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June 2010

Churches urged to target prisoner rehabilitation

By Cory Miller

Prison Fellowship New Zealand (PFNZ) is expanding its services through the launch of its new Target Communities initiative, which will work together with churches to support prisoners and reduce their risk of re-offending.

National director of PFNZ Robin Gunston says his service wants to see 800 communities supporting some 1000 prisoners per year by 2020.

"We aim to start making a dent in the number of people going back through the revolving door," he says.

Robin estimates only 300 to 400 churches are involved in some aspects of prison work across the country.

"So what about the other 8600 churches? Do they not care, or do they not know of the need?

"We are looking at some 10,600 prisoners being behind bars by 2010 according to Government projections, with a possible 12, 500 by 2020 unless we find ways of getting these numbers down."

Robin says through this new initiative PFNZ wants to provide places where prisoners feel welcome, where they are not judged for their failings and are given the opportunity to start afresh.

"A Target Community is a prepared community with the heart to minister to both those in prison and to those being released from prison."

He says every released person will gain a much needed circle of support from within the community.

Robin says it is important for these prisoners to have a lot of people around them who are willing to hold them accountable for their actions.

"Ex-prisoners think, ‘I am invincible’," but I tell them, ‘Guys, you need to be realistic, you have been in prison for a long time and are going to step back into a radically changed world.

"You cannot go back to those people who have got you in trouble in the first place."

Former prison chaplain Father Jim Consedine says ex-prisoners are generally not welcomed with open arms.

"Some ex-prisoners are demonised…they are earmarked for life and usually treated abysmally.

"Genuine Christian concern can make a real difference. If Christians accept that each person reflects an image of God and is a child of God, no matter how flawed, then they can bring a different perspective than that of popular current culture to re-integration efforts.

"Overcoming community prejudice and discrimination is a major effort in a society which is obsessed with crime and its effects."

Robin says its Target communities initiative is a "backyard mission" that all churches and communities need to embrace.

He says PFNZ wants the church to lead the way with this new initiative. As a faith-based organisation, it makes sense that support originates within the church.

Today 86 per cent of all prison volunteers come from churches. However the material can easily be adopted and made relevant to any community group.

"Churches are the ones who have understanding" says Robin. "But we are happy for anyone wanting to be involved to do some work on this.

"New Zealand is only seven to eight per cent Christian. For this scheme to work it needs to be wider."