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University of Iowa News Release

Aug. 7, 2003

UI Examines Role Of Faith-Based Groups In Helping Ex-Offenders

Each year, nearly 500,000 people are released from prison in the United States. Their success at re-entry into society often depends on the support they receive for addressing problems such as substance abuse, lack of job skills and a fractured personal social network.

In Iowa, where approximately 400 people are released from prison each month, faith-based groups play an informal but significant role in helping released offenders rebuild their lives. The finding is included in a report by the University of Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation, which set out to examine the largely undocumented role these local groups play in Johnson County, Iowa, in helping people released from prison.

The report also finds that improved communication with formal rehabilitation services, such as probation programs and substance abuse groups, could help the faith-based groups be even more effective. In addition, these groups overall would rather government do more to support existing mandated support programs than provide them grant opportunities for their efforts.

The study team surveyed 15 faith-based organizations (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) as well as staff with the Sixth Judicial District Correctional Services (part of the state's Department of Corrections) and staff with the Mid-East Council on Chemical Abuse. The results are available in a report called "An Environmental Scan of Faith-Based and Community Reentry Services in Johnson County, Iowa." The report is available online at, by sending an e-mail request to or by calling 319-335-4488.

"What little work has been done on the role of faith-based organizations has been in very large cities. We wanted to look at their role in an area like Johnson County which includes a rural population," said Stephan Arndt, Ph.D., UI professor of psychiatry and one of the report authors.

The team was not surprised to find that the faith-based groups "do more than they think they do and more than outsiders think they do," said Arndt, who also is director of the UI Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation.

Arndt said that people released from prison are socially disengaged and often estranged from their family, friends and previous, if any, business associates. Add the fact that many ex-offenders are struggling with substance abuse problems, and it is clear a person just out of prison could use support.

Faith-based groups help adults make a new start through study and discussion groups, choir, one-on-one spiritual counseling, and sports and social activities. They also provide practical help such as rental assistance, food and clothing banks and transportation.

"People tend to think that all public services have to stem from governmental agencies. In truth, communities have provided for those in need for a long time. The lack of recognition may be because faith-based and community-based organizations often do not advertise the massive amounts of service they do," Arndt said.

The surveyors were somewhat surprised to learn that the Iowa Department of Corrections and the substance abuse agencies do not have much direct communication with the faith-based agencies.

If, on being released, an offender says he wants to go to a church, a correctional staff member's best resource currently is to provide a phone book. A good resource to develop, Arndt said, would be a directory that lists congregations and describes the services and atmosphere they provide.

Another way to improve communication is for the formal support providers -- the correctional probation/parole officers and substance abuse counselors -- to attend church events such as barbeques, where they can learn more about how the organizations help offenders and understand how referrals to faith-based groups can be made while still respecting separation of church and state.

The faith-based groups themselves were open to building communication and understanding rather than getting more money. The consortium found that church and other faith-based groups are wary of accepting government funds to do their work.

"There was the general notion was that more government monies should go to public social services such as help for the disabled, children, the mentally ill and those with addictions," Arndt said.

Consortium staff also assisting with the report were Janet Hartman, program associate, and Kristina Barber, associate director.

Visit the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse and Evaluation online at

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5137 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 5224-1178

CONTACTS: Program (including report requests): Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation, 319-335-4488 or Media: Becky Soglin, Writer, 319-335-6660,