Jail chaplain targets other type of shackle Inmates offered straighter path

August 30, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

A story in the Aug. 30 Howard County Sun incorrectlyreported the number of volunteers who assist the Christian JailMinistry.

The ministry has about 150 volunteers, 12 of whom work asone-on-one counselors with inmates.

It also was incorrectly reported that the ministry receives moneyfrom county government.

If you have any doubt there is a God, says Walt Smith, then consider what happened to him in mid-life stride.

Nestled in a low-key lifestyle full of predictability, stability and a successful TV-radio repair business, he suddenly found himself routinely associating with criminals.


"I've been in jails one way or another . . for 20 some years. That's more time than most convicts see the inside of a jail," he says, his laugh echoing through the cinder block halls of the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

Of course, his calling these days is no laughing matter.

Rather than tinkering with broken electronics, he now spends his days performing triage on hemorrhaging souls in his role as director of the Christian Jail Ministry.

The ministry, which relies on about a dozen volunteers, offers an array of inmate programs at the county jail, from workshops on key teachings of Christianity to private counseling. It also arranges weekly worship services -- including one for Muslims -- and offers a profusion of Bibles and books about how to apply Christian values and beliefs in day-to-day life.

While most jails in Maryland have a visiting cleric or preacher to conduct worship and other religious services, few have an organized ministry group providing such a cornucopia of Christian-based programs.

The ministry operates on an annual budget of about $50,000, most of which comes from a contract with the county for Mr. Smith's services.

If anyone had predicted he'd be spending time working with inmates at his age -- the Damascus resident is 55 -- "I'd have told them they were certifiable crazy," he says. "It was just not in the scope of my imagination. But here I am, and if this isn't evidence of a God, well, I don't know what is."

Almost everyone in the Detention Center, from the stoic prison guards to incarcerated youths who look too young to hold a driver's license, addresses Mr. Smith as "Chaplain."

A man who exudes great energy and enthusiasm, he knows most Detention Center workers by first name, briefly hamming around with some as he leads a visitor to the ministry's basement office, which is no larger than a janitor's closet.

The cramped office offers two views: Through a security window to the left is a Spartan chapel, its most compelling feature a 3-foot wooden cross behind a podium; straight ahead, through another security window, lies a narrow hallway that intersects with another narrow hallway.

Taped to the front security window is this message: "Being a jail chaplain is a lot like pastoring to a parade."

As flip as that might seem, therein lies the rub for the ministry's efforts, says the chaplain.

The county jail is not geared to long-term incarceration, so the chaplain and the dozen ministry volunteers don't have the luxury of time to work with inmates. The jail primarily serves as a holding area for those awaiting trial, sentencings or placement in long-term facilities.

As a result, the ministry has what might be thought of as a fast-track system to get key messages to as many inmates as possible.

Inmates who attend worship services -- and most do so out of a need for some activity to break up the monotony of incarceration -- are invited to attend a follow-up class Monday mornings where the foundation of Christianity is explained.

Those who attend that class can also sign up for what are called "discipleship classes." In those classes, students are provided details of Christian values and beliefs and are given an inspirational booklet of "lessons" titled "Survival Kit for New Christians."

"We're not giving the people in this jail some intellectual up-in-the sky religion. That's of absolute no use to them," Mr. Smith says. "They are living life close to the edge. What they need is something that they can apply in practicality in their everyday lives.

"Every principal of Christ that we teach, we then try to show the inmate how they can apply that principal in their own life. We keep what we have to say very simple. Some of the inmates can't even read, so if you get too complex you lose them."

Mr. Smith doesn't kid himself that all -- or even most -- of the inmates who participate in ministry programs can make a clean break from the values and habits that helped land them in jail. The high percentage of convicts who eventually return to jail after serving their time or being paroled has shaped a realist's view of the ministry for Mr. Smith.

His main concerns are rounding up more volunteers and getting a program started that will help convicts with housing, job training and educational opportunities once they're released.

That's not to say there aren't apparent success stories resulting from the 10-year-old ministry's efforts.

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