Avoiding prison's revolving door

by Russ Pulliam
Posted on Tuesday, April 23, 2013, at 11:59 am

INDIANAPOLIS—Melissa Benton looked like a candidate for a career in crime. Her parents divorced, and her stepfather was accused of abusing her and her sister. She got pregnant in high school. Then in a dispute that got out of control, she stabbed and killed her mother. She spent eight years in prison.

But Benton found a way to avoid the revolving door of more crime and a return to prison. Her story is instructive in light of the nation’s 3 million inmates. Two-thirds of them go back to prison within three years after their release. Benton’s reentry into society was an exception because she found a family and community of support. She also never embraced a victim mentality by blaming others. Above all, she committed her life to Christ.

She could have made plenty of excuses growing up on Indianapolis’ Eastside, seeing her parents divorce when she was 3.

Pregnant in high school, she lived at home with her mother. Her daughter was born with a development disorder. The relationship with her mother was strained, with her mother telling her, “The one thing women are supposed to do is have babies, and you can’t even do that right.” The disputes escalated into a heated conflict and the stabbing, resulting in Benton’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in 1994.

When she came out of prison in her late 20s, she had never lived on her own as an adult. Her grandparents agreed to have her live with them on the condition that she attend Englewood Christian Church.

She didn’t really want to go. “It was just a couple of hours on Sunday, so I could do that,” she said. “I thought in a month I could save up and get my own place. I had no idea what real life was like.”

She was facing the reentry challenges of all inmates. “I just had eight years of everyone telling me what to do.”

What surprised her was the acceptance she received from other people in the church, as she started attending a Bible study and fellowship group during the week.

“I was worried about how people would react. I didn’t know if people would want me around their kids,” she said.

She found she could ask hard questions about the Bible’s teaching. Could she truly be forgiven? “I knew all the Bible stories, but in an abstract way. But I never learned how you practically apply them to my life.”

The Bible study opened her eyes to a new way of life. She saw the life of Christ up close in the gospels. “Jesus almost sought out those people who were damaged,” she said. “He didn’t seem to look for people who were good or perfect. He looked for people like Paul who already were bad. It doesn’t matter what’s in your past. He wants you to commit to Him and He can use you for His purposes.”

She also learned to serve others, through the church’s work on fixing up homes in the neighborhood. She became a reentry social worker for others coming out of prison.

Benton hopes to get back to reentry work after she completes her master’s degree in criminal justice. Her ambition: helping others who face similar challenges.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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