The heart of a servant

Building bridges, building trust with inmates

June 6, 2012 | God at work in Us | Number 12
By Karin Fehderau | Saskatchewan Correspondent

Dale Schiele sees value and worth in that segment of society that most people would rather shun. At age 60, he’ll be retiring from a 30-year career as director of Person to Person (P2P), a volunteer-based prison ministry in Saskatchewan.

Beginning work with high-risk sex offenders at a time when many people could barely say the word without feeling uncomfortable, Schiele has often walked a lonely road. Raised in the United Church of Canada, he came into contact with Mennonites through a high school friend who encouraged him to attend Swift Current Bible Institute.

Following that, Schiele began work at McKeracher House, a halfway house in Swift Current run by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Saskatchewan. “The idea of restorative justice was just circulating then,” he says. “MCC provided a forum for early prison workers.”

In 1981, after studying social work, he was approached by the Christian Service Committee of what was then the Conference of Mennonites of Saskatchewan (now Mennonite Church Saskatchewan) to consider P2P, a relatively new venture that had only been going for seven years.

“When I started with P2P, MC Saskatchewan provided a budget of about $50,000,” says Schiele, noting that Saskatchewan Mennonites were interested in helping to put feet to Jesus’ words, “When I was in prison, you visited me.”

In the early years, he admits struggling more to accept the prison staff than the prisoners themselves. The staff, many of whom came into corrections work from an army background, he found difficult to deal with.

Prisoners, on the other hand, inspired him. “I was always motivated by the prisoners,” he says. “I saw a lot of changes taking place.” The warmth and generosity of the P2P volunteers also kept the fire alive in his heart. “There were so many caring volunteers [who] invited the prisoners into their lives,” he says.

Moving outside prison walls

Initially, Schiele, a father of three, thought he could only give five years to the program. But something in those weekly prison visits sustained him. Fifteen years into the work, he began Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) for released offenders, moving from contact within prison walls to friendship on the outside. Falling under the rubric of restorative justice, the Circles tended to focus on helping child sex offenders, as these have the worst tendency to reoffend.

Robin Wilson, a former psychologist for Correctional Service Canada, explains the importance of restorative justice on the CoSA Canada website (www.cosacanada.com). “While many legislators, law enforcement personnel and members of the community have worked to increasingly monitor and decrease access for sexual offenders, others have attempted to build bridges to the population.”

Call for volunteers

Building bridges is what P2P does, and Circles of Support actually reduce future crimes, Schiele says, citing “an 83 percent reduction in the recidivism rate for these offenders” who have CoSA support on the outside.

Balancing work and family

Despite moments of danger, he says that his job has been beneficial to his family. “The children got to know about 50 different offenders,” says Schiele, who often brought prisoners home for dinner.

LaVera, his wife, speaks about the reaction from people at their church. “People were fascinated because [the job] was so unusual,” she says. But she acknowledges that it hasn’t always been easy for people at Grace Mennonite Church to accept the visitors that her husband brought to church.

Ed Olfert, a long-time volunteer, says many in the congregation do volunteer for P2P. “It has been good for the church, a good reminder for the church to be relevant to the situation you live in,” he says. “By and large, we have seen huge acceptance [of core members of the Circles program].”

Tough on crime

With the government promising more prisons, and bringing in tough-on-crime legislation, Schiele is sceptical that longer sentences are the answer. “I am not a fan of bigger and more prisons,” he says. “Incarceration has never been proven to be an effective means of preventing crime. I think the amount of money used to build more large penal institutions could be better spent on addressing some of the underlying causes of crime, namely poverty, lack of education, and family and community dysfunction.”

What will the future bring?

In the months leading up to his retirement, Schiele prepares a soon-to-be-released offender for his involvement in a Circle of Support. When the offender meets the CoSA volunteers, he responds as many do, “They should put a bullet through my head for what I’ve done.”

Most people would be unsettled by that remark, but the veteran worker knows what lies behind those words. “The offender is basically saying, ‘Am I worthwhile?’ ” Schiele explains. In his servant’s heart, Schiele knows the answer to this question. The volunteers also know, and they welcome the offender to begin a new life outside his prison bars. But now the released offender is no longer alone; he has friends.

Unfortunately, interest in the work of P2P has dwindled over time, resulting in a drop in financial support and volunteer base from the MC Saskatchewan community.

“P2P has evolved into more of an ecumenical program,” Schield admits, adding that P2P has received more funding from sources outside MC Saskatchewan while pulling volunteers in from a broader church community.

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