By Renee Kobelt.
I visited a family the other day where the father, Joe*, had only been released from prison two weeks earlier. He had been inside for over two years. There were six kids, ranging from two-and-a-half to fourteen years, and as soon as I got there they turned excited-crazy and bounced off the walls.
Thankfully, I had the genius idea to bring some lollipops with me to bribe them into staying still long enough to take a family photo.
The mother, Sarah*, understandably, looked tired. Joe was quiet, stood to the back and greeted us with a nervous half-smile. He disappeared and came back wearing a black buttoned shirt, changed from the t-shirt he was wearing when we arrived.
I had been invited along by our PK (Prisoners’ Kids) Family Care Team Leader, Mel, who had been visiting Sarah and the children for a year and a half while Joe was in prison, helping her through some hard times. The family had come up on our radar when Joe registered his children for our PK Birthdays program.
I don’t know what Joe’s crime was; in fact I made a point of not knowing. I don’t want to allow myself to be affected by making judgements on who he is from something he did three years ago.
Three years, I thought to myself, is a long time. As I drove away I realised that I had only been a Christian for 2 and a half years, the same length of time Joe had been in prison. I had changed a lot in the past couple of years; I was a completely different person. A lot can happen in two years.
What do you think?
There is a lot of public opinion on prisons and prisoners, but very little understanding. January last year The Advertiser opened up a public forum on the prison system where words like ‘failure’, ‘excuses’ and ‘action’ were thrown around, closely followed by sentences starting with ‘to be honest’, ‘I hate to say it, but’ and ‘bring back’. While the comments represented a moderate cross section of what the community thinks, they still echoed a residual tough stance, one that overflows into the justice system. This hard-line mentality fed by public opinion has meant that anti-social behaviour is often dealt with by focusing on punitive, rather than restorative and preventative measures.
There is even less understanding about the families of prisoners. They are hardly mentioned; the children are largely ignored. That is, until they resurface as a statistic later on as one of the many children who become an offender themselves. Research has shown us that Prisoners’ Kids (or PK’s as we affectionately call them) are six or seven times more likely to offend later in life than their peers. Surprisingly, even with the understanding that they are at particular risk, there are no formal records of how many, who or where they are. They are essentially invisible.
Joe is one of the ‘lucky ones’; he had a family and a house waiting for him when he was released. Most have lost everything, their family and friends give up on them and drift away, and there is no one to trust with even their basic possessions like a wallet and phone. That’s where Second Chances SA comes in. Every week volunteers go into the prisons and visit prisoners who request help. The prisoners respect volunteers; volunteers don’t have to be there and they aren’t a part of ‘the system’, they are there because they care (as hard as that might be for prisoners to understand). The volunteers offer to store a small amount of property, do their banking and most importantly, be a reliable and friendly listening ear.
Through the volunteers prisoners hear about the programs like PK Birthdays and Christmas Angels for their children as a way of showing they still care, love and think about them. Through us, the children receive a present from their parent in prison so they don’t feel forgotten. And because we are invited into their lives, the families and children don’t feel like we are ‘charity’, telling them that there is something wrong with them and they need help. Instead we can be their friends, and visit them in their homes, work with the children to set goal plans, encourage them and invite them along to our PK Mentoring Camps where they can feel they belong.
Second Chances SA is about keeping the family unit intact, giving children the best opportunities to grow, and helping prisoners find their way.
Not Beyond help
Perhaps the most famous parable Jesus told was that of the Prodigal Son.
While prodigal means ‘wasteful’, these days the son represents any one who has completely blown it. Our prisons are loaded with many, many prodigals.
There are many different interpretations and perspectives within this story; it is so rich in detail. But let’s take it back to the beginning, the reason why Jesus told the story in the first place: he was constantly faced with criticism for being a friend to sinners, visiting them at home, eating with them…forgiving them and helping them change, giving them another chance.
The prodigal son returning home from feeding the pigs and sleeping rough would have been stinking and filthy when the father ran to embrace him. It can be hard sometimes to embrace those who are filthy, covered with the stigma of prison and crime.
Especially when they have ‘done it to themselves’. But Jesus doesn’t see us, or them that way.
The mandate to reach out to those in need is echoed in Matthew chapter 25, where we are compelled to visit those in prison, assured that when we do we are in fact visiting Jesus himself; we are reflecting his compassion for the poor, lonely, hungry, disassociated.
There but for the grace of God go I isn’t meant to make us feel special or privileged to have escaped the hardships that others face; it is meant to point to our dependence on Him. It’s meant to humble us and draw us into gentle compassion for those around us. One of our volunteers, Gregg, who visits in Mount Gambier prison once described a turning point for himself in understanding and compassion. After speaking with a prisoner one day he found himself thinking that if he had lived the same life, experienced the same brokenness, neglect and abuse, it could be him on the other side of the wire.
There but for the grace of God go I. There are many people who want to change but do not know how. Often they are victims themselves. People make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes that hurt a lot of people, but can change with the right help and guidance.
Second Chances SA
In 2015 Second Chances SA was established to give people the chances to turn over a new leaf; to help prisoners turn their life around, and help their families, who are too often paying a high cost for their loved one’s poor choices.
Through principles of rehabilitation and assistance for prisoner’s pre and post release, Second Chances SA is working to create a safer, crime-free community where offenders are able to reintegrate as purposed individuals.
Second Chances SA also works with the families and children of prisoners as an early intervention prevention strategy, conducting home visits and running mentoring camps to instil good values and direction into young, vulnerable, at-risk lives.
*Names have been changed for privacy
At the time of writing, Renee Kobelt was the Community Education Manager at Second Chances SA. She has qualifications in Politics and Communications, a passion for the Word and a heart for justice.