SF sheriff seeks spiritual leaders to provide support for inmates leaving jail 

click to enlarge Ross Mirkarimi
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi speaks about inmates at an event Monday.
To help solve the persistent problem of the revolving door that is the criminal justice system, The City’s jailor is turning to faith.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is reaching out to The City’s spiritual leaders — many of whom already minister to the 1,000-odd souls inside the County Jail system at any given time — to see how faith and religion can aid the criminal justice system’s mission of rehabilitation and redemption.

“It’s not about proselytizing,” said Mirkarimi, who on Wednesday night met with at least 80 rabbis, ministers, priests, imams, gurus and other faith-based leaders to talk about how to blend their respective missions. “It’s about reducing recidivism, and upon re-entry, providing a supporting community environment.”

That may be the missing link in the system, which upon release essentially only provides ex-inmates with a telephone number for their probation officer, a package containing belongings and an entreaty not to return.

San Francisco’s criminal justice system already puts energy and resources into finding alternatives to incarceration, such as community courts and diversion programs. And County Jail is an anomaly in California: It’s not overcrowded, it’s relatively well-funded and staffed and it boasts opportunities unavailable to inmates elsewhere, such as the first charter school inside a jail in America.

Yet the same troubles in places such as Los Angeles and Fresno are here, too.

Some 55 percent of people leaving jail will return, according to figures used by the Sheriff’s Department.

And more than half of inmates here are black — 56 percent, according to the most recent figures available, though Mirkarimi said the figure is lower. San Francisco’s overall black population, according to the 2010 census, was 6 percent.

Some religious leaders say faith is a perfect avenue to reach black people, and one that hasn’t been used to its potential.

“I would say [faith] is in the very DNA of [the black community],” said Michael Pappas, the executive director of the Interfaith Council. “This is a very sensitive and practical response to try and address recidivism.

“We bring a dimension to addressing the issue that’s been underutilized,” he added, noting that The City calls on religious leaders to help with homelessness and disaster preparedness.

Religion has been in County Jail for some time. The jail has a religious services director who makes sure inmates have access to faith leaders from a gamut of doctrines and denominations who make volunteering in the jail on nights and weekends a regular part of their ministries.

click to enlarge Pastor Paul Trudeau
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Pastor Paul Trudeau of City Church is mentoring inmates at County Jail in hopes of reducing recidivism rates.

But under Mirkarimi, the offerings are expanding: Pastor Paul Trudeau of City Church began a mentorship program two months ago in which eight women who will be in County Jail for six months to a year or longer meet with him weekly.

Sometimes God is the last thing they talk about. It’s more about seeing what they need at that moment, behind bars with a lot of time to reflect, and taking advantage of that opportunity.

“The problem is when people are in prison, they can go from realizing they are guilty to having shame,” Trudeau said, drawing the distinction between having done wrong and being wrong.

“That can give you an inability to believe in redemption for yourself … to feel loved and worthy and to go through acts of repentance,” he added.

When the people Trudeau is mentoring are released, they will have a number to call — his — if the demons of addiction return, or if the call of the streets or the lure of the hustle become irresistible.

And they will have a place to go, be it on a Sunday for worship or an evening to study the Bible or to talk. And something else, he hopes: That sense of belonging to a community and being of worth.

That, after all, is the aim of serving time — rehabilitation and redemption.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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