By Natalie Sarrett

In one sub-Saharan African nation, the recidivism rate for prisoners is a sobering 50%.

Even after inmates have served their terms and attempt to reintegrate into society, it often only takes a few months before they are imprisoned again. When Send Relief partners in the region learned about this statistic, they took action.

After consulting focus groups in the prisons, Send Relief discovered a well of psychological trauma incurred from the sudden loss of their freedom, dignity and livelihoods, along with the abrupt separation from their families. Many inmates harbored bitterness towards the people who had exposed them, resulting in their conviction, and others were struggling with forgiving themselves for the crimes they committed.

Even if the prisoners were taking steps towards reform, they lacked the life skills to earn honest incomes and had no support from their communities—regardless of their innocence or guilt—because of the stigma surrounding incarceration. Due to cultural perceptions that prisoners’ families were to blame for not raising them well or being co-conspirators, families of inmates are often rejected from society, too, and rarely experience reunification with their incarcerated members. If prisoners are allowed to return home, they are typically seen as emotional, social and financial burdens to their families and nothing more.

As a result, many fall back into a cycle of crime, making money the only way they know how.

Our partners set out to create a spiritual, social and economic support system for prisoners making that intimidating transition back into society. After receiving the government’s permission to train prison staff, they started an entrepreneurship program that included mental health consults, budgeting and time management training and communications and fundraising workshops. Trade classes on soap and dairy production were provided, too.

The classes had an 80% graduation rate, with more than 200 prisoners accepting Christ as their Savior and 11 prisoners being reconciled with their families. Upon release, several former inmates even started serving as evangelists and ushers at their churches!

One inmate, Sam*, shared with us about his experience in the rehabilitation program:

“Being in a gang felt like finally having a family that accepted me and taught me how to survive. However, I watched my friends die. I was very lucky to survive and go to prison, which gave me a lot of time to face my actions and rethink my life. I liked the sermons, but I thought they were only relevant in prison. When [a Send Relief partner] told me he would be willing to walk with me outside, I realized that God was relevant to me beyond prison. The program helped me start a small roadside restaurant but because of the coronavirus, the government closed it. I thought it was over, but Send Relief negotiated with them to allow me to sell the remaining food and dishes to another hotel. We started a new business where I look for unique vegetables to sell. That is better for me because with my past life it is not easy for me to sit still, but now I am happy. I thank God for this program giving me a second chance, with survival skills for an honest life.”

Today, Sam’s vegetable business is thriving, even amid the pandemic, and his community and family are convinced of his reform.

Pray for other inmates struggling to find the same reconciliation with their communities and give to similar rehabilitation projects today at sendrelief.org/donate.

*Name changed for security.