Church program pairs volunteers with inmates

Prison ministry eases released criminals’ transition back into regular life

Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007

Thirteen years ago, a man set out to change just a few lives. By now, he has helped to transform more than 100.

Mike Lash has been changing lives for more than a decade through the aftercare ministry program he began at St. James Episcopal Church.

The program pairs volunteers from area churches with inmates who are soon to be released to help in their transition.

When Lash began St. James Episcopal Church’s aftercare ministry program, he didn’t care that the people he was helping were convicted criminals. He just saw people who were in need of someone to help them deal with their past and head in a more positive direction.

‘‘I realized that a lot of people in jail could be helped to build better lives,” said Lash, who was involved in the program for 12 years. ‘‘I believed that [mentoring inmates], even if it only affected a few people, it would be worthwhile.”

Lash has now retired to Woodbridge, Va. but when he began the program, he was a Bethesda resident who was inspired to volunteer in prisons after spending time in New York City working with homeless youth and witnessing how difficult times can affect people’s futures.

‘‘There’s a lot of sadness just to see how unfair life can be,” Lash said. ‘‘I developed a sympathetic understanding for people who get in trouble.”

According to a 1994 study by United States Department of Justice, more than 67 percent of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

In the prison ministry program, the volunteers’ main goal is to lower that rate as much as possible by listening to inmates and helping them transition from life in the correctional facility to life outside.

Members of the ministry travel to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg and the Pre-Release and Reentry Center in Rockville to talk with inmates once a week for three months. After they are released they continue to meet with them for an additional six months.

Mentors listen to concerns about all issues. Some common concerns deal with housing, family and worries about how they will fare on the outside world.

‘‘That good listening was really valuable to feel respected and also to help them start thinking about what they are going to do when they get out,” Lash said.

The aftercare ministry at the Potomac church began with six volunteers, referred to as prison ministers, although they are not actually ordained. The program now has 14 prison ministers from seven churches in Montgomery County and one in Washington D.C. Currently eight inmates are involved in the program.

‘‘I felt that even if it didn’t grow, that if we really changed those inmates and their lives, then the program would be adequate,” said Lash.

It is their Christian beliefs, personal history or their compassion for others that bring people into the ministry, Lash said.

‘‘In the Bible you have to deal with the left-out, the forgotten.

That’s their ministry. That’s their commitment,” said MCCF program manager and volunteer coordinator Mary Saxon-Clipper.

Volunteer prison ministers are so appreciated because they give the inmates an opportunity to be heard without being judged, said Mary Wasik, who has been a volunteer with the aftercare program for more than five years.

With the aftercare ministry, inmates have someone to help them move away from their old lives that originally got them into trouble, Lash said.

Unlike religious programs inside correctional facilities, the prison ministry continues after inmates are released, which helps them stay away from their old friends, habits and neighborhoods, he said.

‘‘I’m not saying we can make everybody good but we need to give them a chance,” Saxon-Clipper said. ‘‘It is important because these people are going into the community [and] it affects everybody.”

The prison chaplain and staff choose which inmates they think would benefit the most from the aftercare ministry.

The volunteers don’t try to convert people to Christianity, but the inmates are told up front that it is a religious program that includes praying, said Jim Finch, program coordinator.

‘‘We just hope that we planted a seed and shown them a path that will lead them to a better life,” said Wasik, who is a member of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church.

Volunteers go through a special training process to prepare them for mentoring, which includes 10 classes and four videos.

The videos, which were put together by Lash and other St. James members, teach mentors about dealing with substance abuse, becoming good listeners, establishing relationships, and starting a prison aftercare ministry.

Inmates have to meet three requirements in order to participate in the program. They must stay close enough after they are released for the volunteers to still meet up with them, they have to be open to praying and they must agree to meet with their mentors.

‘‘You take people where they’re at and you try to help them go in a different direction; and not just one person benefits from that but a whole community,” said MCCF senior chaplain John Mulvihill.

The plan for the future of the program is to get more people from other churches and even people who already volunteer at the prison involved, Wasik said.

‘‘I hope we can continue what we’re doing and continue to find volunteers,” she said. ‘‘It takes a special person to do this.”