Released and Restored
Released and Restored Executive Director Ruth Karlsson discusses class plans and projects with volunteer Alice Mares.
by Mikael Karlsson*
When Ruth Karlsson attended Nebraska Conference’s 2002 School of Christian Mission, an idea was born. Having long felt a call to work with prison inmates and their families, she enrolled in the restorative-justice class.
“The restorative-justice study brought into clear focus the enormous hurdles inmates and their families face as they strive for successful re-entry into mainstream society,” Ms. Karlsson said. “I was standing at the threshold. It was either step through the door or remain forever on the sidelines of my faith.”
Ms. Karlsson stepped through the door, creating Released and Restored, a ministry aimed at reducing recidivism — inmates returning to prison for violations after release. The ministry is about hope and restoration once a sentence has been served and the inmate wants to change and turn away from a life of crime. Ms. Karlsson explained the program:
“Our mission statement says it best: To provide inmates and ex-offenders with access to the tools and support systems they need to learn how to live moral, ethical and legal lives in our communities; to restore family relationships harmed or broken by incarceration; and to renew their lives.”
Ms. Karlsson, now executive director of Released and Restored, was mission coordinator for social action for Nebraska Conference’s Southeast District United Methodist Women in 2002. She spends an average of 20 hours a week with the ministry.
“Running and growing this ministry has the help of a core team of dedicated volunteers and a supportive board of directors,” she said. “Much more could be done if we could find the funding for part-time staff.”
Ms. Karlsson takes two hours off per week from her full-time job to teach a class inside the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The class — Planning With Purpose — runs for 20 weeks and is offered to a maximum of 20 inmates at a time.
“The inmates are self-selected,” she said. “We have to offer the class to everyone regardless of faith. We don’t put any limitations on how much time they have left on their sentences or anything like that.”
The class combines study of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, with teaching inmates new ways of thinking.
“They learn positive ways of thinking to replace the old, destructive ways that led to incarceration,” Ms. Karlsson said.
Ms. Karlsson does not describe herself or her program as “soft on crime”:
“These men and women committed crimes. They must serve time. Society should not make it impossible for them to succeed at living moral, ethical and legal lives in our communities after release.
“We all share the common goal of safer communities. Our communities are safer when fewer crimes are committed. Fewer crimes are committed when inmates who have been released from prison don’t commit new crimes. These individuals are less likely to commit new crimes when they have the skills necessary to live moral, ethical and legal lives in our communities.”
Reducing recidivism improves lives of those released from prison; the lives of their families, including their children; and the financial cost of incarceration paid by taxpayers, Ms. Karlsson said. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the U.S. recidivism rate at 67.5 percent, double that of Sweden where more money and resources are spent on rehabilitation of prisoners.
Nebraska built a new maximum-security prison in Tecumseh in 2001. Nebraska’s prisons are running at 144 percent capacity. Discussion has just started about building yet another maximum-security prison. The situation is similar across the United States.
Ms. Karlsson said she thinks there is a better way to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Why not take even one quarter of that amount and fund organizations like ours that work with those individuals who have made a conscious choice to turn their lives around because they are sick and tired of living the way they are,” she said.
“The marvelous thing about those we work with at the Nebraska State Penitentiary is they have nothing to gain from the system by attending our programs. Our programs are not a requirement of the parole board. The individuals enrolled in our program attend because they want to live better lives once they are released.”
Recidivism rates are high in part because those released are not prepared to function in society. Of an average 2,000 individuals released from Nebraska prisons each year, the majority have no safety net and no marketable skills making it difficult to find employment or money. Individuals released in Nebraska receive $100 if it’s the first time they’ve been released, and less if they’ve been incarcerated more than once.
That $100 and the clothes on their backs is all many have. For many, the pressure is too much, and they go back to lives of crime and end up back in prison.
Released and Restored is making a difference, Ms. Karlsson said.
“The ministry is much needed,” she said. “We see clear evidence of that everyday in the individuals we have worked with who are out and have stayed out, have found employment, and have turned their backs on crime. These are individuals who can be an awesome inspiration for others who want to do the same thing after release.”
Released and Restored provides mentors for recently released inmates. Experts in the field of re-entry agree having a mentor has a positive impact on an inmate or ex-offender.
“Mentors are a key component to help demonstrate how church members and congregations can minister to ex-offenders and their families,” Ms. Karlsson said.
The ministry enforces rules that men mentor men and women mentor women. Another rule the ministry has is that ex-offenders, once they are released, never meet with a representative of the ministry one on one.
Raising funds for the ministry takes much of Ms. Karlsson’s time. Released and Restored launched what it plans to make an annual trail-ride fundraiser — Ride to Restore — in
Broken Bow, Neb., in 2006.
Ms. Karlsson visits a lot of Uni-ted Methodist churches in Nebraska and speaks to United Methodist Women units regularly, always extending an invitation for listeners to come with her to worship inside the penitentiary Saturday evenings. Church groups, including United Methodist Women, often accept the invitation, she said.
“The men really appreciate this,” she said. “To see that there are people on the outside who care about them is a big thing. When they see people take time out of their lives to visit strangers in the penitentiary and worship with them, it gives then a lot of hope. Hope is what this ministry is all about.”
* Mikael Karlsson, a frequent contributor to Response, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nebraska. He is the husband of Ruth Karlsson, who is featured in this article. They are members of Wilber United Methodist Church in Wilber, Neb.
1st photo, residents of the Nebraska State Penitentiary share their homework as part of the 20-week long Released and Restored program.
2nd photo, Ruth Karlsson, the program’s founder and executive director, explains the program to United Methodist Women at St. Paul United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Neb. Photos by Mikael Karlsson.