Dear Members of the American Correctional Chaplains Association:
In about two months I hope to see many of you at 143rd Congress of Correction of the American Correctional Association (ACA). The dates are August 10-14, 2013, and the place, the Gaylord National in National Harbor, Maryland (Washington, D.C. area).
The American Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCA) will meet at the same time and place as the ACA, with most of our chaplaincy meetings being held on August 10-11. The Gaylord resorts are beautiful and relaxing. I hope to meet you there. You do not have to register for the ACA to attend our ACCA meetings.
Our immediate past ACCA President Dale Hale wrote a letter to our members last Winter. I expect to write a quarterly letter to you, so this is the Spring letter (though, I admit, it’s almost Summer).
Who Is the New ACCA President?
If you will indulge me for a moment, I will introduce myself. I’m a product of the American North, the South and the Middle. Born in Washington, D.C., I grew up in Indiana, and graduated from college, universities and seminary in Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky and Texas. Coming to Texas in 1981 to pastor a church, I soon became a prison volunteer, and then was a staff chaplain for 27 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice beginning in 1985 at the Eastham Prison (called “America’s Toughest” by Newsweek in a 1986 cover story). In 2012 I became a supervising chaplain in the TDCJ’s Region 1.
The Eastham Unit (second oldest of 111 state prisons in Texas, and former home of Clyde Barrows [Bonnie and Clyde]) is isolated at the end of a country road, so I was always anxious to get out of town and meet some colleagues who were trying to do what I was to help offenders move in a more socially positive, rehabilitative, spiritual direction. I began attending national ACA and ACCA meetings in 1993, and have always been blessed by the experience.
Where Are We Going in ACCA?
First I want to note that the ACA was founded in 1870 by reform-minded leaders, many of whom were clergy. Their purpose was to work to make the prisons of that day more humane. The ACCA was the first affiliate (in 1885) of the ACA, and the clergy, represented by the ACCA, has always had a visible and steadfast presence in the ACA.
I encourage all of us to continue our compassionate tradition and invite our chaplain and religious volunteer friends to join our ACCA. We are the premier and oldest professional chaplaincy association in the world. I have met great people here. They will be blessed by supporting the cause.
It is my belief that our ACCA will do its best not by focusing on obstacles which we may face, which are many (budgetary, personnel, etc.), but on a positive reinforcement of our values and best practices.
(Having said that, if you have a need with which I may be able to assist, please contact me at  577-7231 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and I may be able to come to your aid. I can do some travel. This Spring I attended two of our regional ACCA conferences—in New Jersey and in Arkansas. Both were great.)
I therefore propose to write some observations and thoughts for us in this column in the next eight quarters on the following subjects which have been instructive to me. They are:
Spring 2013 – When They Get Out: Rehabilitative and Reentry Programs
Summer 2013 – Where’s the Help? The Care and Nurture of Volunteers
Fall 2013 – Relationally Speaking: Pastoral Care to Offenders and Staff
Winter 2014 – Outtawhack? Balance in Work and Life
Spring 2014 – Where’s Your Core? Practicing Spiritual Discipline
Summer 2014 – Mistakes I’ve Made: Growing Edges in Ministry
Fall 2014 – Relating to Powerbrokers: Legislators and Administrators
Winter 2015 – Constitutionally Speaking: Establishment and Free Exercise
When They Get Out: Rehabilitative and Reentry Programs
This quarter I want to highlight and give a word of encouragement about offender programs. Approximately 95% of all offenders in prison will be released one day.
Here’s a question: In what spiritual, emotional and mental condition will they be released?
I believe that if the majority of our offenders get out of prison in worse shape than they came in, we have failed in an important aspect of our mission. Our primary mission is to provide safe and secure custody for offenders. But a vital aspect of our mission is to provide opportunity for the rehabilitation and successful reentry of offenders.
One essential tool for this ministry is quality, faith-based programs, which may be thought of in two categories: worship and rehabilitation.
Worship draws one nearer to one’s Creator. If one believes the Creator is good, then worship will assist in the transformation of our lives into the image of that good Creator.
Worship may be lively, or it may be sublimely quiet. It should never be boring. Offenders in worship in my Protestant Christian experience tend to make a lot of sound. They are expressive. But I’ve also wept in the midst of the solemnity of a Roman Catholic Mass. Worship can be transformationally significant. It should be well thought out, and done well, from the heart.
The other kind of programs which transform are intentionally rehabilitative and reentry programs. They are not primarily worship; instead, they are cognitively focused on positive moral and character formation. Their aim is to reason with the offender: to cause him or her to consider their lives, to consider alternatives to their past manner of life, and to show the way forward in a more socially positive, responsible direction.
Examples of these kinds of discipleship programs I am familiar with are: Changes (a secular, cognitive intervention, life management course), Voyager (which is Changes with an added faith component), The Institute of Self-Worth, Quest for Authentic Manhood, Kairos, Experiencing God, A Daily Choice (overcoming addiction), Celebrate Recovery, the Purposeful Living Units Serve (PLUS program in Indiana), Home for Good (in Oregon), Threshold and various quality mentoring programs.
I hope the days are past when the chaplain is one who mostly sits in an office waiting for offenders to come to him or her for counsel. To be sure, we still counsel offenders in need.
However, in 2013, with overflowing prisons, and our culture unraveling around us, I believe we must be proactive administrative, pastoral chaplains—energetically offering rehabilitative programs to our offenders, bringing in volunteers to facilitate them, and having divine compassion for the lost and hurting all around us. If we go in this direction, experiencing the joy of seeing transformed offender lives, and being a caring shepherd for our flock, then I believe we will seldom burn out, and our released former offender neighbors will be living a moral and productive life. This has been my joy and my experience, and I commend it to you.