The primary focus of a reentry program like Damascus Way is to address recidivism from a framework informed by holistic and transformative strategies. As a Christian organization, Damascus seeks to approach men’s successful reintegration into society through a spiritual lens, which entails a commitment to redemptive theology and praxis. You may be asking yourself what we mean by redemptive or even what the term recidivism designates. It is important to clarify and define our terminology first before beginning this present conversation on the synthesis of the two. 

Simply put, recidivism has to do with the repeated pattern of criminal behavior or the proclivity to reoffend, which often leads to re-incarceration. The relevance of recidivism to an organization like Damascus Way is tied to the well-established reality that effective and completed reentry dramatically reduces the likelihood that someone will face incarceration again. For instance, “About two-thirds of released prisoners…are arrested for a new crime within three years, and three-quarters are arrested within five years.” That is the vast majority. However, these high rates are sharply reduced when an offender completes their sentence, often in some kind of reentry program.  Note that, “The recidivism rates for offenders released on parole are much lower than for inmates who complete their sentences” (Reamer, pg. 185). 

Redemption or redemptive praxis, refers to the nature of organizational practice and principle, which aims to be restorative or corrective in both the process and the end goal. In theory, “correctional” institutions seek to deter, alter and reshape the harmful and criminal behaviors and actions of individuals who enter the correctional system. Unfortunately, a myriad of factors can detract from the ability of institutional programs to do so. One contributing component is the prevalence of a transactional rather than a relational mindset. 

transactional paradigm, in correctional or reentry facilities, whether conscious or unconscious, is one that turns individuals into numbers. It intentionally or unintentionally reduces someone to the most heinous aspect of their life, which while understandable, does not paint the full picture of that person’s life, upbringing, trauma and personality. The lack of a relational approach in corrections makes reducing recidivism more difficult.

This is an area in which Damascus Way hopes to excel in. While maintaining the highest standards and expectations outlined by the Minnesota DOC (Department of Corrections), we hope to become a prominent example of relational and redemptive reentry. Furthermore, Damascus Way Reentry Center seeks to be a leader in effectively combating recidivism in Minnesota. This necessitates that we prepare and equip our residents for their long-term return to the community This in turn requires that we develop meaningful, responsible and compassionate, yet accountable interactions with our residents during the reentry process. Successful reintegration entails the cohesion of a number of elements, with steady and affordable housing being perhaps the highest positive determinant: 

Returning to the community from prison or jail presents an inordinate number of obstacles related to employment, housing, treatment for health and behavioral health issues, and family reunification. Homelessness may not be singularly responsible for recidivism, but being unstably housed complicates all other targets of intervention for ex-offenders. Formerly incarcerated men reported that their incarceration negatively affected their ability to obtain stable housing (Geller & Curtis, 2011). 

As you can ascertain, housing stability is a significant barrier for those coming out of incarceration. Felons and sex offenders have an especially difficult time getting apartment leases, which often leads to continued patterns of instability, leading in turn to recidivism. Studies have shown that, “The lack of affordable housing leaves ex-offenders competing for the same limited resources with others who have no criminal history.” It is therefore no surprise that ex-offenders immediately face an uphill battle in this area. The correlation between homelessness and criminal behavior is not insignificant either. Levels of incarceration in any given area are statistically likely to increase in tandem with rates of homelessness.  

The work of an organization like Damascus Way is often reactive, in that it is responding to the needs of someone who has already been incarcerated. However, the importance of being proactive means that we are focused in on the transformation of those coming out of prison, but also on assistance to those who have not yet entered the correctional system, but may be on a path towards or on the verge of incarceration. Research demonstrates that housing, career pathways and healthy community all contribute to individual prosperity and wellbeing. Additionally, meaningful relationships pay massive dividends in providing individuals with a sense of purpose, spiritual fulfillment and relational connection. These kinds of support networks are integral. Unfortunately, many such community ties have been severed or strained for those who have been incarcerated for longer periods of time. 

The potential absence of familial and communal relationships can create emotional and psychological deprivation. It is important to help alleviate this sense of isolation by empowering men to reconnect and mend broken relationships, but also to present new opportunities for connection. This looks like creating pathways to new friendships, mentors and communities. Human beings are social creatures and we crave spaces where we can build bridges, make acquaintances and find fellowship.  

This is a component of “redemptive” reentry, something which Damascus Way incorporates into our ministry and hopes to expand upon in the future. Because of our long-standing history as an organization, we have a number of partners that excel in providing men with appropriate avenues for reintegration and personal direction. The interpersonal dimension is critical too and so whether it be church communities, AA meetings or employment opportunities, Damascus Way is always intentional about creating a bridge to these places for our men. But redemptive practice goes much further than networking. It has to do with the entire orientation and workplace ethos of an organization. It means we place an emphasis on resident agenda. More specifically, it reminds us to think about what kinds of services and support we need to put into place to bring about a better future for an individual, one that moves him in a new direction and avoids the repetition of previously harmful patterns of living.  

Redemptive practice or programming is impossible without an intentional effort from staff members to develop and maintain positive and meaningful relationships with those we serve at our sites. Still, it requires an investment from both parties, because in order for this kind of relationship to thrive, it has to be a two-way street, with accountability, mutual respect/integrity and a desire to affect change in one’s own life and the life of another. This takes place when there is a healthy understanding of an individual’s needs, but also their strengths and weaknesses. Engagement in dialogue with residents calls for not just small talk, but conversations about mental health, trauma, behavioral patterns and spirituality. At Damascus Way, our Reentry Coordinators take on such tasks in their consistent and daily communication with residents.  Our recent implementation of a “Spiritual Assessment Form” in our programming is one example of how we are working intentionally towards developing a greater sense of our resident’s individual needs, values and convictions. 

Redemption is a central component of Christian doctrine or belief and basically it has to do with freedom from bondage and “deliverance from sin.” There is also a sense in which redemption implies a “repurchasing” of something lost. In relation to incarceration, redemption may correlate to the idea of reconciliation, wherein offenders redeem their “integrity…perhaps by apologizing to their victims and participating earnestly in rehabilitation programs” (Frederic Reamer, pg. 207).  

There is an increasing awareness of the dire need for change in the American criminal justice and in correctional institutions, particularly regarding racial disparities (a subject of its own for future discussion here). In our society, there is a keen sense of this, even if there are vehement disagreements on how to approach reform. At the end of the day however, these needed changes start at a relational level. The urgency of an increased awareness of how to effectively address recidivism in our reentry work is highlighted by the trajectory of incarceration in Minnesota. The Department of Corrections is projected to increase its releases by an astounding 70% in the near future. This will inevitably lead to a drastic rise in reentry program requests.  

So, where does this leave us? If the national data indicates that individuals will recidivate within the first 3-5 years of reentry, what measures will we take to mitigate those rates of recidivism? How can an organization like Damascus Way measure, assess and address this among our own residents with integrity? This is particularly essential because, “Recidivism rates are one of the primary ways that legislators, policymakers, grant funders, media outlets, and criminal justice system actors determine whether specific criminal justice interventions have succeeded or failed” (Cecelia Klingele, pg. 772). The key to this, really comes down to understanding and identifying “markers of desistance.”  

A number of the key factors positively associated with desistance have been outlined by Reamer. They include, but are not limited to; “prison-based programs, intensive based addiction treatment, educational/vocational training and various degrees of specialized/intensive supervision” (Reamer, pg. 189-190). The incorporation of these strategies into an organization could pay massive dividends in reducing recidivism. First and foremost, these initiatives begin on a relational level, with a tenacious commitment to individual transformation and redemption. Furthermore, one has to empower and equip those coming out of incarceration with a sense of hope and potentiality. Hope will motivate someone to pursue a future with a different path than the one(s) they have walked in the past. Without such hope, there is little incentive to strive for something new. Psychologist Charles Synder, “asserts that hope is a cognitive skill that demonstrates an individual’s ability to maintain drive in the pursuit of a goal” (Reamer, pg. 198). But ultimately, hope is also theological, which means it is deeply tied to the redeeming power of Christ. For, “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:5, RSV). 

– Josiah Callaghan

Works Cited  

Curtis, Marah A., and Amanda Geller. “A Sort of Homecoming: Incarceration and the Housing Security of Urban Men.” Social Science Research 40, no. 4 (July 2011): 1196-1213.

Klingele, Cecelia. “Measuring Changes from Rates of Recidivism to Markers of Desistance.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 109, no. 4 (2019): 769-817.

Reamer, Frederic G. On the Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment, Redemption and Justice. Columbia University Press, New York, NY: 2017.

Saulnier, Alana and Diane Sivasubramaniam. “Restorative Justice: Underlying Mechanisms and Future Directions.” New Criminal Law Review: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 4 (Fall 2015): 510-536.