Actress pushes churches to reach out to prisoners

November 12, 2010

(RNS) Jesus left his followers with precious few commands: love thy
neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner among
them. So why do so many churches have such a hard time with that last
one?

Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, for one, is waiting for a good
answer.

In her recent film, "Conviction," Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a
real-life high school dropout whose 18-year quest to free her brother
from a wrongful murder conviction led her from GED to the bar exam.

"As we're sitting here speaking right now, someone is in prison for
a crime they didn't commit," Swank said at a recent screening of the
film at a historic black church in Alexandria, Va., "and that's not OK."

Waters' brother, Kenny Waters, was the 83rd prisoner exonerated and
freed as a result of DNA testing, forced by the persistence of the New
York-based Innocence Project. To date, 261 prisoners have seen their
wrongful convictions overturned.

"I think we always have to have hope and faith that eventually the
right thing will happen," said Swank, who said she believes in a higher
power but doesn't subscribe to a particular religion. "I don't know how
it will be solved, but I think in talking about it, we shine a bright
light."

Prison Fellowship, the nation's best known church-based outreach to
inmates, is teaming with Swank and her film to help show congregations
prisoners' needs, and lobby to reduce wrongful convictions, end prison
rape and halt the shackling of female inmates during childbirth.

"I think it's hard to convince people these things are happening,"
said Kimberly Alleyne, spokeswoman for Prison Fellowship. "Who wants to
believe that these women are being shackled and held down while they're
giving birth to babies? It's almost unconscionable."

While Swank's movie highlights the problem of wrongful conviction,
U.S. prisons are full of people who admit to being guilty. In 2008, the
last year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics data was available,
7.3 million people -- one in every 31 American adults -- were in jail,
prison, on probation or on parole.

"I think some struggle with the issue of helping prisoners because
by and large, many of the people who are serving sentences are guilty,"
Alleyne said. "Our approach is whether they're guilty or not --
particularly if they are guilty -- they still need to be embraced by the
love of God. This is not a judgmental work."

Pat Nolan, a Prison Fellowship vice president who served 29 months
in federal custody after pleading guilty to corruption charges as a
California state legislator, knows what it's like. He maintained his
innocence and says he accepted a plea deal to avoid the possibility of a
long imprisonment.

"When you're in prison, it's like you're an amputee," Nolan said.
"You're cut off from your family, you're cut off from your job, from
your community, from your church."

"I still have every letter that was sent to me (in prison)," Nolan
told attendees at the screening, his voice breaking with emotion,
"Within each of your churches are people who have sons, brothers, wives,
sisters in prison. They suffer alone."

Prison Fellowship, which was founded by Watergate ex-con Charles
Colson, currently partners with about 8,000 U.S. churches, but says it
needs more. Some churches are reluctant to join prison work because it
involves "stepping out of your comfort zone and going to a place you
haven't been to before," Alleyne said.

But she said it's not just about hardened criminals inside the
walls, but what happens to them when and if they rejoin society on the
outside.

"The local church is the backbone of our re-entry process," Alleyne
said. "People from the churches and the community are there waiting on
the outside so that when a prisoner comes out, he or she has somewhere
to go for clothing, to get housing, to get help with jobs."

It's what happens at Shiloh Baptist Church, which hosted the film
screening. Because inmates often serve sentences far from home, Shiloh
runs a teleconferencing ministry to allow families to talk to
incarcerated loved ones.

"I've done teleconferencing with prisoners who haven't seen their
family in 16 years," said volunteer Lionel O. Smith, a 30-year veteran
of the federal prison system. "They have just an emotional period of
about 10 to 15 minutes where they're just so emotional they can't even
speak."

Shiloh's pastor, the Rev. Lee A. Earl, said serving prisoners and
their families is part of the church's mandate to address all aspects of
human need.

"Like Miss Swank said, it's a tremendous love story. This is about
love. That's what Christ was about, that's what he died for -- receiving
people that proper Christians or church folk didn't think he ought to be
receiving. If we're not careful, we'll get into that same kind of
religion."