By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2004
Ecumenism is in action at the maximum security Hays State Prison in Trion, where 68 Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and men of every other faith represented there have eagerly moved into a new “faith/character dorm,” a pilot program just launched there and in five other correctional institutions across Georgia.
The Hays program is expected to start in mid-July. Catholic inmate Richard Clark, who is serving a 20-year sentence without parole, had signed up. He said he didn’t get in at this time, perhaps because he’s scheduled for a parole reconsideration in November.
“I feel like it would be a good environment for housing. Our entire Christian community is spread out through all these buildings. There are a lot of times we’d like to be able to spend more time talking and praying and discussing differences between persons,” he said. Nevertheless, “I am happy to serve the Lord wherever he wants me.”
Joseph Barnes, another member of the Hays State Prison Roman Catholic Community and a former death row inmate who now has a life sentence without parole, is a bit more skeptical. “I think a lot of guys think it’s going to help them get out of prison.”
The Faith-based Living Unit program is part of the broader faith-based initiative to reduce the recidivism rate in Georgia by helping inmates to better make the transition back into society. Since 2001 about 1,100 inmates are released in Georgia per month, and studies show that within three years a third of them will become incarcerated again.
Hays Chaplain Donald White, whose hours had been cut due to statewide cuts in prison chaplaincy, has had his hours restored to 29 per week in order to run the program along with the counseling department. He noted the greater importance of prison chaplaincy with the state cutbacks in prison counseling. In June Hays lost five senior counselors. He reports the men in the faith dorm are congenial as they work to implement the initiative.
“I feel this is really the way to go, and had it been offered years ago we may not have as many fellows in our institutions as we have today. The major goal of all our programs is to fight recidivism,” said Rev. White. “We’re excited about it, and they are too. I’ve never seen inmates that have had that much enthusiasm over what’s going on. It seems like it’s catching on. I have guys wanting to sign up every day.”
Those selected will participate in four phases lasting three months each. The program will kick off with a segment on respect for cultural and spiritual diversity. Other components will address the strengthening of personal faith through activities such as Bible study, which will be central throughout the program; character building; career planning; health and fitness; community service; family and relationships; coping skills; and lifelong education.
The program is expected to provide an environment for positive change, in which offenders work to enhance strengths and diminish weaknesses through a wide variety of experiences.
Chaplain A.J. Sabree, reentry director with the Department of Corrections, serves on the advisory board for Faith and Character Initiatives and said that several states now have faith-based prison initiatives.
“It’s faith- and character-based dorms. It’s really to provide an environment for change to personal responsibility, integrity, accountability and building on one’s faith,” he said. The initiatives will involve faith- and community-based volunteers coming in to provide services and will use “a holistic approach to inspire change of the offender thus deducing recidivism.”
He added, “Now we’re working out all the logistics and trying to make sure we have no legal challenges and making sure we meet all the legal requirements in terms of separation of church and state.”
Estimating that about half of the roughly 1,500 inmates at Hays use chaplaincy services, Rev. White said he has “an open door policy” for seeing people. He spoke of the need for programs and services to provide spiritual support for inmates.
“If there’s a need, we deal with it then,” he said. “There’s a need for communication for inmates and they will share things with the chaplain that they won’t share with anyone else.”
Rev. White said they’re recruiting professionals including doctors, dentists and those in fields of mental health to lead programs in the dormitory “to give their mind a real good workout and help these guys to adapt to mainstream society . . . Confronting the self will be a key component.”
He also spoke of the important role of volunteers in building the faith life of inmates. Volunteer Paul Caruso and his team of Edmund Cescutti and Tom Moriarti, Frank Windler and Ken Ammerman lead a Catholic prayer service on Tuesdays and catechesis on Fridays.
“The quality of integrity they bring to the institution is unsurpassed because they not only do their services, but they help chaplaincy as well. There may be something I need done because we’re so limited. I’m the only chaplain here and there’s so much work to be done,” he said. “They play a positive role in helping chaplaincy to promote a kind of goodwill atmosphere. For instance they have a relationship with all other denominations.”
Rev. White is hopeful about the Faith-based Living Unit project and the direction of the Georgia prison system. “I’m optimistic (that) the things that are going to happen here are going to help not only inmates but the community and corrections at large, and we have a super commissioner. The governor made a wise choice when he chose James Donald, a man of wisdom, vision and integrity.”
The commissioner has also developed another statewide faith- and character-based advisory board composed of faith and community leaders, which held its first meeting July 12. The members include Rev. Sabree and Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
It “is to really bring the faith community to participate in the overall process,” Rev. Sabree said.
Msgr. Gracz, who is the committee’s Catholic representative, believes the living unit concept is a little “flat.” He said his advisory committee will not only evaluate that but also a broad range of concepts for how faith communities can get involved in prison ministry for those entering and leaving the system. He’s excited by the possibilities.
“Instead of people just being (incarcerated) and coming out worse than they came in there’s the possibility of working with the faith, educational and the psychological community. We are releasing over 18,000 inmates a year in the state of Georgia, and unfortunately we’re entering 20,000,” Msgr. Gracz said.