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Reform through religion — Forgiveness and change foundations for some

By Becca Owsley




ELIZABETHTOWN — Doris Meece doesn’t consider herself a religious person.

She does, however, find that she has created a bond with people who come in from the “outside” to talk to her.

Those on the “outside” are volunteers who come into the Hardin County Detention Center, where Meece is  incarcerated, to minister and help through faith-based programs.

Meece finds comfort in learning to have faith that there is something bigger than herself to help when she is released from prison.

“The prayer requests mean a lot,” Meece said. “Knowing that there is someone praying for us and our families when they are not here.”

For more than 30 years, volunteers have been going to the jail in Hardin County to minister to inmates.

The ministry has grown from nine to 243 volunteers from 25 different churches and religious organizations including the Gideons and Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship.

Each week there are 65 time slots for male inmates and 41 slots for female inmates to access faith-based ministry services.

“I couldn’t run this facility without the help of the jail ministry,” Hardin County Jailer Louis Lawson said. “It helps the inmates deal with problems of all sorts through one-on-one visits with a non-staff member.”

Volunteers help with parenting skills, listen to the inmates and lead devotionals and Bible studies.

Chaplin Larry Vance has been with the jail ministry since the beginning. He follows prisoners from jail and, when necessary, through the prison system, including helping with their families.

Vance calls it crime prevention with a Christian perspective.

“If volunteers can touch the life of one inmate, then they can be a part of helping the entire chain when they get out and they could save the life of the next one,” he said.

He admits the success rate is low, saying 70 percent of the inmates are running a game to try to get special privileges.

Vance not only works in the local jail but also with the state prison system.

“It takes a miracle itself to touch the life of a convicted felon,” Vance said.

Brenda Skillman of Prison Fellowship Ministries said there are several issues that may get in the way of someone wanting to make a lifelong change.

When people make a commitment to Christ, they often forget that they also have to make him lord of their lives and trying to keep the control interferes with that change, Skillman said.

She often asks inmates, “What are you going to do when you get out of here?”

Understanding that concept is part of a growth process which helps prisoners make it on the outside and not go back to the way of life that landed them in jail, Skillman said.

Inmate Nena Brumfield asserts that she has learned as volunteers have taught her about the Bible.

“To live by God’s will and not mine,” Brumfield said.

Skillman said aftercare, though, is a failure. Her group does not have enough volunteers to mentor and help prisoners once they are out of the jail system and  back in their former lives.

She also said there are some inmates who think what they have done is so bad that forgiveness and reform are impossible for them.

“When they come to the realization of the forgiveness of God, I can see that freedom that comes in their eyes,” Skillman said. 

Skillman admits some Christians do not help the situation. Although the jail ministry teaches inmates forgiveness, society still sees them for what they did to get incarcerated.

She tells them that Christians can sometimes be judgmental but to remember that people are not God and to trust him because he is more powerful. 

Prior to encounters with the jail ministries, inmate Tia Gibson said she never had faith or trust in anything and now she desires a relationship with God and has peace of mind.

She said inmates are able to help others who are struggling and have a focus to keep holding on.

Skillman said it is important for people to know those who are incarcerated are just like everyone else and that Jesus came to save everyone.

Eugene Yates, one of the six Gideons who meet weekly with inmates, said jail ministries are a definite need.

He quotes a verse in Matthew where Jesus said in a parable, “I was in prison and you came to me … truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

“Again, our success rate is low,” Lawson said. “But it’s about them having the opportunity and the ones that are helped through the program.”

Becca Owsley can be reached at (270) 505-1741.