention was fully captured when he got to the part in his story that he goes to prison…regularly. As I continued to listen and hear the passion and joy he experiences in this program, I decided right then and there to accept his invitation to join him on his next visit. Although, I was still left with a basic thought-why there? There are many people out here that can benefit from mentoring and coaching, why help 'those guys'?
Well, first of all, the US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. The home of the free and the land of the brave can claim only 15 states with smaller populations than the current population of the US corrections system. And aside from the important social and moral issues to be noted about those incarcerated, the financial cost is staggering, 74 billion dollars staggering! Currently it's cheaper to send a person to 4-year state university than it is to send someone into the corrections system. Which begs the question, does it work? Are we getting a good return on this investment? The answer is-no; we most definitely are not. Approximately 700,000 prisoners are released each year and a staggering 50% of them will commit another crime(s) resulting in their return to prison within 3 years (75% if you live in California). This is clearly a poor investment.
Enter the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (www.pep.org), a remarkable organization that takes men who are scheduled for release within 1-3 years, and offers them an amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and invest in themselves. And let me tell you, this program works! Less than 5% of PEP graduate prisoners find their way back to prison compared to the 50% national average. And perhaps even more astounding is that since PEP's inception, 100% of its graduates find a job within 90 days of release. Today, you have a better chance of getting a job out of prison than you do after graduating from an Ivy League University. Whoa!
But, what impressed me most about spending a six hour day with 97 of these PEP prisoners, was the joy and hope each of them embodied amidst what's considered a place of sorrow and hopelessness. These men are experiencing significance in a way that many of us on the outside have not. We're all broken, we've all sinned, and we've all fallen short of the glory of God. The great news is, all of us, even those who are in prison, are worthy of forgiveness and a second chance.
I truly enjoyed meaningful, one on one conversations with about 12 men and every one of them had a spark of hope and purpose in their eyes that I can't quite describe. As the day progressed I recalled a thought I had before I arrived at the prison; this would likely be a day of unease as I attempted to help some of the 'least, last, and lost' of our society. However, I left the prison with the transformative realization that I was the one who was helped and blessed by those men. Those men who in fact are among the 'most, first, and found' of our society. Most, because they were putting everything they had into their work and their transformation. First, because for many of these men, this was the first time they believed they are valuable and first in God's sight and therefore deserving of this opportunity. Found, because God finds, holds, and keeps all of his creations close-if we believe, accept, and allow him to.
So thank you men of the PEP program! I look forward to visiting your gated community again soon. Thank you for helping me to see prison as not simply a sad, forgotten place of punishment; but rather as a hopeful platform of opportunity.
As Jeremy Gregg, PEP's Chief Development Officer, put it, "We can't change a prisoners circumstances but we can help to transform the broken lives that live there into the change that transforms the system." Agreed. A change that one day might bring a shift in our language from "crime and punishment" to "crime turned disburdenment".
If this post touched you, I'd love to hear your comments and invite you to share this with others.
Kirsten Berger Coaching