Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I attended church alone. We had a guest pastor in church, as our regular pastor was out of town. Her name was Pastor Arnette Pint, and she was the first Associate Pastor for Shueyville UMC back in the late-90s. Since that time, she has gone on to a few positions, but her most recent one is serving a congregation called Women at the Well, that she started at the Mitchellville, IA Women’s Correctional Facility, so she had some very interesting perspectives.
Pastor Arnette described a variety of statistics and anecdotal stories to help illustrate what she does and why it’s important. First, she told us that this is a relatively new concept, having a church within a prison. This is different than having churches visit prisons, as you end up getting a variety of groups coming through and not staying – no sense of permanence. The United Methodist Church in Iowa felt the need to appoint a pastor specifically to this prison, as the system apparently works well in other states where it’s been implemented. Pastor Arnette relayed a story of the pastor (whose name I can’t find) that started this movement and, effectively, “wrote the book” on doing this sort of thing. He had been ministering to the men of a prison in South Dakota and he got the sense that they wanted an actual, regular, church service. Something permanent. Something they could depend on. After he started a weekly service, the numbers of attendees grew, and their outlooks after prison improved.
The part of the story that hit me was that, supposedly, one inmate thanked him for starting the service, lamenting the endless parade of churches and groups coming through to preach to them. The inmate said “We was tired of gettin’ saved.” It was an interesting point to make, as these churches that were coming to the prison somehow felt as though, because they were prisoners, they must obviously not be Christians. Because they were in prison, they obviously needed “saving.”
With this framework in mind, Pastor Arnette went through some statistics, saying that 60% of inmate in her prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though that number is surely higher. Most of those diagnoses happened outside the prison system, as the ones that occur once you’re in the system can be difficult to interpret. There are 600 women in the prison, while 30 years ago, in the same building, there were only 40-something women there. It’s a crowded place, and there’s one psychologist to manage all of them. They communicate over the internet with a psychiatrist in order to get any medications approved. Pastor Arnette also said that, while the statistics aren’t solid on this, she thinks it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of these women that have been abused in some fashion during their lives, and the majority of them have struggled with addiction at some time. For many of them, addiction is the reason they are in prison at all. She said that, while they have counselors at the prison to help the psychologist in their day-to-day routine, these counselors, more often than not, are prison guards that have ranked up high enough to get off the floor.
The United Methodist Church in Iowa also started a program to help provide clothing for women that are leaving prison. Apparently, the State of Iowa doesn’t provide you with a change of clothes for your bus ride home, so there are women riding from Des Moines to all points of the State in their prison uniform. Hardly the “right foot” to get started on. So, the Methodist Church started collecting clothes from women across the state, asking them to donate their lightly-used clothes so that these women have something to start fresh with. The church provides a set of casual clothes, as well as a set of clothes nice enough for “that first job interview.” Certainly a nice gesture.
One of her larger points was with regards to the cost of building and operating prisons. She pointed out that almost $180 million has been approved by the State of Iowa to help refurbish this current prison, as well as build another prison in the state (and that’s just to build, not to operate). That’s $180+ million to help deal with all these women that have been coming in (remember, 40 women increased to 600 in this one building over 30 years, largely due to influx of methamphetamine and harsher drug laws). She suggested that, maybe, that $180+ million would have been better spent on helping these women before they got into prison, by providing greater access to abuse and addiction counselors, or to even see a mental health professional.
At a time when state funding for mental health is declining drastically, our spending on new prison facilities is increasing. ”How does this make sense,” she asks.
The last point I’ll leave with you are some interesting statistics on recidivism (as in, the likelihood someone within the prison will come back to the prison one or more times). The rate in Iowa is 60%, which is comparable to other states. According to her, in studies that have looked into programs like hers, with churches that are actually based within a prison, the recidivism rate drops to 15% for those individuals. If those individuals leave the prison and find a church home (as in, one they attend regularly, as opposed to “just visiting”), the rate drops to 2%.
It was an excellent sermon, and an eye-opening testament to what goes on in the prison system. Thankfully, my family isn’t known for their prison stints, so I can’t say I have any experience with what it’s like to “go through the system.” I hope I never do, but if anyone I know has to go through it, I hope they have someone like Pastor Arnette and a program like hers to help them see it through.