The Rev. Richard Johnson believes in second chances. Maybe it’s because he’s been given a few of his own through the years, or perhaps he’s seen time and time again how these fresh starts pay off.
Regardless of the reason, every Monday night a group he leads gathers on the bottom floor of Main Street United Methodist Church in New Albany looking for some of these second chances. Most of the participants have served time behind bars. Now, after being released, these men and women are trying to find their way in the outside world.
For more than 18 years, Johnson has been helping ex-inmates do just this. In 2005, he began Christian Formation Ministries, a biblically based organization that supports the spiritual needs of prisoners in and out of prison.
Through the Successful Reentry (SURE) program, Johnson helps teach soon-to-be and recently released inmates the keys to a successful return to free society. At the same time, counseling is given to solve the inner conflict that caused the person to behave in such a negative way to begin with.
“Government cannot heal matters of the heart. When we’re talking about addiction, talking about crime, talking about pain, there’s something going on in that person that is creating pain,” Johnson said. “See, we believe that crime is a manifestation of a heart problem. We have a heart problem and because our hearts are off, our thinking is affected. And if our hearts are wrong and our thinking is wrong, then our behavior is going to be wrong.”
Johnson’s mission begins during the inmates’ incarceration. As the chaplain at Henryville Correctional Facility, he comes into contact with many of the prisoners before their release. Floyd County also welcomes his ministry into their jails and helps to relay information to their prison population. All services are free and open to any inmate.
For those wanting to participate, a mentor relationship is established while the person is still in prison. After release, the match continues for up to a year. During the critical first few months of freedom, mentors phone their wards daily to ensure they aren’t, as Johnson said, “going off the reservation.”
“Most people in prison, even the ones who want to do the right thing, they haven’t got a clue about how to do it or what to do or what speed bumps are out there to trip them up,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing this 18-plus years, my wife and I, all over the country. So we’ve seen a lot of things that work. We’ve seen some of the things that can trip people up and send them back.”
Finding a job is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when being released from prison. Employers have reservations about hiring felons. Yet without a job, the likelihood of returning to jail increases substantially.
Johnson said recently a volunteer has come on with the organization to compile a database of businesses in the area that are willing to employ program participants.
“We’re in a bad-news business. Most people are going to be crime victims at least once in their lives. They’re angry at the people we’re trying to help,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the criminal justice system and who’s incarcerated in our prisons. Actually, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the prison population is people that we ought to be afraid of. They need to stay right where they are because, short of a miracle, they are not changing.”
But for the many nonviolent offenders seeking re-entry, drug and alcohol addiction remains a problem and can add another obstacle to a successful return if left untreated. Johnson tries to find the root of the problem using Christ’s teachings as well as his all-encompassing love.
“If we could solve our drug problem, we could solve our crime problem,” he said. “A lot of them are like burn victims. You have to touch them so they can be healed, but the touch itself is painful.”
While offering love and support, Johnson has been around long enough to know what he’s up against. A lot of the prisoners who attend his services and take part in mentoring while incarcerated don’t continue after release. However, for those who do remain, less than 20 percent reoffend, a dramatic reduction given that most statistics show 65 to 80 percent of felons typically return to prison or jail.
“One of [the problems] is they walk out of prison and say ‘I’m out. I’m better’. We say you’re not better. You’re better off, but you’re not better. The next three years after being released are critical. That’s the red zone,” Johnson said.
In the long term, Johnson hopes one day to open a City of Refuge. This self-sustaining community of released prisoners would be complete with onsite employment and housing, tackling some of the roadblocks recently released inmates face.
But for now, that’s just a dream. Being chronically underfunded, the organization has never met its budget since its inception. And yet the need for its services continues to grow.
Johnson always welcomes contributions as well as volunteers. For those interested in the organization, their website christian-formation.org provides additional information.
“Why should I help those people? Well, because we’re trying to reduce crime. And that’s our vision statement: reducing crime one changed life at a time,” he said.