ENID, Okla. — For men and women coming out of prison, release from custody can be the beginning of a new set of hurdles in life. For many of them, those hurdles end in a return to crime, and to a jail cell.
In an effort to highlight the need for more initiatives to help inmates successfully transition back into life in the community, both President Donald Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt recently signed proclamations declaring April “Second Chance Month.”
The proclamations were made in conjunction with efforts by Prison Fellowship, a Christian, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for prisoners, former prisoners, their families and for criminal justice reform.
“The barriers placed on people — returning citizens — wastes human potential and adds to recidivism, ultimately jeopardizing public safety,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship.
Justin Parrish, of Enid, has overcome the hurdles to reintegration after incarceration, and now helps other men do the same.
Along with Chris Johnson, Parrish founded FreeWorld LifeGroup, an Emmanuel Enid ministry that serves people who are nearing release or have been released from Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), to help them reintegrate into society and find healing through biblical grace.
At age 41, Parrish found himself serving 21 months of a five-year sentence on drug-related charges. Parrish said he was able to make it from there to his current life, with a good job and family, because of his faith, and a willingness to take responsibility for his own actions.
Parrish said community and faith-based programs to give former inmates a second chance are invaluable. But, before they can have an impact, Parrish said former inmates must first make changes for themselves.
“It doesn’t really matter if you have someone willing to give us a second chance, if we’re not wiling to give ourselves a second chance,” Parrish said. “Before we can take a chance from someone else, we need to understand how we’re going to do things differently — what changes we need to make.”
Parrish said a key ingredient of giving someone the second chance they need is making sure they’re in a place to make changes, and to pass those benefits on to others.
“You can’t force someone to change, and you can’t help someone who’s not ready for help,” Parrish said.
If someone wants help only up until they have to make a change in the conditions that got them in trouble in the first place, Parrish said they’re really not ready to accept the help they need.
But, when someone is ready to take on the hard work of changing their lives, Parrish said it’s incredibly rewarding to help them turn that corner.
Trey Daman said that kind of help was invaluable, both leading up to and after his release from incarceration about six months ago. Like Parrish, he said he had to first be willing to accept the need for change, and for help.
“Being stripped of my freedom, and being completely vulnerable to having to face where I am at, and what I need to change, was the big wake-up call for me,” Daman said. “Prison was the experience that allowed me to wake up and decide to take responsibility for the first time for the failures in my life.”
But, even if someone is willing to accept change, Daman said it can be hard for a felon to accomplish small tasks, that quickly become big hurdles.
Many inmates are released with just enough cash for a couple of meals and a bus ticket, Daman said, and tasks as small as getting an identification card — a prerequisite to getting a job or an apartment in most cases — can seem insurmountable.
“When you don’t even have identification or transportation, things as simple as getting groceries and paying your rent are such a hurdle,” he said.
Those hurdles can lead a lot of inmates to convince themselves they can’t make it, some before they’re even released, Daman said.
“When you first get out, there’s a lot of hopelessness,” Daman said, “and being able to believe in yourself — that you could make it — is one of the biggest hurdles.”
He said having a support network of people willing to help, and willing to believe in you, is essential. But, that can be a hard resource to come by for someone who’s been to prison.
“A lot of people in prison have burned a lot of bridges, and for a lot of people it’s not just their second chance,” Daman said. “Going to prison is usually people’s third or fourth chance. You have to understand, for a lot of people, going to prison wasn’t their first mistake. It was their first time having to pay consequences for their mistakes.
“When I went to prison, I had already burned a lot of bridges with people,” Daman said. “And when I got out, rightly so, they weren’t just jumping for joy for the opportunity to help me. I’d already hurt them and shown them the same behavior over and over again. So, for them to help me, there’s understandably a lot of resistance there.”
He said even if an inmate has worked to reform while incarcerated, it’s unlikely they’ll be seen any differently when they’re released.
“You haven’t proven anything to anybody, because you’ve just been sitting,” Daman said. “Your life stopped and theirs kept going. You haven’t had an opportunity to make any financial amends, or make amends in relationships, because your life has been on hold. And, people expect you to be the same as when you went to prison.”
Daman said he still is working on rebuilding the relationships he damaged, and making amends for his past mistakes. He’s able to make progress on both counts, he said, because of a network of people, including Parrish and Rodney Fowler, who were willing to see him as more than just an inmate.
“There were some people who could see a spark of light in me, and were willing to give me an opportunity,” Daman said, “and that opportunity is a way for me to catapult, and show people in my past that I am willing to make amends by the way I am living today.”
Daman said inmates need to learn accountability for their own actions, and people shouldn’t enable them by making excuses for them. But, he said people should also realize, for many inmates, a word of encouragement or support may be a first for them.
“It may be the first positive influence a lot of these people have ever had,” Daman said. “They’ve never had someone encourage them to work hard and be good. It may be the first time they’ve had someone show them the rewards of working hard, and having integrity, and showing you what good principles can do for you.”
Just having a network of people willing to see them as a person, and to encourage them, can make a significant difference for someone coming out of prison, Daman said.
“It restores hope,” he said. “Having people that want to have a relationship with you, even though you’ve done some horrible things — for someone to show you unconditional love, and to show interest in you, even though you’ve burned some bridges, when there’s people willing to build new bridges that are going to get you to another place in life — that’s huge.”
Without people willing to help build those new bridges, Daman said too many former inmates end up right back where they started.
“If I came out and was completely shunned, and couldn’t get a job and was forced to live on the street, then the lifestyle of crime, the rewards of crime, look more appealing,” Daman said. “There’s a lot of people in prison that are going to get out and have to make these decisions — do they go back to their lifestyle, or do they pick themselves up and get back on their feet.”
A 2018 study of 30 states over five years by the Department of Justice highlights the challenges for inmates to successfully navigate those choices. According to the study, 44% of released prisoners end up back in jail within a year, and 83% will be rearrested at some point within nine years of their release.
Rodney Fowler, Hope Outreach Transitional Ministry house manager, said he started his ministry because he needed help, and a healthy environment, when he got out of jail.
“When I came out of incarceration … the thing I didn’t want to do is go back to my old environment,” Fowler said, “so something I was really seeking was a healthy environment for me to go to where I could make some life change.”
Fowler said even if a former inmate wants to change, they need new surroundings in order to make a new life.
“Without having a healthy environment, it’s hard to feel good about yourself and your ability to go out and get a job … and overcome some of the barriers,” he said.
He said it’s in the interest of the community, and society as a whole, to reduce those barriers, whether it’s in employment, housing, access to rehabilitation programs or transportation.
“If we don’t help them as they’re making that transition into society, the likelihood of them committing another crime or going back to that old unhealthy environment is increased tremendously,” Fowler said. “We want people to go through corrections and become a healthy member of society. But, if we don’t give them the resources to do that, then it’s only natural for them to go back to their old way of living.”
And, from a Christian perspective, Fowler said there is an obligation to help those in need, regardless of their past.
“As the church body, as Christians, it’s part of our calling to help others in these situations,” he said.
“Christ provided us with a second opportunity,” Fowler said, “so it is also something important for us to do for others.”