Love Thy Neighbor

By Jodi Hansen

Won’t You be My Neighbor?   Some of us of a certain age and stage remember vividly the theme song of the beloved PBS children’s program Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. On beautiful spring days like today, while looking out my kitchen window at budding trees and the gorgeous blue sky, I like to break into this cheesy song for a laugh.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor.

Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

But, was Mr. Rogers wrong?  In our modern urban and suburban contexts, we don’t usually invite others to be our neighbors. We might buy a house in a nice neighborhood where we have heard the schools are good or choose our neighborhood because it’s where we can afford to live. Very few of us plant our roots somewhere based on who we want to be our neighbors. We have our social media friends and our in-the-flesh friends, but most of us don’t really know our neighbors. In fact, most of us are completely unaware that our criminal justice system is choosing some of our neighbors for us.

You return to where you fell.  One thing most law-abiding folks do not know is that when someone commits a crime, they must return to the county where the crime was committed after they have served their jail or prison sentence.  It seems counterintuitive to send someone back into the very neighborhood where they got into trouble when changing their surroundings would be so much more effective in helping them to get a fresh start.  Sadly, counties don’t want to pay their own PO’s to supervise people who committed crimes in other locales, so the folks we send away to prison actually come right back into our communities.

In fact, 95% of people whom we send to prison will one day be released back into community. As much as “tough on crime” proponents want to believe that we can lock them up and throw away the proverbial key, the reality is that “those people” are eventually going be our neighbors.  Thus, we must ask ourselves, how can we help them to be good neighbors?

Old habits die hard when you are overwhelmed.  Good prison programing can be very effective for helping people address the trauma, addiction, and the wrong thinking that led them to commit crimes. But, programs are sorely underfunded and unavailable to most. Unfortunately, time spent in prison is typically spent doing menial jobs that keep the place running. Getting a college education, engaging in drug treatment, or obtaining good quality job training for most of America’s 2.3 million incarcerated people is a myth.

Even those who do have a fruitful experience while incarcerated will be confronted with incredible barriers to success upon release.  Lack of job opportunities and housing options for those who have criminal records can keep the most motivated people from achieving their post-prison goals.  Lack of community-based mental health and addictions treatment compounds their barriers to success upon return to our communities.

It’s an uphill battle and many become so discouraged that they eventually give up trying to become law-abiding and contributing citizens as they resort to survival skills they learned by returning to the criminal lifestyle they were sincerely hoping to leave behind.

Who? Me?   As productive citizens, we do have the ability to change the statistics for revolving door recidivism when we recognize that these “ex-cons” are our neighbors.  At Remnant Initiatives, we like to use the term, “neighbors-in-transition.”

Our neighbors-in-transition need job opportunities and living wages and housing options just like the rest of us. They need friendships with pro-social and law-abiding citizens who can help them learn new ways of being. They desperately need communities that want them to be successful–communities that understand that public safety and neighborhood health are directly influenced by their success.

We need more heroes.   Mr. Rogers once said. “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say. ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

The previously incarcerated are going to come back to our neighborhoods. We have no choice in that matter. We can be heroes by helping them to be successful when they do. Mr. Rogers would say that makes us good neighbors.