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Hernando County Jail's faith-based program points inmates toward rehabilitation

BROOKSVILLE

Someday, Jake George would like to return to jail. But preferably as a volunteer instead of as an inmate.

"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything," said George, who was arrested in May on five criminal charges, including grand theft and possession of a firearm by a felon. "Not one day in here has been hard."

George is one of more than 40 inmates at the Hernando County Jail who are part of a new rehabilitation and re-entry program that was recently implemented by Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that runs the facility.

Corrections Corporation has partnered with Alpha Ministries USA, a nondenominational Christian organization, to launch the "Alpha for Prisons" project at three of its 65 facilities across the country.

Company officials say they hope inmates who participate in the faith-based program will emerge with the insight and life skills that will keep them from coming back.

"When an inmate leaves the jail, we hope that we've provided the kind of assistance to further ensure that he or she does not return," said Dennis Bradby, vice president of inmate programs for Corrections Corporation.

In the Alpha program, inmates live together in a specified unit, or "pod," at the Hernando jail. Led by a group of trained volunteers, the inmates study lessons on anger management, addiction prevention and parenting skills, among other topics. Once the inmates are released from jail, the volunteers help place them in jobs and reunite them with their families.

The project is funded through donations solicited by the Alpha volunteers. In Hernando, most of the volunteers come from the prison ministry at Grace World Outreach Church in Brooksville.

"We give (the inmates) some basic life principles that can help them upon re-entry," said the Rev. Tom Walter, volunteer outside coordinator for Alpha Ministries USA. "The idea is to make as many of their days inside (jail) as much like they'll be on the outside."

At the Hernando jail, 42 inmates have been assigned to the B pod. The unit can hold as many as 48, though jail officials plan to move the inmates to a larger pod that can accommodate as many as 60 inmates.

To get into the program, inmates must request the pod assignment and cannot be considered a "high custody" offender.

Since starting the program in Hernando on Aug. 1, jail officials said they have seen a noticeable decline in the inmates' behavioral problems. Warden Russell Washburn said there's only been one disciplinary incident in the pod over that time.

The B pod isn't that much different from the other pods in the county jail.

The walls are covered with colorful signs offering encouragement: "I'm Never Alone" and "Jesus: The Calm in the Chaos." There's a small strip of carpet near the entrance of the pod, a homey touch in a place where none generally exist. And there's a boom box blasting some gospel tunes.

"The pod is their community," said jail chaplain John Hope. "We want them to be comfortable in here."

Over at the county courthouse, however, some public defenders and defense attorneys have been grumbling at some of the program's unintended consequences. Several of the Alpha participants, they said, have become more difficult to advise since moving into the pod.

"Sometimes, the defendants can become filled with a religious fervor that clouds their judgment when dealing with legal advice," said Assistant Public Defender Michael Amico. "You know, the Holy Spirit may save your soul from hell. But it will not save your body from prison."

Amico and others took great pains to say they were not against Alpha or a faith-based re-entry program, but rather were concerned that inmates were getting bad advice from peers.

Washburn said he wasn't aware of those concerns.

"This is the first I've heard of any concerns there," he said.

Beyond those concerns, Corrections Corporation officials said it's too early to know what kind of effect the Alpha program has had on the participants. Few participants have been out of jail long enough to draw any definite conclusions.

Since being released, several former inmates have started attending weekly services at Grace World. Volunteers hope to maintain that bond with the offenders, giving them a support system for when times get tough.

"If we can grab them at jail, then they're not going to go to prison," said Elena Bozzi, coordinator of Grace World's prison and jail ministry. "That's my hope and vision."

Meanwhile, George may soon get his chance to prove the program works. He remains behind bars in lieu of $15,000 bail and has an appearance in court on Oct. 30. As his chance at freedom draws near, George remains focused on assisting those he will leave behind.

"I've got the desire to help," George said. "I think I'm ready for it."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Hernando County Jail's faith-based program points inmates toward rehabilitation 10/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 1:17pm]
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