Prisoners Find ‘Something Bigger Than Themselves’
Published: November 10, 2005
TRION—LeThicia Davis, a counselor who coordinates the Faith and Character-Based Dormitory at Hays State Prison, is already seeing positive signs of change among prisoners from the state’s pilot initiative.
She recalled one inmate, who had severe behavioral problems and had been in and out of prison since the age of 17, who was transformed through the program. He even wrote a poem for the program’s newsletter, “The Phoenix,” to which inmates submit articles. His poem, entitled “The 5 P’s,” affirms “proper planning prevents poor performance.”
Now released, the man is in night school and speaks to groups about his experiences in prison.
“He wasn’t used to people saying, ‘I love you,’ and really mean it. (He felt) you’ve got to watch your back and look out for yourself,” she said. “In the dorm he spoke all the time about how he’s never seen a program like the faith and character-based program since he’s been in prison. I truly believe he’ll make it.”
The Department of Corrections program, begun in July 2004 at six prisons around the state, uses community volunteers from a variety of fields to serve as mentors, educators, counselors, tutors, musicians, ministers and librarians—which officials say sends a message to offenders that the community has a vested interest in their success. Inmates live in the dorm for about a year, with four three-month phases, and at times have a morning or evening speaker ranging from a health care provider to a DOC senior manager. Monday through Thursday they also have a structured hour before dinner. It takes a holistic approach as it focuses on responsibility, integrity, accountability and faith-building and is open to all offenders, regardless of their faith or lack of it, who apply and demonstrate the desire to confront the negative habits and behaviors of their past.
“Eventually what we’re trying to do is start a faith-based dorm for the whole prison,” Davis said. “It’s just positive change, recognizing of the errors within yourself and the need for improvement and setting up attainable goals in order to change. Every inmate might not be in there for the right reasons but in the end will be.”
She said the program builds friendships, trust and respect among inmates of different races and religions, who may not have even spoken to each other before, as they do activities like make crafts together for a nursing home or participate and make a sign for the Relay for Life cancer research fundraiser.
“It just opens their minds and broadens their way of thinking.”
Outside of the program, inmates have general work assignments around the prison and can choose to study for their GED or English as a second language, and have some limited time for recreation and to watch television or read. They can also apply independently for a correspondence course in higher education.
For one session they had a businessman come in with an ex-offender, whom the businessman had hired, to talk about life and social skills.
“We’re learning when we go to the job interview that we have to be honest and say, ‘Yes, I’m an ex-offender,” she added. “We learn life skills—how to get along with people because if we can’t do it here we can’t do it out there … We have to keep journals in the dorm to write about situations. We look at a situation and see how we handled it the old way of thinking and the new way with consequences and choices.”
Other topics addressed include character building, values, anger management, cognitive skills, relationships, victim awareness, worship, spirituality, finances and careers. Education levels range from those with doctorates to those with a third-grade education who are encouraged to complete their GED. They can sing in a choir and learn parenting skills like writing letters to their children or requesting a school report card. Volunteers make them birthday cards, the first many have received in prison.
“A lot of them will tell you that the program saved them, that if not for the program they would have ended up dead,” Davis said. “We’ve been blessed through this program.”
Inmates have made toys out of paper and cardboard to send to needy children through the Operation Christmas Child program. They made a poster for an orphanage in Liberia and one of Christ as the Divine Mercy for All Saints Church, which sponsors the children’s home. All Saints used an inmate’s artwork for a fundraiser for the orphanage as well. The program shows thought-provoking films such as “The Antwone Fisher Story” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Whether they’ll soon be released or will be incarcerated for decades, inmates come to realize “the importance of making your community better, whatever the situation is,” Davis affirmed.
“I see it going somewhere. I’ve worked really hard in this program. I’m excited about it.”
Catholic inmate Richard Clark got into the dormitory this year, which he described as still in a developmental stage. “For now at least I can say that it is something that has pulled together 60-something inmates for a common objective that is bigger than ourselves. And that is a rare thing in prison,” he said. “I don’t know that you could call it my favorite thing, but what pleases me most is that the Department of Corrections is looking at doing something different, beneficial.”