Recently I toured the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail with a few members of Westminster. The tour was led by the jail chaplain. WPC contributes to the salary of Chaplain Varaksa as part of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry. It was a lot to take in. In some respects, I saw some encouraging things taking place — volunteers tutoring inmates, respectful interactions between the chaplain and the inmates, and respectful interactions between some of the guards and the inmates. On the other hand, there were, not surprisingly, some upsetting and sobering aspects to the visit as well.
Certainly there are improvements that can be made in all areas of the criminal justice system. For those wanting to help, knowing where to start can seem overwhelming. Some of our laws need to be changed. Conditions within the jail need to be improved and finding ways to provide hope to inmates is needed. Probation policies need to be revamped. For me, the tour served to reinforce one area where we can make an impact- reentry to society. By that I mean immediate reentry into society. For instance, oftentimes inmates are released with little or no notice and so find themselves in the parking lot of the jail with only the clothes in which they arrived. If they were incarcerated in the summer wearing shorts and sandals and get released in the middle of a snowstorm, those are the clothes they are released in. That is a problem.
Many individuals have difficulty finding a job, getting to work if they find a job, paying bills, etc. There is a non- profit organization in the area, The Fountain Fund, which provides low-interest loans to formerly incarcerated people with viable employment prospects. However, there is currently no organized effort at providing appropriate clothing upon release, transportation for newly released inmates to their home or apartment (if they are fortunate to have such a place to stay with family or friends) or, if they have no place to go, providing money for even one night in a hotel. It strikes me that addressing these issues may be something that Westminster is called to do. I invite all of us to prayerfully consider that possibility.
If you would like to join other members for a chaplain-led tour of ACRJ, contact Kathy Redding for more information, 434-906-4697.