Lower Lights Ministries
At Lower Lights Ministries’ Rachel’s House, women coming out of prison receive holistic care in a family environment that helps them turn their lives around. The lifetime recidivism rate among its graduates is an impressively low 14 percent.
Through Supportive Community, Rachel’s House Achieves Impressive Success
Since 2002, women coming out of the Ohio Reformatory for Women, the state’s largest women’s prison, have had an opportunity to choose a new life path by entering Rachel’s House. The re-entry program, sponsored by Lower Lights Ministries in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, is “all about relationships and empowerment,” says Executive Director Jan Ruark.
“The only way to be in our program is to choose to do so,” Ruark says. “You can’t be assigned here by a judge or a parole officer. It’s got to be your choice.” That “high view of the dignity of free will” is an important part of the program’s DNA, Ruark says. It is echoed as well in the modest number of rules at Rachel’s House. The community operates according to a covenant, wherein residents pledge to avoid profanity, drugs, violence, to get engaged in a faith community, and to follow an 11:00 p.m. curfew. Ruark believes that re-entry programs that tack on a lot of additional rules may not be helping people to really learn to make wise decisions on their own. “These women need to learn to make good choices,” Ruark says. “Rachel’s House offers them a safe place to do that.”
The program is kept intentionally small. “We are about quality here,” Ruark emphasizes, “not numbers.” The home has capacity for 8-10 single women at a time. Since its inception, Rachel House has hosted 102 women. Over that time the recidivism rate among participants has been 14 percent. Since the state of Ohio typically tracks recidivism on a three-year time table, Rachel’s House has kept those statistics as well. Ohio now boasts one of the lowest 3-year recidivism rates in the nation, at 28 percent. But for Rachel’s House graduates that rate is even lower, at only 7.8 percent. Over 95 percent of graduates leave with a job. All learn about money management and accumulate a rainy day savings account at a bank prior to leaving the home; some for the first time in their lives.
Rachel’s House operates a bible study at multiple prison facilities, seeing an average of well over 300 women each year. The goal of the group includes but exceeds scripture study. “We’re trying to build a good small group dynamic, trying to encourage the women to grow in their communications skills and begin working through issues,” explains Ruark. Women nearing the end of their prison sentences, who have participated in the bible study for at least 6 weeks, can apply to enter Rachel’s House.
Those who do so find themselves in a new family. Ruark says she has had a parole officer tell her: “At Rachel’s House, it’s like you re-create a family environment for these women and help them to re-grow-up.” Ruark says that statement captures the ministry’s work quite well, given that 75 percent of the Lower Lights’ full-time staff live in the neighborhood, the ministry owns 11 homes there, and the church where Lower Lights Ministries’ offices are located provides a long-term faith community. “We’re almost like a little commune,” Ruark chuckles.
Additional program elements that contribute to the effectiveness of Rachel’s House include:
- Emphasizing trauma recovery. “We educate the women on how trauma in their lives has affected them emotionally, physically, psychologically, relationally, and spiritually,” says Ruark. “Our response is holistic, embracing all aspects of the woman. Rachel’s House is a place where science and theology come together.”
- Emphasizing empowerment. “Many women learn to follow rules while in prison. But what matters more is cultivating the wisdom and discipline to make good choices. Whether a woman joins Rachel’s House and when she leaves is up to her,” says Ruark.
- Utilizing a “bi-lingual” staff. Two of Rachel’s House senior staff are former graduates. They are able to navigate well the prison, law enforcement, and social service systems while also relating well to the residents, since they have walked in their shoes.
- Strong emphasis on mentoring. The Rachel’s House program encompasses six primary domains: recovery, education, employment, relational skills, spiritual formation, and finance. Women take financial literacy and other life skills classes, work on their GED or college degree, and participate in group counseling. But they also have individual mentors: a career coach, a GED tutor, an individual finance mentor, and so forth. “We have a strong base of about 30 dedicated volunteers who make our holistic approach possible,” says Ruark.
- Dramatically increasing the women’s social support network. Rachel’s House helps women get connected to a faith community and support groups like AA, and, wherever possible, reconnected in a healthy way to their families. Ruark says: “The fact that over 80 percent of our women experience a significant increase in their supportive social network is a huge reason for our low recidivism rate.”