- Sam Stephens
Hope in a Hopeless Place
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
Barry Smith, Regional Direct of Metanoia Prison Ministries, talks about the startling U.S. 5-year recidivism rate and how mentorship makes a difference.
“Almost 100% of people in prison have been hurt by something, whether that be parents, spouses, relatives, boyfriends, girlfriends, the system in general,” Smith remarks. “What we need to remember is that these are our brothers and sisters.”
Georgia and Tennessee have some of the highest prison rates per capita than any other state. The U.S. as a whole, despite being 5% of the world’s population, houses 20% of the world’s prison population. But this is not the most pressing problem. In the U.S., prisoners’ 5-year recidivism rate, the rate at which criminals revisit prison, is at a staggering 75% (Smith).
In Southern states particularly, there has been a push to be harder on crime to try to prevent more crime. Georgia in particular started giving out longer and longer prison sentences to try to lessen crime rates, but it backfired. Dating all the way back to the start of the War on Drugs in 1971 and other such movements, prison rates in the U.S. have been at startling high (“A History of the Drug War”). The privatization of the prison complex in the 2000s has also led to more incarceration as greedy companies seek to profit off of the high prison population (Gotsch).
“Mentors become a safe pair of hands for mentees to talk about their deepest fears, anxieties, and longings.”
Metanoia Prison Ministries are hard at work, seeking out those who have been thrown away by society. Here in Chattanooga, Barry Smith is the Regional Director of Metanoia Prison Ministries. Barry is a kind character. He makes you feel safe in his presence, and he himself is a very vulnerable person. His calm demeanor and engaging storytelling instantly make you feel for his story and the story of prisoners that he has mentored. He has lines etched into his face from years of smiles and laughter, yet getting into prison ministry was not without hardship.
After several years of relapsing alcoholism, Smith discovered, “No matter how hard I tried on my own, I could not succeed. I needed something more than my own willpower and my own strength to succeed, so my story gives me a greater understanding of grace in my own life and that Jesus has given me everything I need for a life in godliness.” Smith soon after got involved in teaching Bible classes at a local prison in Florida where he lived. One day he was teaching a class on Romans about how we are all sanctified by Jesus and that we have Jesus’s perfect record. When God says during Jesus’s baptism, ‘you are my son with whom I am well pleased,’ he is saying that he is pleased with all of us, and Smith looked up to see many of these hardened criminals had tears in their eyes. Right after the class, a man named Juan approached Smith. Smith describes him as a man you would choose to be a gang leader of the prison. Bald-headed with tattoed muscles rippling, he asked Smith politely if it was true that Jesus was pleased with him. Smith told him of course Jesus is well pleased with his people. Juan confessed to Smith that this was the first time ever in his life that anyone had said that they were proud or pleased with him. After that, Smith was immediately hooked on prison mentorship.
Through Smith’s story, he has been able to connect to prisoners on a deeper level. “Because I have been to the lowest of the low, rock bottom, I can empathize with prisoners,” Smith recalls. In his experience, he has often seen the church tell people who are struggling, “you are bad, get good,” and this is not what true Christianity is. “Christianity is the only religion where you are saved first and you then live out that acceptance,” says Smith. “All other religions are based on merit and your actions.”
Metanoia actually comes from a Greek word meaning a change of heart. At the ministry, Smith recruits mentors to go into prisons and develop a relationship and walk with them in the process of personal transformation through the gospel, eventually connecting them with a church so that they have a supportive community and job opportunities when they are released. “The biggest part of going after volunteers for prison mentorship is to help them get beyond the stereotypes that they have about prisons, that prisons are filled with unworthy people, not worthy of our help,” says Smith. It is true that prisoners have hurt people and committed crimes, and there are victims and people who suffer from these decisions, “but almost 100% of people in prison have been hurt by something, whether that be parents, spouses, relatives, boyfriends, girlfriends, the system in general,” Smith remarks. “What we need to remember is that these are our brothers and sisters,” he continues. “In Hebrews 13:3, it says, ‘remember those who are in prison as if we are in prison with them.’” That is exactly what Metanoia mentorship does for those prisoners.
Oftentimes, prisoners never have a chance for a new transformed life. Even in the best circumstances, prison is an unsafe place. “Mentors become a safe pair of hands for mentees to talk about their deepest fears, anxieties, and longings,” Smith observes, “and to have someone to be completely open and honest with and for them to respond in a non-judgemental way really makes all the difference in their lives.”
So far, Metanoia has over 24,000 recorded hours of mentoring prisoners. With their work, they have reduced prisoners' 5-year recidivism rate from 75% to 2.7%. This staggering success of ministry and mentorship has truly made its mark on society’s most forgotten and marginalized group.