Creative ministries offer hope, help to female offenders

Pat McCaughan of ENS writes on three ministries of the Episcopal Church that assist incarcerated women.

First is the John P. Craine House, a ministry of the Diocese of Indianapolis, which for 33 years has offered alternatives to nonviolent women offenders with preschool age children. The program allows women to serve their sentences with their children.

Tannika Patton is the program director at Craine House, which after relocating in January 2013 will be able to accommodate 30 residents. “It was founded in 1976 by John P. Craine, who was an Episcopal priest and who saw the need for this kind of program,” Patton said.

The three-story dwelling includes bedrooms for nine residents, and kitchen, living and dining room and common areas as well as playroom, classroom and administrative office space.

“I love my job,” added Patton. “Residents are given the opportunity to complete their GED (general equivalency degree) as well as other life skills to help prepare them to return to the community and to make a better future for themselves and their children,” Patton said.

The ministry attempts to break the cycles associated with children of offenders or who live in homes with drug abuse and domestic violence. According to the Craine House website, they “are reportedly as high as 70% more likely to become perpetrators or victims of domestic violence and much more likely to commit violent crimes. Children of mothers in prison are five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison.”

According to the website, Craine House has attained a 20 percent recidivism rate —enabling young women who have made poor choices in the past to become responsible parents and more productive members of the community.”

Next is the Episcopal City Mission in the Diocese of Missouri, where The Rev. Dietra Wise uses hip-hop and rap music with thoughtful, inspirational lyrics, along with a project focused on dance:

“Safe Dancing” is another way she connects with juvenile offenders. “It’s great exercise, for one thing. We choreograph dances and then we perform at ministry events, churches, and special events. We try to create a space for what would be considered youth group anywhere else, a space where the kids can grow spiritually.

“But it’s a little more hard core than the average youth ministry, in terms of topic and content, the stuff we talk about, because what they bring to us is … drugs, sex, babies, fatherhood. A percentage are in serious trouble and they have to make a shift or they will be part of the pipeline to prison.”

Wise counsels youth mostly aged 12-17 “although I’ve seen them as young as nine” who have committed crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies up to and including murder. She serves at several youth facility campuses in and around the St. Louis area….

The diocese funds 90 percent of the ministry, she said. “In a very real way the ministry would not exist without the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and its churches.”

Local churches also hold monthly birthday parties for the juveniles, sponsoring them and spending time with the youth, who desperately need love and attention. “They love the church people. They do all kinds of fundraising events during the year and participate in the volunteer visiting programs for kids who don’t have visitors,” said Wise, who is ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church.

The final program focuses on Episcopal nun Greta Ronningen in the Diocese of Los Angeles:

Through a three-year grant from the Episcopal Church Foundation for transformational ministries, Ronningen is able to offer informational classes on stress, anger, forgiveness, power and control, abusive relationships, healing as well as teaching breathing, meditation and other coping skills to juvenile female offenders. There are also opportunities for Christian formation and faith-building, for deepening relationships with God.

She has served for nearly four years as a chaplain for Prism, the restorative justice ministry of the Los Angeles diocese. She visits inmates at the Twin Towers facility in downtown Los Angeles and other locations. She is also a founding member of the Community of Divine Love, an Episcopal religious order in the Benedictine tradition, headquartered in San Gabriel.

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