Faith Groups Step In to Help Parolees

Over the past three decades, California has quadrupled its incarceration rate. More than 500 out of every 100,000 residents are locked up in prison. Most will get out; and most will commit new crimes or parole violations and end up back in. California provides few rehabilitation services, but others have filled the vacuum. In the final part of our five-part series on prisoner reentry, KPCC's Frank Stoltze looks at who is doing some of the heavy lifting when it comes to rehabilitating criminals. (This series was produced by Frank Stoltze as part of a fellowship with USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism.)

Frank Stoltze: Crime does pay, at least for a while. Steve Estroza started out stealing hubcaps. He was 27 when he robbed his first bank.

Steve Estroza: It was so simple and easy. Gave 'em the note, and they gave me the money, and I put the money in all my pockets as quick as I can, and I turned around like nothing and walked out, and when I walked out, I did like, just jumped in the air and said "I did it!" (laughs)

Stoltze: Estroza eventually went to prison. He had a heroin habit and nowhere to go when he got out. He landed at Victory Life Training Center in La Puente.

Estroza: I was beat up and tore up. But they took the time to help me, the patience to help me, and they gave me the love.

Stoltze: Guys lift weights in the backyard of Victory Life – a Christian rehabilitation center for parolees fresh out of prison. Thirty-eight-year-old Jeff Denartog broke into houses to feed his drug habit.

Jeff Denartog: There's really no preparation for you to come outside. It's pretty much a gladiator school. I left prison with the same thinking that I went into prison with.

Stoltze: California spends less than 10% of its $10 billion prison budget on rehabilitation. That leaves religious organizations to fill in some of the gap.

Jeff Denartog: Wasn't raised in any religion at all, and I came into the home, and I have brothers here and people who've been through what I've been through. And they've got the Lord in their life today and they're changed. And I see a true happiness, and it's something that I want.

Stoltze: Victory Life provides stability and structure: room and board, counseling, and mandatory Bible study. Pastor Ruben Reyna directs the program. It doesn't get money from the government.

Ruben Reyna: Once these people have an experience with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, it changes their lives. It gives them an appetite. It takes away the scales away from their eyes so they can see. And we're not dominating them. I mean, once they graduate, they can go wherever they want to go.

Stoltze: Jeremy Travis is president of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says religious groups play an important role in the prisoner reentry discussion.

Jeremy Travis: They bring a language to this conversation that is very important to the country. It's the language of forgiveness. It's the language of redemption. It's the language of hating the sin but loving the sinner.

Stoltze: Travis disparaged the idea of making religious belief a condition of rehabilitation. But nobody interviewed for this story criticized the role Christian, Muslim, or any other faith-based groups play in that process.

A few months ago, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives held a prisoner reentry summit in Los Angeles. The speakers included the director of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Byron Johnson says ex-offenders need support and guidance – from anyone willing to offer it.

Byron Johnson: It could be a person in the faith community that they've connected with that's become a role model for them, more than it is that faith that changes then why they behave a certain way.
Stoltze: And maybe not even somebody from the faith community, just somebody that takes an interest in them?
Johnson: That's correct. Mentors matter, period.

Pat Nolan: I'm Pat Nolan, the vice president of prison fellowship. I was a member of the California State Assembly for 15 years, and was convicted as part of a federal sting for campaign contributions and went to prison for two years.

Stoltze: As an assemblyman, Pat Nolan voted for dozens of bills that lengthened prison sentences and built more lockups. As a prisoner rights advocate, he preaches the value of Jesus, and jobs.

Nolan: It's not enough just to take the gospel. And that inmate needs to be able to support his family when he gets out. He needs the dignity of a job, not just the paycheck. If he's had mental health issues, he needs the medications.

[Sound of guitar and singing]

Stoltze: Victory Life Training Center provided a new start for 39-year-old Martin Moreno, a career burglar and check forger.

Martin Moreno: When my son walks through that door, when he comes in that door, he runs, and he hugs me, man. You know how good that feels? It feels so good, man, just to hold your kids, man, and man, did you see the smile on their face, saying "Daddy! Daddy!" You know, like before, when I was on drugs, they would be scared.

Stoltze: Moreno is an example of what's at stake in the prisoner reentry debate. Rehabilitation returns fathers to their kids. It's too late for one of his sons, who grew up while Moreno was locked up. He followed his father's footsteps; he's serving time on a robbery conviction for the next five years.

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