Prison Fellowship Declares April 2017 ‘Second Chance Month’
National, Bipartisan Initiative Will Help Reduce Barriers That Keep Formerly Incarcerated Americans from Successfully Rejoining Society
Prison Fellowship leaders, a formerly incarcerated woman and a bipartisan group of justice experts from the American Civil Liberties Union, Koch Industries Inc., The Heritage Foundation, the NAACP and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with dozens of other organizations, today declared April 2017 the first-ever "Second Chance Month." They seek to reduce the social stigma and barriers that plague Americans with a criminal record—one in four adults—who are trying to re-enter their communities.
In a surprise development, Senators Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., took up Prison Fellowship's declaration of April 2017 as "Second Chance Month" with a plan to introduce the effort as a resolution in their chamber in the coming days.
"We applaud Senators Portman and Klobuchar for their forthcoming resolution declaring April as Second Chance Month. As America's largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families, Prison Fellowship was founded on the conviction that every person has God-given dignity and potential. We're honored to be joined by the more than 50 organizations who have signed on to celebrate Prison Fellowship's Second Chance Month in order to unlock brighter futures for the millions of Americans who have repaid their debt to society," said Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship.
For far too many who have served time behind bars, release from incarceration brings a new kind of prison. Some 65 million Americans have a criminal record. This limits their access to jobs, education, housing and other things necessary for a full and productive life. Any hope and new identity found while incarcerated can be quickly lost upon release when faced with the "second prison"—the more than 48,000 documented social stigmas and legal restrictions that inhibit opportunities to rebuild someone's life after paying a debt to society. Such was the case for Casey Irwin, who struggled to find a job or a landlord willing to rent to her because of her felony record. Frustrated and discouraged, Irwin made desperate choices that led her back to a prison cell.
"I've made mistakes. As human beings, that's just the nature of the beast—we get to make mistakes. But I've made a lot of choices now that have contributed to my success, and I feel as if some of those aren't being rewarded because I still have that label as a felon. I'm still a normal human being: I need a place to eat, sleep and work," said Irwin, who turned her life around, was given second chances and is now the general manager of a local franchise of a national fast-food restaurant chain. "All of those things have been difficult to obtain, but I've done it. I want to make my community a better place. We need to make something happen so that when the debt is paid, the debt is paid. I'm thankful somebody gave me a second chance. I'm excited to share my story because I know there are many other people who need a second chance, too. I hope that when you see people who have barriers, you will unlock a door for them as well."
Sentencing reform is gaining momentum in state legislatures and in Congress. This brings hope to people like Irwin, who are still paying for crimes long after serving their sentences.
"Casey talked a lot about her individual choices, and we are here thinking about some of the systemic choices that have been made over the past few decades that put us in the age we're in now: this era of mass incarceration," said Ngozi Ndulue, with the NAACP. "Second Chance Month and the decision of all these organizations to come together…to expand opportunities for people with criminal records is an example of a different choice that we are making."
The desire for change and agreement on the issues raised by Second Chance Month is bringing together leaders and organizations that might not agree on many other issues.
"The ideological diversity of the group here today shows how important this issue is and how we need to continue criminal justice and re-entry reform," said Mark Holden, with Koch Industries Inc. "In our society today, we need to find more areas where we do agree, and work together to make good happen. Making meaningful changes to re-entry and giving someone a second chance starts with all of us. We need to support a culture of opportunity to give people returning from prison a chance to lead productive and purposeful lives."
Creating this culture will depend heavily on individuals and communities at the local level calling for such change.
"Americans can help erase the second prison by spreading the hope of Second Chance Month nationwide; please urge your state and federal policymakers to begin making progress by offering a resolution or issuing a proclamation declaring April 'Second Chance Month' in their jurisdiction," said James Ackerman, Prison Fellowship president and CEO. "We must fight for people with a past to have a bright future, because their families and our communities can benefit from their contributions."
Prison Fellowship outlined ways Americans can make April a nationwide, month-long celebration of second chances:
Churches: Hold a "Second Chance Sunday" during April, preach on redemption and second chances, and offer prayer for families impacted by the long-term effects of a criminal record.
Communities: Host a local Second Chance event in April—exhibit art made by people with criminal records, provide practical resources through employment and re-entry fairs, and offer other events.
About Prison Fellowship
Prison Fellowship is the nation's largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families, and a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. With 40 years of experience helping restore men and women behind bars, Prison Fellowship advocates for federal and state criminal justice reforms that transform those responsible for crime, validate victims and encourage communities to play a role in creating a safe, redemptive and just society.