How meaningful is it to have your dignity when you’ve got little else? It means the world. Restoration Partners, PRUMC’s prison ministry, has developed a simple but powerful new program to help women trying to start over. The program provides an “exit bag” to women leaving Metro Transitional Center (MTC), a work release prison. Oftentimes the bag may be the only thing, beyond a trash bag of items, to carry them into a new life.
PRUMC member Michele Howard, who sits on Restoration’s board and manages the exit bag program with Ed Hamlin, sees this effort as a critical need that is generally ignored by the system. “People think that if we lock someone up, we’re going to provide them basic necessities. They’re surprised to learn that women don’t necessarily get hygiene items in prison. And then when they’re released, these women are often going to live in a room they found on Craig’s List or in some other uncertain situation, just carrying a trash bag that contains everything they own. They basically have nothing. We want to make that transition a little bit easier.”
The exit bags begin with the real thing, an actual suitcase to hold belongings, and contain two months’ worth of hygiene items, towels and washcloths, a one-week Marta card and a $25 gift card for a store such as Target or Walmart. In a further effort to provide dignity where none has been available for a long while, MTC’s Chaplain Anderson gives Restoration Partners the sizes of the women being released, so that the program can include undergarments for them.
These seemingly simple items are movingly important to the recipients. As Chaplain Anderson (once an inmate herself), noted recently to Michele, “An inmate who can produce the Braille language will be released Monday. She already has a job. So I gave her two weekly MARTA cards to take her to her first payday. She screamed and told me to thank you! Her suitcase and MARTA cards were everything to her. It is a beautiful way to return to society. It brings tears to my eyes, because I didn’t return like this.” Of another inmate, the Chaplain said, “I gave out five suitcases today, but what touched my heart was Shannon, a lifer who had done 25 years. She said to thank you for allowing her to leave prison with dignity. You would have thought it was a million dollars in her bag.”
In less than three months, the program has prepared and delivered bags for more than 30 women scheduled for release. And the bags are just the latest effort in Restoration Partners’ mission. The organization also established a food bank to help feed indigent women at MTC (as well as indigent men at a comparable facility next door). Another initiative was a clothing drive for women. Michele again notes the disparity between assumptions and reality in the prison system. “You think people in prison are going to be fed, at least in some basic way. But on the weekends at these work release prisons in Georgia, prisoners are not fed. They have to buy their food. So if you’re indigent, you just go hungry.”
Michele got involved with Restoration Partners after attending a reunion luncheon PRUMC holds every year for women who have been incarcerated. “I was struck by their stories,” she reflects, “and how that lunch is a little bit of a homecoming with friends. There’s a saying, and I don’t know where it comes from, that no one wants to be defined by the worst thing they ever did. We’ve all done things that have been unwise. And some of us have just been luckier.”
PRUMC formed Restoration Partners in partnership with The Cathedral of St. Philip, Covenant Presbyterian and Unity Fellowship Church of Decatur. If you would like to provide items for the exit bag ministry, please visit the Amazon wish list to learn more about what’s needed. For more information on the Restoration Partners ministry, please contact Beth Spencer at email@example.com.