By / Apr 21

Chelsea Sobolik welcomes David Jimenez, manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship. They discuss what Second Chance month is and why it is important for churches and communities to remember those in prison. They also discuss ongoing efforts to reform our prison and criminal justice systems in ways that promote the biblical ideas of justice, proportionality, and human dignity – without compromising public safety.

Guest Biography

David Jimenez serves as the manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship’s advocacy and public policy team, where he oversees federal and state legislative campaigns. His background is in public policy advocacy and institution building, most recently as a primary manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s outreach to college students, faculty, and administrators. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Maine, Jimenez studied history and political theory. After graduating, he participated in the Hudson Institute’s Political Studies Fellowship and was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Romania.

A proud alumnus of Prison Fellowship’s internship program, he first became passionate about criminal justice reform while serving urban youth in New Jersey, where he saw up close the urgent need for restorative approaches to incarceration, law enforcement, and violence. He is passionate about theology, social policy, ethics, and culture. A Pittsburgh native, Jimenez lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Apr 8

On March 31, President Biden declared April to be Second Chance Month. In his proclamation, Biden said that Second Chance Month is a time for us to “reaffirm the importance of helping people who were formerly incarcerated reenter society.  America is a Nation of second chances, and it is critical that our criminal and juvenile justice systems provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption.”

Approximately 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record that creates barriers for their access to education, housing, jobs, and other resources that are essential to successfully reintegrating into society, causing nearly 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals to still be unemployed a year after their release. Second Chance Month is an important opportunity for our nation, communities, and churches to become aware of these roughly 44,000 documented barriers to reentry and commit to helping our formerly incarcerated neighbors pursue full lives as contributing members of our society. 

A history of Second Chance Month

Second Chance Month was first observed by Prison Fellowship in 2017 to “raise awareness of the barriers faced by returning citizens and to unlock second chances for these men and women who dream of a better tomorrow.” Later in April 2017, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution for the first time declaring April 2017 as Second Chance Month.

In 2018, President Trump issued the first presidential proclamation recognizing April as Second Chance Month. Since then, a presidential proclamation has been issued each year by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Additionally, the U.S. House and Senate have continued to introduce resolutions marking the month, and many states have issued their own proclamations each year.

A history of presidential proclamations

There is some debate as to what was the first presidential proclamation. Many believe that the first came from George Washington in June of 1789 when he asked for an accounting from each cabinet head of the activities of their departments. The second came in October of that year designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness” to be held at the end of November. Others argue that the first proclamation came in 1793 when Washington declared the United States neutral in the war between England and France. Perhaps, the most well-known use of a proclamation came from Abraham Lincoln in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The legal basis for executive orders and proclamations has been debated since the beginning of our nation due to the ambiguity around executive authority given to the president in the Constitution. Generally, presidents have used Article II which states that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States” and that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” There are not clear distinctions on what constitutes an executive order versus a proclamation. The Library of Congress notes that generally executive orders are directed toward government officials and agencies and more often have the actual force of law, if the topic is “founded on the authority of the President derided from the Constitution or statute;” whereas, proclamations tend to deal with individuals, are more ceremonial in nature, and typically do not have the force of law.  

The Office of the Federal Register (OFR), which compiles and publishes all presidential Proclamations, describes these proclamations as ways for the president to communicate “information on holidays, commemorations, special observances, trade, and policy.” During his term, President Trump issued 570 proclamations, and since taking office in 2021, President Biden has issued 225.

Though presidential proclamations might seem performative or unimportant, they serve as important statements of priorities from the president, explaining to the country what his administration values and why it matters to the American people.
The ERLC applauds this proclamation and is committed to caring for our incarcerated neighbors and advocating for policies that reduce incarceration without jeopardizing public safety. As was stated in the 2013 resolution on America’s Growing Prison Population, we affirm “prison chaplains, local church ministries, seminary educational initiatives, and other ministries that serve in prisons and youth detention centers and operate programs that seek to reintegrate prisoners into their communities, and reduce recidivism through moral and spiritual transformation,” and we are working to “urge churches and other ministries to participate in programs that assist prisoners with reintegration into society, including transitional housing, vocational and drug rehabilitation, and family support, heeding the words of Jesus, ‘I was in prison, and you came to visit me’” (Matt. 25:36).

By / Apr 29

One of the most COVID-effected demographics is rarely mentioned: Prisoners. Already a population incredibly vulnerable to substance abuse, depression and loneliness, the toll for safety was high — and didn’t ultimately protect them very well. One in 5 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2,700 have died. The New York Times reported triple the rate of COVID-19 infections from that of the general population inside American prisons. 

It’s past time to recognize the humanity of this population of more than 2 million image-bearers. April is “Second Chance Month,” an effort by Prison Fellowship to spotlight criminal justice reform and programming to help prisoners reenter society. Because there is no structure in place for men and women leaving prison, many walk out the door with nothing but the clothes on their back. Some don’t even have an I.D. Often without money or housing, the allure back to substance abuse or criminal lifestyle is high because it is one of few options. 

Things may be even harder now. 

On top of the contagion, in 2020 prisoners abruptly lost access to visitors and in-person programming by nonprofits and ministries aiming to bring light, life, and restoration. As the rest of the world mourned in-person gatherings, prisoners without any access to the outside world may have grieved it the most. 

Ninety-five percent of prisoners eventually reenter society, and the government offers no assistance upon reentry. The results are devastating. Two of 3 former inmates will be back behind bars within three years, furthering a toxic cycle of criminality that ultimately bleeds into the next generation. The children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be later incarcerated themselves. 

Men of Valor 

But God has called a group of people to minister specifically to this group. In 1976, after serving a short sentence in prison, Chuck Colson started Prison Fellowship, which spawned local prison ministries across the country, like Tennessee’s Men of Valor. These organizations are bringing God’s love, hope, and tangible resources to a population the rest of the world too easily hidden and forgotten. 

COVID-19 made programming harder, but Men of Valor was able to pivot and see God moving in incredible ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. “It’s kind of cracked the nut on getting some virtual programming into prisons,” said Program Director Curt Campbell over the phone. “We also got permission to show a faith-based variety show, including testimonies, sermons, and motivational videos.” 

Campbell said most prisons have a closed circuit TV channel that plays inside cells, where their show broadcasts. Thus, men who may never have attended a chapel service or Bible class will hear the gospel when they never would have before. 

Beyond adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, Men of Valor has kept a strong focus on their core initiative, a 1-year reentry mentoring and discipling program for 93 men at a time. After learning about and participating with Men of Valor while in prison, men can apply for the “After Care and Re-Entry” program, which boasts incredible results: Only 10% of those who complete the program go back to prison, compared to 66% of those who don’t. 

Incredibly, COVID-19 affected this program “more positively than negatively,” said Campbell. Because they received funding through the CARES Act (enacted to provide swift economic relief for those affected by COVID-19), Men of Valor was able to expand their programming capabilities to include virtual and socially-distanced learning spaces.They were able to keep the program near capacity, and most men were able to continue working. 

Being accepted into the program can be a huge relief. Once released from prison, accepted participants receive a home, food, clothing, transportation, and help securing valid I.D. and part-time employment. Beyond those basic needs, spiritual needs take priority through mentoring, discipleship, anger management, accountability, personal counseling, and more. 

Because of this program, men like Joshua Higdon say they are “thankful” for their time in prison. After growing up and joining a hate group gang at a young age, Higdon ultimately developed a drug addiction and found himself in prison. “The men that God moved into my life,” he said via video, ”showed me his grace, showed me his mercy and showed me his love.” 

Wearing a t-shirt inscribed with “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” atop a spate of tattoos, Higdon described how a bi-racial friendship inside of prison changed his views on race and led him to the post-incarceration Men of Valor program. 

At a time when many Christians are redefining their view of “pro-life” to include care and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens, it’s appropriate to view post-incarcerated men as such. They have broken the law and made mistakes, but have little chance to rehabilitate and start again without authentic love, financial support, and spiritual guidance to help them get there. They can’t do this on their own, and organizations like Men of Valor and Prison Fellowship are stepping up to ensure they don’t have to.