Faith & Dignity for the Days Ahead
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We are so grateful to Elissa Gabrielle, Cheryl Lacey Donovan, Hurley Morgan, Cee Cee H. Caldwell Miller and all at Real Life Real Faith Media for allowing us the opportunity to reach out to individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues who are suffering in silence.
Hurley Morgan: How did you first become interested in the issues that surround white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration?
Jeff Grant: Good morning Hurley. It is so good to meet you. Your cover story interviews of Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, and of Christopher Williams were so powerful and helpful – if our interview touches even one person or family suffering from white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issues, I will consider it a success. The most obvious answer to your question is that from 2006 – 2007, I was incarcerated for almost fourteen months at Allenwood LSCI, a federal prison in White Deer, Pennsylvania for a white-collar crime I committed when I was a lawyer.
HM: When did you first realize that you wanted to launch this project?
JG: I think our ministry was a more a calling than a realization. After returning home from prison, I volunteered for some recovery and prisoner reentry agencies in the Bridgeport Connecticut area. Most notably, Family ReEntry, which was the first organization to elect me to its Board of Directors. I then applied to and was accepted at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where I attended from 2009 to 2012. After earning a Master of Divinity with a focus in Christian Social Ethics, I was called to a position at the First Baptist Church in the inner city in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as Associate Pastor and Director of Prison Ministries. My wife and partner-in-ministry Lynn Springer and I were living in Greenwich, CT at the time, where we were attending recovery meetings every morning. In Greenwich recovery, I helped many financial people through their own prison-related issues. The concept of founding the first ministry in the United States created to support individuals, families and organizations with white-collar incarceration issues grew out of our personal experiences living and working in these vastly different communities.
HM: What is your mission and what do you find to be the biggest challenge with carrying out that mission?
JG: Our mission is to shepherd individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues all the way through the prison process and to a new life of faith, dignity and productivity. A big challenge is the public’s lack of empathy, compassion, understanding and support. The media generally doesn’t help – it is much more interested in promoting schadenfraude through sensationalized headlines about the fall from grace of the wealthiest people who have committed white-collar crimes. If you look around, these stories are everywhere, fact or fiction: two Madoff movies, the television show Billions, the Wolf of Wall Street, Money Monster, The Big Short, Blue Jasmine, etc. While we do regularly assist some big names you might see on CNBC or read about in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, most we help are regular people – people who live down the street, who are parents of your children’s friends, people you know from church or synagogue – who just got caught up in things and couldn’t stop before it was too late. We have found that most people who commit white-collar crimes are sick and suffering, and have underlying issues relating to alcoholism, drug dependency, mental health, other addictions and compulsions, etc. that they don’t understand and for which they sought no treatment until the bottom dropped out.
HM: What exactly is a white-collar crime?
JG: Generally, white-collar crimes are financial crimes – they are about breach of trust. But for us, white-collar crime is a more fluid concept – it incorporates individuals and families that can’t go back to their old way of life because those doors have closed. For example, professionals who are convicted of felonies for DWIs or DUIs might be prevented from going back to their old jobs or professions. Where do they turn for support, especially if they are now living in poverty in affluent communities that have shunned and ostracized them? Our ministry is about helping them to overcome shame, finding a new life of faith and dignity, and helping them to find support and services.
HM: What is the biggest challenge that you are faced with today that challenges what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your ministry or services?
JG: Our biggest challenge, as is true with most nonprofits, is to find funding to allow us to provide direct services to those in need, and to operate and grow. We do not charge for our services; our only source of revenue is donations. These donations are usually from religious institutions, foundations and individuals. We are very grateful for the support and generosity of all our contributors.
HM: How hard is it to typically get a person to engage in the services?
JG: It’s really a mixed bag. Most of the people suffering from these issues search the internet for any resources they can find – they come across our website prisonist.org and then we hear from them by phone, email, text, or social media. They are often in isolation but are drawn to us because we are faith-based, and they are comforted because as clergy all their communications with us are strictly confidential – this is also a reason that their lawyers will allow them to have a relationship with us. We often hear from them in the middle of the night when they have the most anxiety and can’t sleep. We understand. Others have read about us in magazine articles or by word of mouth. And we know that our newsletters are being forwarded to people in need and that they circulate in the prisons. With some people we wind up having successful multi-year relationships, and there are others who simply do not want what we have to offer and we never hear from them again. These are difficult issues and everyone handles things differently.
HM: What is the typical timeline for the services and what do the services entail?
JG: The timeline really depends upon the point of entry. There are people to whom we minister that are waiting over three years just to be sentenced. We are in contact with men and families during the time of incarceration. We have now been operating long enough that some men we worked with before and/or during their incarceration are now returning home and we are helping them reconnect with their families and find new careers. The services we provide are both spiritual and practical – we give individuals and families the benefit of our own experience and the many people we know and have worked with all in the framework of getting through shame, ostracism and despair to a new life of faith, dignity and productivity.
HM: How successful are your support and counseling services in getting those served to be successful as they are being reincorporated to normalcy?
JG: The goal is not to be restored to normalcy, but to adopt a new way of life that is more faithful, happier and authentic. Most of the people we minister to were not happy underneath, they were sick and suffering in some way that led them to do things that were the opposite of their core authenticity. Nobody we’ve ever met or worked with thought in fifth grade that they wanted to become a white-collar criminal and go to prison. Something happened along the way that affected their judgment and self-esteem. We help them get back to their core truths, and find ways to live the lives they were meant to live.
HM: Why are your services so important for people to know about?
JG: I’d have to say it’s about Matthew 25, The Sheep and the Goats, “whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me.” We realize that what we do is not for the timid or the faint of heart. But what calling is? There are tens of thousands of people suffering from white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration issues who need us. It is our hope that there are others who will pick up their cross and join us to help these individuals and families who have nowhere else to turn.
HM: Many people hate the idea of receiving counseling. How do you overcome that barrier in people to get them to want the help?
JG: When we started our ministry, our number one priority was to be a power of example to people that you can survive prison and go on to live a faithful, productive life of integrity and authenticity. People identify with this, it gives them hope and promise that they can get through their issues too. Even the most resistant to pastoral counseling still seem to be drawn to our story, and the stories of others who have overcome great obstacles to success and happiness.
HM: Why did you choose the name Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project?
JG: The term “progressive” means that although we are a Christian faith-based project, we do not privilege one religion or denomination over any other. We have worked with and ministered to Jews, Muslims and those who have other faiths or no faith at all. After we started, it soon became clear that that there was no ministry in the country that had recognized the issues, and was dedicated to the spiritual health, of the spouses and children so we founded the Innocent Spouse & Children Project.
HM: How are the spouses and children incorporated in the services?
JG: We have a policy that it’s men with the men, women with the women. This avoids any transference issues that might come up, especially amongst a population of women who are often the spouses of powerful men. So my wife and partner-in-ministry Lynn handles all this. There is one exception: sometimes a woman will come to us with a complicated issue that requires one of our lawyer partners or professionals to review. In one case, an innocent spouse came to us after her personal assets had been frozen by the government along with her husband’s (he was accused of a white-collar crime). She had no money for food or to heat the home for her and her children, and certainly no money to retain a lawyer to help her. We put together a team that got her a recovery from the U.S. Receiver, the first time in U.S. history that such a recovery had ever been made in an active financial crime prosecution.
HM: What is your vision for your Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project moving into the next 5 years or so?
JG: Our number one goal is to move individuals and families going though these issues from lives of stigma, shame, ostracism and guilt to lives of faith, dignity, respect and productivity. To do that, we know we have to be not only ministers, but we have to be advocates, change agents and thought leaders until the public and the press accept and embrace that people are people, and that we are all bound by our brokenness. Our plan is to have a fiscally healthy, self-sustaining and fully accountable ministry that thoughtfully and carefully grows to meet these needs.
HM: Do you plan to take your services nationwide?
JG: We are already nationwide, albeit mostly in a personal way. Off the top of my head, we have ministered to individuals and families in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Miami, Washington DC, Virginia, Georgia, Buffalo, and of course New York City and the New York metro area including Connecticut and New Jersey. We do sometimes meet in person, but most times we communicate by phone, Skype, FaceTime, email or text. And federal prisons now have email called CorrLinks, so we stay connected even when they are serving their time.
HM: If someone is interested in your services how can they go about getting help or even getting involved for that matter?
JG: If your readers, their friends or family members are experiencing a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, want to get involved, or want to make a contribution, information is on our website prisonist.org. I can be reached at email@example.com. We will promptly send out an information package by mail, email or via DropBox. The darkest days of a person’s life can be a time of renewal and hope.
Comments from Social Media:
Debbie Miles I wanted to share that Wells Fargo positions now specifically encourage those with records to apply. Specifically this is what a recent ad now says: Disclaimer All offers for employment with Wells Fargo are contingent upon the candidate having successfully completed a criminal background check. Wells Fargo will consider qualified candidates with criminal histories in a manner consistent with the requirements of applicable local, state and Federal law, including Section 19 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act.
We are grateful for all donations this past year to our Ministries. These donations enable us to grow, reach out and serve this community for which there is far too little understanding, compassion, empathy and accurate information. Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. is a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status –
all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. We hope you will consider making a donation to our appeal this year. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal here, at the “Donate” button on on our site, prisonist.org or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. We have enclosed an addressed envelope for your use. Thank you.
The darkest days of a person’s life can be a time of renewal and hope.
George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
Jim Gabal, Development
Babz Rawls Ivy, Media Contact