Open Doors Open Hearts:

Effort to improve circumstances for people with disabilities after prison and treatment Mental illness is a common struggle for many […]

Effort to improve circumstances for people with disabilities after prison and treatment

Mental illness is a common struggle for many people who’ve been released from prison. How communities of faith can develop and continue relationship to help inmates and former inmates with mental health issues was one of the many topics addressed at Open Doors Open Hearts, a conference held Oct. 11 at the Recovery Church in Minneapolis

About 90 people including former prison inmates, people in treatment and recovery, volunteers and employees of faith and community-based programs attended the conference. Participants looked at many issues that included what support is in the community for people released from prison and in treatment who live with mental illness or physical disability, or both. Transportation, housing and employment were among the topics, but much of the focus was on spirituality.

Many conference participants believe that if somebody isn’t spiritually focused and centered, then other important issues like employment and housing don’t fall into place. The spiritual belief and connectedness is one piece in keeping people from returning to crime and ultimately back to prison.

Once released from prison, what happens to former inmates who continue to struggle with mental illness? Conference participants asked, are we doing all we can to truly support people who need our help, to stay in decent housing, supported by a community of faith and not to wind up back in prison?

How welcoming are faith communities, really? Does it mean that faith communities that care about the issue of full inclusion really practice what is preached? Do these communities, faith-based, really walk the talk? Open Door participants agree that communities of faith are an essential part of ongoing spiritual growth of people released from prison, in treatment and in recovery.

Conference participant and Buddhism student Richard Carlson said the most meaningful part of the conference was “the caring and warm-hearted people, discovering each other. I felt overwhelmed and there were other people working on similar issues. It offered me encouragement.”

“I currently volunteer every Sunday afternoon at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility,” said conference participant Mary Upson. “My pastor says Mass there every Sunday. Another choir member and I lead the music. I have to say it is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. These men are hungry for spiritual uplifting. I’ve seen God change them right in front of my eyes.”

National studies indicate that as many as one-fourth of people in county jails waiting to be tried, cases to be processed, have some form of mental illness. “More people with mental illness wind up in the criminal justice system. And this is a situation faced more so by homeless people, especially those who live in rural areas. Jails, workhouses and prisons do not work for people who have mental health issues. Mental illness court is an alternative program to the more traditional ones like those cited above,” said Hennepin County Judge Richard Hopper, founder of Mental Illness Court.

Vern Bloom, retired Augsburg College professor, was one of the conference co-organizers. “I was very much impressed with such widespread interest and depth of concern for more inclusiveness in our spiritual communities for those returning from prison and/or treatment. My great hope is that these folks will now, through their institutions—both individually and collectively—begin to move us all more in that direction!”

Bloom added, “I also became very aware of the widespread concern that the Minnesota Department of Corrections has been discouraging such community follow-up with its policies (meant to keep inmates from contacting spiritual program providers including volunteers and prison staff after release). That seems to say that if one has contact with inmates in the prison setting—you are not to continue such after they return.” Conference attendees signed a petition asking for this policy to change. Following the conference, state corrections officials said it is possible to continue these relationships.

Though the Open Doors conference was a success, the work has really just begun. The next step is to select conveners to lead ongoing sessions to continue, develop and establish a grassroots effort to build community support for conveners to meet on a regular basis, work with and mentor former prison inmates and people in recovery. These groups are the core that will build a faith-based community support effort.

What came out of Open Door’s participant-led sessions was a set of 26 workshops for ongoing networking, spiritual growth and connection and knowledge for inclusive faith communities. Many enthusiastic people joined groups to shape policies, practices and attitude with compassion, spiritual strength and perseverance. More information about the workshops and how to get involved is on the Access Press Web site.

One workshop attendee said, “I’m not a stranger to incarceration myself. For a long time the spirit, if you will, was speaking to me that you might be good in this area. So when the opportunity arose, I finally answered the call. This is part of my journey.”