A Good Break

The ministry Prison Fellowship works every day to help people who are—or were—in prison. But sometimes it helps to have a special time on the calendar to get the public’s attention. 

So last year, Prison Fellowship proclaimed April Second Chance Month, calling attention to the plight of formerly incarcerated people. The U.S. Senate joined in that recognition. So did dozens of organizations and local governments.

“We’re trying to change the cultural narrative about the value of people who have a criminal record and what they have to offer,” says Prison Fellowship Vice President of Government Affairs Heather Rice-Minus. “This is one way to do that.”

The second annual Second Chance Month will be marked with observations and events across the country this April. Churches are being urged to hold a Second Chance Sunday, raising awareness and mobilizing members to aid people with criminal records.

There’s guidance on how to get involved at the end of this article. First, however, meet some people who are putting their second chances to good use or helping others to do so.

The Pastor

Jon Kelly, 35, grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood—no father, mother always at work. Started selling crack at age 12. In and out of juvenile detention centers. At 19, he and others robbed a drug dealer—and one of them killed him. All were charged with murder.

Due to overcrowded jail conditions, Kelly was sent to the hole—solitary confinement in a cell the size of a bathroom, lights on 24/7. After about a week, he asked a guard for something to read to relieve his boredom.

He got a New Testament with a message on the cover: “There’s hope for you. Jesus cares.” And he read it—for 18 hours straight.

“I stopped at Hebrews 3:15: ‘If you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts,’ ” he says. “I felt like Paul on the road to Damascus. I’d been blind my whole life, and now I saw everything—in high definition. All my sins I’d ever committed. All the things I did to my mother. All the things I did on the street. And this overwhelming sense of conviction came over me.” 

Kelly got down on his knees and asked God to forgive him. And kept asking—“like, 10 times a day”—until, with time and learning, he found he didn’t need to keep asking.

Against his lawyer’s advice, he pled guilty to the charge, determined to take responsibility for his role. He was convicted of third-degree murder and robbery in 2003. While behind bars, Kelly got his GED and “studied the Bible like crazy,” expecting to minister to fellow inmates for a long time. 

But instead, he was paroled in his first hearing before the board, six years into his sentence. He got a job thanks to a man who knew him from prison ministry. Met his future wife, moved to Chicago and went to Moody Bible Institute—aided by the Charles Colson Scholarship from the Billy Graham Center’s Institute for Prison Ministry, based at Wheaton College.

In 2016, Kelly and others—under authority from Harvest Bible Church in Rolling Meadows, Ill.—planted a church that meets in the gym of Michelle Clark High School in western Chicago.

It’s a diverse flock, to say the least. “We have police officers, firefighters, federal agents worshipping alongside men who are coming out of gangs,” he says. “Everything you see on the news—the racial tension, the division—that’s not the case at our church.”

A big part of his mission as pastor: Reach kids growing up like he did.

“A lot of guys on the street listen because I can relate,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be shot at. I know what it’s like to be in and out of jail. I know what it’s like to run with the gangs and get high every day and make dumb decisions. 

“And I know God’s grace. He lets me reach them. And that’s what my heart beats for.”

The (Almost) Lawyer

Jesse Wiese, 40, didn’t grow up like Jon Kelly.

“I grew up in middle-class Christian suburbia, went to private Christian schools, was the fastest in sword drills,” he says. “I was ‘the good kid,’ living the American dream.”

By his high school graduation, though, he started to doubt the meaning of life. After a stint in the Army, he went to college, where those doubts increased. He found himself in a dark place. Stopped caring—about everything. Came close to suicide. Then decided the only purpose of life was self-indulgence—which took money.

So in May 1999, Wiese took the same .38 caliber pistol he’d almost used to kill himself and robbed a bank. A high-speed chase followed, ending when a police car rammed his.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. And still didn’t care.

“Prison is a dark, drab, dreary place,” he says. “I fit right in. I was dark, dreary and drab on the inside. I was already in prison long before I walked in.”

Two years into his sentence, Wiese applied to live in a Prison Fellowship Academy at another facility, seeking better living conditions. 

But he found more than that. He found men who looked him in the eye and welcomed him. He found spiritual counselors.

“I finally came to a conclusion,” Wiese says. “There is a God, and He isn’t me.”

So he got to know who the real Lord is. And as he did, “I had this epiphany: I really mattered and could make a difference.” While incarcerated, Wiese got an undergraduate degree from Moody Bible Institute. Released after eight years, he worked with Prison Fellowship to aid other men re-entering society. 

Then he set his sights on a law degree and got one from Regent University in 2011. Applied for the Virginia bar, brought character witnesses, got a committee to recommend him to the full Board of Bar Examiners.

And was turned down.

This hit Wiese hard. So when a position at Prison Fellowship opened up, he took it—helping the ministry advocate to eliminate the barriers that hold back people who’ve been in prison from fulfilling their potential.

Meanwhile, Wiese applied to the bar again with the same result in 2015. He challenged the decision at the Virginia Supreme Court, but lost a close vote: 3-2. 

That was the genesis of Second Chance Month.

“The concept really came out of my personal pain,” Wiese says. “And not just mine. I see people across the country with the same pain.”

Now he hopes to see more Christians match their deeds to their faith.

“We know it’s not true that people can never change,” he says. “But there’s a separation between what we believe and how we act. This is a chance to get involved—to advocate for human dignity and value.”

The Employment Specialist

For three years, Ramona Mathany had been doing volunteer prison ministry to women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore. That’s when she noticed a pattern.

“These gals just kept coming back in, like a revolving door,” she says. “And it was for the same reason every time: ‘I can’t find a job. So I moved back in with the guy, and we got into drugs again.’ Or ‘I prostituted myself again.’ Or ‘I stole again.’ It was really hard to watch.”

What hurt most was seeing women doing everything right for a while—and then go back to doing wrong.

“They’d be on the right path, they’d hook up with a church, they’d have the right people assisting them,” Mathany says. “Then all of a sudden, boom: They’d fall again because they couldn’t find a way to make a living legitimately.”

Then the most heartbreaking thing happened. One of these women—also named Ramona—went back to prison and died there a year and a half later of pancreatic cancer.

“I was crushed,” Mathany says. “Look at all this incredible work we’re doing in here to get these people into the light and out of the darkness. But they can’t get work. What are they going to do?”

So when Mathany and her husband started All Star Labor & Staffing in 2009, they made a point to find jobs for former inmates. But they didn’t make that their only goal.  

“We didn’t talk to employers as though we were doing social work,” she says. “We talked to them like we were trying to have a great employment agency that wasn’t discounting the 30 percent of the population who have criminal backgrounds.”

Over the last nine years, All Star has found work for more than 23,000 people—about 3,800 in 2017 alone—and at least half were formerly incarcerated. The company’s track record has built trust among employers and latitude to do some things unconventionally.

“Most people coming out of prison don’t interview well, so we interview for them,” Mathany says. “I tell employers, ‘You need six people in this department of your factory? I’ll send you six really capable people. Don’t interview them first because they won’t do well at that. But they’ll be your best factory workers if you let them go out there and show what they can do.’ ”

All Star has offices in five Oregon cities: Albany, Bend, Eugene, Portland and Salem. And Mathany doesn’t want to stop there.

“I believe in my heart that we’re eventually going to change recidivism in Oregon,” she says. “And then hopefully in the next state and the next state. Long-term, we hope to make a difference nationwide.”

The Lawmaker

Former Indiana state Rep. Eric Turner (R-Cicero) remembers what happened in 2003, the first time he co-sponsored a bill to seal many criminal records—those for misdemeanors and nonviolent, nonsexual crimes after several years had passed with no further offenses.

“That year—and the next few years after that—someone went to the front (of the House chamber), held up a piece of paper, and said, ‘This paper is symbolic of a mail piece that will go to each of your constituents saying you are soft on crime,’ ” Turner says.

“Members on both sides—but especially my party—would just quake in their boots. There were 100 House members and we got 19 votes.”

But Turner—a conservative, rural Republican—believed in second chances. So did his partner in the effort, the late Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis)—a liberal, inner-city legislator who’d been trying to pass such a law for decades.

“I believe in being tough on crime,” Turner says. “I believe those who commit them should be punished. But not continually punished for their lifetimes once they’ve paid their debt to society. We might as well put a tattoo on their forehead that says, ‘felon.’ ”

Like William Wilberforce trying to end the British slave trade, they brought the bill back every session for nine years. They kept falling short—but getting closer.

In 2011, their record-sealing bill finally passed with 74 House votes, then cleared the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels. Two years later, a similar bill expunging records altogether was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence.

What changed? There was more than one factor, Turner says—but the biggest factor was attitudes.

“I saw the change, especially among conservatives,” he says. “In our discussions, I’d often say that most of us are men and women of faith, and our faith is based upon redemption.”

The day the record-sealing bill passed, Turner thought there might be some grumbling in the party caucus. It didn’t happen.

“Not one person spoke against it,” he says. “Then one by one, people stood up and said, ‘You know, I have a neighbor who this would help’—or a friend or a family member—and people started telling stories.

“Some voted against it, but after it passed, I think people felt good about it.”

Rice-Minus sees that same attitude change among conservatives across the country.

“They’re looking at these issues through the lens of their faith,” she says. “They realize that we’re made in the image of God. And there are no throwaway people.”

For More Information:  To learn more about Second Chance Month and how you can promote it in your church and community, visit http://bit.ly/2s2RgjX. To learn more about the work of Prison Fellowship, log onto www.prisonfellowship.org.

Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.
© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.