Matthew House of Monroe – Changing Lives, Inside and Out
“Let me tell you a story.” Reverend Linda Paz
One in every one-hundred men in America has been incarcerated. The statistics are mind boggling; in the last forty years, the rate of incarceration
in America had quadrupled. Grossly disproportionate to the world population, we house one quarter of all inmates in the entire world, a whopping
2.3 million, and 94% of those are men. The rate of female incarceration in the last ten years alone has tripled. These stats and many just like
it – about color, class, mirroring behavior, poverty – are dissected and discussed on network TV as fodder for ratings that reach many, but compel
Despite this commonality that we share, a yoke around the collective shoulders of Americans, there is deep stigma and shame associated with having
been to prison or having a family member who has done time.
“When inmates go to prison, the family goes with them,” says Reverend Linda Paz, the Executive Director of Matthew House. Linda embodies bustling good
cheer, practicality, and the famous ‘though she be but little, she be fierce,’ came to my mind more than once as we sat in the small kitchen of
the 105-year old house. Top all that off with a Long Island accent straight from Nassau, an enduring love of tea, and you have the woman who has
been serving as an Executive Director for Matthew House for sixteen years.
Matthew House is a donation-only run facility near the Monroe Prison Complex, which was established in 1980, as a faith-based prison hospitality house.
At it’s heart, it is a support for families whose loved ones have been incarcerated. They boast a food pantry, a family bus service, three furnished
apartments for women and children who have traveled to visit Monroe, clothing and a play room, among other sensible material offerings. Above all,
they provide hope and compassion for families, and transparent discourse about a subject which is taboo in nearly any other setting.
“Families don’t commit crimes,” Paz goes on to say, “But they do pay for them.” Families of incarcerated individuals experience reduced economic stability,
frequently uproot themselves from a community to avoid being ‘outed’ as a prison family, are forced to keep silent at their places of work for
fear of stigma or being criminalized. They are now a “prison family” and serve their time alongside the inmates.
Too often, the families of the inmates are viewed as flawed, disgraced or as an embarrassment- an ugly ideology that extends to even the children.
These feelings in children can lead them to feel isolated, and at war with themselves over divided feelings such as shame internalized as personal
guilt, paired with love and loyalty. It’s a heady mix for an adult, especially so for children.
While the overall inmate population totals 2.3M, the children left behind tops three million. That’s more than three million children experiencing
loss, confusion, grief, and the burden of a crime they did not commit. Home life has been disrupted, someone they love has gone away, and Paz has
a very special place in her heart for them. “Children shouldn’t have to bear shame, certainly not the shame of actions that are not their own.”
Matthew House is not eligible for government grants, despite the fact that family support in prison is known to reduce recidivism by up to 50%. That’s
relevant to you and I because a single prisoner represents a dollar figure we each carry in taxes annually. The average annual cost to house an
inmate is $31,286 per year, with some states being notably higher; NY is $69,000 and in California it’s nearly $76,000.
Because prisoners without consistent family visits are six times more likely to reoffend and return to prison, while 71% of inmates with ‘active family
interests’ are successful on parole, it behooves citizens to support institutions like Matthew House. Practically speaking, if you cannot find
it in your heart to help the children of prison families, perhaps you can find some sound reasoning in your wallet; recidivism is costly and an
enormous tax burden.
“Because of my time locked up, I wasn’t available to help raise my daughter. Everything that I tried to do when I got out failed with her. I lost my
Mom and my Grandmother while I was locked up, which are people I’ll never truly be able to say good-bye to. The only relationship that I was able
to repair was the one I have with my father.” These are words from James Vickery, who served approximately ten years for a series of felonies,
and was only released recently.
While he is steadfast in his efforts to be a success story (both on the books with the parole office and in his everyday life) Vickery’s statement
highlights the issues relating to separation from family and children, and why the services at Matthew House are so vital. Because the process
of reclaiming livelihoods and relationships can be impossible when you’re separated from loved ones, no matter which side of the razorwire you
Creating and cultivating bonds with family, especially children, is a meticulous and daily task. When inmates are released, 75% of them will return
to a home where their children live, and it’s vital that those inmates have life skills that are ‘conducive to positive family living.’ Matthew
House helps to pair inmates with their families, and assists prison families to overcome hurdles, be it emotional or financial, that keep families
Statistically speaking, any person who spends more than a few years in a federal penitentiary is more likely to be visited by released inmates than
family members, and the longer they are in, the more their familial supports evaporate.
In 2017 alone, Matthew House saw 1,856 children in their Children’s Center, served 7,401 families through their Clothing Closet, 4,808 families with
emergency food supplies, and provided countless trips totaling tens of thousands of miles to and from correctional facilities.
Credit to Institute of Justice, NY Times, MH Literature. Images courtesy of MatthewHouse.com
Special thanks to James Vickery, Linda Paz and employees and volunteers of Matthew House.