Jail ministry seeks to put inmates on path to reform

Religion: A faith-based group gives inmates at the Howard County Detention Center a direction for change.

July 19, 2002|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Merton Teixeira grabs the microphone as the 21 men sitting around the small chapel bow their heads.

After reading a passage from Revelations, Teixeira prays for those about to be tried in court, imploring that the judges and attorneys show compassion.

The prayer, sandwiched between a song of praise and liberal shouts of "Amen," is not unusual for this congregation.

All are inmates at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.

They are attending a weekly Bible class sponsored by the Christian Jail Ministry, which has provided chaplain services to inmates and staff members since its founding in 1979.

"I come to get back on track," says inmate Thomas Young Conley III, 30, who was recently charged with possession of marijuana. "Without the jail ministry, this is just a room with a lock. It's very uplifting. As long as we go, technically we may be locked up. But, we're free on the inside."

Chaplain Guy Nichols directs the Christian Jail Ministry. It offers worship services, pastoral counseling, Christian 12-step addiction programs, Bible correspondence courses and a Christian poetry class.

"Those inmates intensely involved in faith-based ministry showed a much less recidivism rate than those with no involvement or who are marginally involved," says Nichols, 60, a Southern Baptist minister who lives in Columbia. "God's there - he'll help them if they want to be helped. You hope this is the time they want to be helped."

This week, 257 inmates were housed at the detention center.

"The jail ministry has done an excellent job in counseling the inmate population and in giving them opportunities and direction for change," says Melanie C. Pereira, director of corrections.

`The mercy of God'

While other faiths are represented in the jail ministry, the Christian Jail Ministry offers the most services. Nichols' assistant chaplain is the Rev. Herbert Gross.

Visiting ministers include the Rev. Walter Rodriguez, who ministers to INS detainees.

Nichols is also aided by 24 volunteers who conduct one-on-one discipleship with inmates; Anne Dutra, who ministers to the 16 to 20 female inmates; and Teixeira, who counsels and teaches Bible study.

"We're here to lift them up and encourage them to become better people," says Teixeira, 67, of Columbia. "You're showing them the mercy of God's word."

Jared Howard, who assists in work-release Bible study, first visited after a congregant at his Bowie church solicited volunteers.

"Nobody wanted to do it, except for me and a friend," says Howard, 23. "Oftentimes, people forget about the inmates or think they're bad. But a lot are victims of circumstances. You can't judge anyone. They need to be shown respect and we provide that."

The Christian Jail Ministry's annual operating budget is an estimated $90,000. About 55 percent of its funds are obtained from individual donors, while Howard County churches donate 40 percent.

The remaining 5 percent comes from service organizations and the ministry's annual fund-raising banquet.

Nichols, an Oklahoma native, was ordained in 1995 - two days after he left his position as a corporate executive - and joined the jail ministry that week. In 1997, he became the full-time chaplain.

The job never ends

"The work is exhausting, but satisfying," says Nichols. "We don't see the end results because inmates go on and you don't hear from them. But some who have kept in contact write that they're still doing well and are thankful for the experience here."

Yet even inmates sincere about change may fall back into old patterns when they return home.

"That's what brings them back - either they can't or are unwilling to separate from the old neighborhood, old environment, old friends," Nichols says. "There can always be bad influences, but, ultimately, they're responsible for how they act. And until they accept responsibility, they will never turn the corner."

Nichols helped Charles Mankin, who was convicted of writing two bad checks, enroll in a Bible correspondence school.

"[Jail] affords a lot of time for studying," says Mankin, 34. "I'm maturing while I'm in jail. ... There's got to be more to life than being chased by police.

"I read the Bible every day or a good Christian book or self-help book. I'm offended by guys watching TV or playing cards. You could be making better use of your time."

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