Creating Circles of Support: “Home for Good in Oregon”

The Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon has published three telling statistical snap-shots concerning the regional prison situation:

a) The United States, which has five percent of the world’s population, locks up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
b) On any given day, there are over two million people—almost one in 100 adults—in jail or prison in the United States.
c) With a population of 3.6 million, the State of Oregon has 13,410 people in prison. The population compares to Ireland, which has only 3,199 people in prison.

Almost every one of today’s current inmates will return to the community. In response to the needs of these prisoners, religious volunteers and professional chaplains in the Northwest are helping to pioneer a concept known as “transition chaplaincy.”

In the context of prisons and hospitals, there have always been professional religious workers, called chaplains, who are expected to facilitate the religious practice—whatever that may be—of the inmates of the institution. They differ from “pastors” in that chaplains must be able to serve many denominations, while pastors generally serve a defined geographical congregation of a specific denomination.

But a chaplain’s clientele is always a moving target since hospital patients are soon discharged and inmates are eventually released. Until recently, inmates in Oregon were left on their own to find their way to religious organizations or private spiritual practices after leaving prison. However, because of histories of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and untreated mental illness, some prison inmates have never been involved in religious practices until coming to prison. Others lose touch with previous spiritual communities while incarcerated.

Recognizing the need to continue spiritual support outside of prison, the Oregon Department of Corrections hired Rev. Tim Cayton five years ago as its first transition chaplain. His job is to work with faith groups in the counties where inmates are discharged. “If you consider that our client here is the community rather than an individual inmate, then you get an idea of what my job is,” he says. The idea of a transition chaplain is to prepare not only the inmate, but also the inmate’s community to receive her or him back.

“Faith communities,” Cayton says, “can be an invaluable source of support and mentoring for inmates as they release.” Sometimes, just being able to socialize with the people of religious congregations can give inmates the web of positive connections in the community they would lack otherwise.

Cayton has modeled his transition chaplaincy program on that of the British Columbia provincial prison system, which pioneered the idea that chaplains are also transition workers and that releasing inmates should be surrounded by what they call “Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).” The result is “Home for Good in Oregon.”


Contributor: Kobai Scott Whitney