Prisoner Re-Entry Supporters Tie Into National Faith-Based Out4Life Network

In 2007, ex-offender support groups in a handful of states began huddling together under a national faith-based umbrella called Out4Life, combining efforts to help prisoners find work and housing, break old drug and alcohol habits, and generally do what it takes to keep out of prison. For life.

Texas became the latest state to jump on the bandwagon late last month with a statewide kick-off conference in San Antonio, and now a few old hands in ex-offender support community are working to build out the network here in Dallas, one of the largest destinations for ex-convicts released from prisons around Texas.

Chris Pipkin, a re-entry specialist with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative and one of the guys organizing local groups under the Out4Life banner, says the new group is about "faith communities, organizations and government coming together to form a wrap-around approach." (See Jesse Hyde's 2007 "Jesus in the Jailhouse" for more on IFI's influence on Texas prisons. Like Out4Life, IFI sprung out of the Chuck Colson-founded Prison Fellowship Ministries.)

Pipkin says churches provide the kind of personal support network ex-offenders need to avoid old pitfalls, and can help drive the message home in a way public, secular programs can't. "In my opinion, when you're being led by the spirit of Christ, the opportunity for success is greater. When you're doing it on your own strength, you're gonna get tired," he says. "When you're in a church, you've been adopted by another family. When you're surrounded by a body of believers, the support system is much stronger."

"It brought some key people into the circle," Pipkin says of the statewide conference. "Now we're actually starting some coalitions out in regions of Texas that we had absolutely no connection with." The Dallas One-stop Optimized Re-entry System (DOORS), a pilot program the city created last year, already helps coordinate efforts between many of these groups locally, but Pipkin says Out4Life will help connect them with a handful of church-based groups like Concord Missionary Baptist Church, Oasis on the Mount, Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church and Second Chance Ministry.

Dave Baer, another local Out4Life coordinator and a local Prison Fellowship field director, says recidivism rates are far lower among ex-offenders who've gone through in-prison ministries, like the faith-based dorms known as "god pods."

"There's a lot of people and organizations with the same goal. They want to see these men and the women succeed when they get out of the prison," Baer says. With a network like Out4Life spanning the state, someone released from Gatesville should have an easier time connecting with local mentors and faith communities in Dallas, he says.

"They may have skills, but they may not know how to put together a resume and apply for a job. If they can show they've really changed and have a direction and a purpose for their life, and you can tie them to people who are willing to give them a second chance, that can make all the difference," Baer says.

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