Praying for miracles in jail

Chaplain: Christian Jail Ministry tries to break the pattern that landed many inmates behind bars.

February 03, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

It is hard to believe miracles could happen in this tiny room, with its cinder-block walls, industrial tile floor and the occasional sound of a metal door slamming.

But here, in the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, a drug-addicted inmate serving his seventh jail term puts down his dog-eared King James Bible, clasps his hands and prays that God will help him escape a life of drugs and crime and despair.

David Padgett, 47, is one of thousands of inmates who participate in the 20-year-old Christian Jail Ministry program at the prison every year. He is hoping, after 30 years in and out of prison for doing drugs and stealing, he has finally found something that will help him break the pattern.

"Every time I come to jail, when I get clean I always have good intentions," he says, sitting in the chaplain's office. "But then I get pulled away. I don't want to do this again."

So Padgett -- who is at the detention center awaiting trial for violation of probation -- spends his free time reading the Bible, memorizing Scripture, attending church services and praying for a miracle: that this time, when he gets out of prison, he will stay drug-free.

Statistically speaking, Padgett, who is from Baltimore, is on the right track. Studies have shown that inmates who study the Bible in prison have lower rates of rearrest than those who don't. And Chaplain Guy Nichols, a former businessman who heads the ministry program at the detention center, said the program also helps reduce tension and improve inmates' reading and social skills.

"The idea that really drives prison ministry is the belief that Jesus Christ can really change lives," says Nichols, 57, a member of Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia. "We witness that right in the jail."

Nichols likes to quote Scripture to the prisoners, especially the line from II Corinthians: "The power of Christ can transform anyone, no matter what that person has been or done."

Nichols is paid a little more than $50,000, without benefits -- about half, he says, what he earned as a chief financial officer for an international insurance brokerage. Much of the $81,000 needed to run the program comes from church groups and individuals; none, Nichols says, comes from government at any level.

Nichols likes to walk the halls of the prison with a Bible tucked under his arm, in case somebody stops him to ask a question about Scripture. He long ago lost track of how many hours he works each week and how many tragic stories he has heard.

Move from corporate world

But he prefers this to the corporate world, where he says he often got the feeling that "when you're not here any longer, no one will remember you."

"There's no greater satisfaction than experiencing the grace of God working though you to affect another person's life," he says. "And once you have experienced that, you want to experience it over and over again. That's what keeps me really hungry for the ministry."

The program, which is voluntary, offers Sunday worship services, Bible classes, Christian 12-step programs, group and individual counseling, pastoral counseling, Bible correspondence study, school assistance for the children of inmates and some "after care" for inmates when they get out of prison. Nichols also coordinates -- but does not lead -- a weekly service for the handful of Muslims at the prison.

Nichols does it all with two part-time pastors -- one paid, one unpaid -- and 250 to 300 community volunteers.

Padgett, who says the program is a highlight of prison life, still remembers the first time he did heroin, at age 14. He liked it so much he never stopped.

"I was so young, I actually had a friend holding my hand and I was crying," he says. "I wanted to fit in, but I was actually crying, I was so scared. I was scared to death."

When Padgett came to talk to Nichols recently, he was troubled by a new prescription that he had started taking to quell his anxiety attacks. He was worried he'd become addicted to this the way he has to so many other things: cocaine, heroin, methadone, alcohol.

Nichols told him that it's all right to take the medicine: "God out of his grace has given knowledge to treat you with medicine, and there is nothing morally or spiritually wrong with doing that." After talking and discussing the Bible for 20 minutes or so, the chaplain and the inmate prayed that God would give Padgett strength to resist drugs.

Odds are against inmate

Nichols knows the odds are against Padgett. But he has seen God turn lives around before. He likes to talk about Mary Ndukwe, another heroin-addicted inmate he counseled several years ago. When he first met her, he says, she was in the midst of a painful withdrawal. Her arms were covered with scars from the needles, she had not been eating, and she could not see.

"She came in like walking death," Nichols says. He told her about Jesus and about how God forgives even the most sinful people in the world.

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