Coming home after prison

June 25, 2015
Photo by Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

By Alex T. Wheelwright

The United States is home to an astonishing 2.3 million prisoners, the vast majority of whom are not serving life sentences. What happens when they come home?

I recently sat down with Martin Torres, who served four years in a Bexar County, Texas, prison on a check-forging charge. His story helped me understand how incarceration affects families; Torres is the father of two daughters ages 7 and 5.  But Torres' story also is a testament to the importance of providing those formally incarcerated with tools, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), that help them get back on their feet.

For Torres, coming home was the start of a new struggle. During his incarceration, his two daughters had moved in with their mother, who struggles with drug addiction and mental health issues. Torres feared for their safety.

“She burned me with cigarettes, hit me with frying pans, gave me a black eye,” Torres said. “But I have this record, so it took me years to get legal custody of my daughters.”

Torres is not mad at the system, which gave him $50 and a prison I.D. when he was released in 2008. He just thinks it could be improved.

Carol Lockett of Chrysalis Ministries in San Antonio, Texas, agrees. “There are multiple issues for people coming out,” she said. Chrysalis Ministries is an interfaith organization that provides religious and social services to those who were formally incarcerated in any detention or treatment facility in the San Antonio region.

Employment, safe and suitable housing, mental health issues that have not been addressed, and unemployment are some of the issues Lockett said become barriers to reestablishing one's life after incarceration. Torres got hired three times at various jobs before his background check revealed his prison record and he was asked to leave. After taking some life skills classes at Chrysalis Ministries, they hired him as a case manager in 2009.

“My ministry is to help people when they get out,” he said. “I cherish my position as a father and a mentor – some of the same mentalities go into both fields. Someone gets out of prison, we need to get them a job, and they should be eligible for assistance, especially if they have kids.”

Texas is one of nine states that have not modified a federal law banning drug felons from receiving SNAP and TANF benefits – a remnant of the war on drugs. Because Torres' conviction - forging checks to support his addiction – was not technically a felony drug conviction, he is able to receive modest monthly assistance. Were Torres to have a felony drug conviction on his record, that assistance would vanish in Texas – for life.

“It really is unfair – it’s unfair to the children,” he pointed out. “My children should not have to suffer for what I’ve done – they shouldn’t pay for what daddy did in the past.”

In his role as case manager, Torres helps fellow returning citizens with job readiness, rental assistance, acquiring identification, and financial planning. He and his daughters lead a hectic but happy life. Many of the men in his program, due to the nature of their conviction, come back to a city with no job prospects, inconsistent housing, and no access to SNAP or TANF.

It is no wonder that only a third of returning citizens manage to avoid arrest during their first decade out. Of those who get help from Chrysalis Ministries, 85 percent avoid recidivism. Torres is proud to be a part of that latter group. He gets to help others coming behind him, and his daughters get their father.

Congress is negotiating legislation right now that would lift the lifetime ban on SNAP and TANF for individuals with felony drug convictions. Tell your members of Congress that it is time to lift the ban. It is time to do the right thing.

Alex T. Wheelwright is a regional organizer at Bread for the World.

Photo: A market-style food pantry at a Fredericksburg, Va. church that caters to everyone, including the formerly incarcerated.

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World

Tools
from our Resource Library

For Education

  • Election Resources

    One of the best times to raise the issues of hunger and poverty is during election campaigns. Engage candidates in your state/district on hunger and poverty using our elections resources.
  • Racially Equitable Responses to Hunger During COVID-19 and Beyond

    By Marlysa D. Gamblin and Kathleen King

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as when a person or household does not have regular, reliable access to the foods needed for good health. Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color (BIPOC) have historically had higher...

  • Fact Sheet: COVID-19 Global Pandemic, Better Nutrition Protects Lives

    With the coronavirus now spreading in low-resource contexts and new waves of infection expected in the coming year, better nutrition for vulnerable people is more important than ever.

For Faith

  • Finding Hope, Ending Hunger on Both Sides of the Border: A Bilingual Latino Devotional

    Devotional writers challenge us to feel the Spirit of God within us and to hear God’s urgent call to demand justice so all can put food on the table.
  • The Bible on Health as a Hunger Issue

    “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith.” These words from Colossians 2:6 remind us of the faith that is active in love for our neighbors.

    The Bible on...

  • Unity Declaration on Racism and Poverty

    A diverse body of Christian leaders calls on the churches and Congress to focus on the integral connection.

    Dear Members of Congress,

    As the president and Congress are preparing their plans for this year, almost 100 church leaders—from all the families of U.S. Christianity—are...

For Advocacy

Faith

African at Heart

November 22, 2019

Insight

From the Blog