The Correct Way: Learning from the Experts

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If correction is the goal of the correctional system, what kind of a prison would best facilitate that? We asked a handful of Christians with extensive experience in the criminal justice system to share their ideas of what an ideal prison would be like.


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    Mary Leftridge Byrd is the assistant secretary of Offender Treatment and Reentry Programs for the Washington State Department of Corrections. She was formerly the deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, a superinten-dent at two state correctional institutions in Pennsylvania, and a warden at a womens prison in Maryland.

    Id rather talk about an ideal community, albeit a coercive one, than an ideal prison. We may be talking about what are commonly known as rules, regulations, and procedures, but framing these necessary boundaries as community standards changes the atmosphere, which then changes the culture, which then changes the conditions in the prison.

    The following guiding principles are, I believe, essential to a healthy community in prison.

    Order without oppression. We cannot have security without programs any more than we can have programs without security. Good security practices should, in part, be based on order emanating from mutual respect and a high level of inmate/staff communication.

    Candor. The administration needs to have the courage to say what needs to be said, clearly, respectfully, and persistently.

    Compassion. We have an obligation to treat folks the way we would want to be treated in similar circumstances. Compassion means infusing the prison culture with possibil-ity and hope. When inmates and staff regard and engage each other with respect, no one loses. After I buried my mother, I received hundreds of cards and other expressions of sym-pathy from the inmates.

    We often act as if incarcerated men and women will never return to communities, but in fact nationally over 90

    percent will. As a superintendent, whenever asked how many inmates I had in my prison, I would answer, None, but you and I have over a thousand. Prisons are extensions of indeed part ofthe larger community. Its not the responsi-bility just of the prison administration, but of all of us.

    Prison staff also need compassion from those outside the world of corrections. We are professionals laboring in an arena still often misunderstood in terms of the demands of the environment, the expectations of the public, and living with the possibility that something could go wrong at any minute. While that is true of life in general, serving in a closed, coercive environment where not one prisoner chooses or wants to be exacts a different toll.

    Competence. A person who steps up to work in or lead a correctional environment has got to be confident and competent and neverI mean neverarrogant. That per-son has to be able to behave in her own office just as she behaves when walking the tier or the yard.

    Creativity. Leading a prison is more art than science. At one point in my life, I thought about being an events plan-ner; add to that my passion for the arts, reading, and lifelong learning and a keen interest in observing people and their behavior, and it makes for a great pallet from which to do this work.

    For years I thought I could change people, but over three decades of corrections Ive come to understand that a large part of my job is to create an environment where men and women can choose for themselves to make changes.

    There is no question in my mind that I have been called to the administration of justice and to create a place of pos-sibility and hope, a place that confronts and never minimizes horrific behavior, a place that never forgets the chaos and crisis visited on victims of crime, a place of accountability and change. For me, thats the essence of corrections.

    ThE CorrECT WaY: LEarninG FroM ThE ExPErTS

    If correction is the goal of the correctional system, what kind of a prison would best facilitate that? We asked a handful of Christians with extensive experience in the criminal justice system to share their ideas of what an ideal prison would be like.

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    commit crime, for whatever reason, need help with correction and transformation from the inside out. Committing crime is a symptom of a deeper issue inside the person, enabled or influ-enced by the external environment. Both have to change.

    My ideal prison is a secure place of healing and transfor-mation, where people find their identity, purpose in life, and spiritual freedom. The lives of those in prison are inextrica-bly and intricately woven with people on the outside. To empower and enable the transformation of those incarcer-ated is a victory for all.

    The conditions within a prison that are most conducive to transforming individuals include availability of Bibles, regular interaction with role models, quiet spaces, freedom to worship God, education that equips and empowers for good, family visitation, and supportive staff. It is also impor-tant that prisoners be given responsibilities and opportunities for meaningful work.

    Wayne Basye has seen the criminal jus-tice system from three distinct angles. As a US Marine in the 1970s, he was a brig guard at a federal prison in Norfolk, Va. In 1988, criminal activity landed him in the California Institution for Men in Chino, where he soon gave his life to Jesus and spent the next three years getting to know him better. Upon his release from

    parole he started a prison ministry at Chino, which is still flourish-ing today. For the past year he has served as chaplain at the Arizona State Prison in Kingman. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) was recently awarded the Innovations in American Govern-ment Award by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. ADOC was recognized for its Getting Ready: Keeping Communities Safe program, which restructures prison life to better resemble life in the community.

    I work for one of the countrys best prisons, where inmates are actually required to improve their lives. We are a teaching facility, with everything from mandatory literacy classes all the way up to assisted college courses. Our theme is Success for Life, and our motto is BIONIC (Believe it or not, I care). From the warden down to the newest security member, the whole staff is committed to these ideals. Inmates are looked upon as our possible next-door neighbor, not as some type of misfit who needs to be taken out of society. Our goal is to restore people back to society in a better condition than they were when they came in, and I believe it is working.

    We also have a fantastic faith-based program that minis-ters to people of a variety of faiths. ADOC, our warden, and deputy wardens support my efforts to turn this prison into

    Rich Rienstra is a pastor/developer of Ionia Prison Congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich. Formed by the vision of pastors, prison officials, ex-offenders, family mem-bers, and concerned citizens from various denominations, Prison Congregations of America ( is dedi-cated to establishing mainline congregations in the prison systems of every state in the

    US (they are currently in eight). Rev. Rienstras son, Troy, is serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison.

    Restorative justice and mercy would be the essential ingre-dients of an ideal prison. Persons entering such a prison would be actively involved in making plans for their eventual reen-try back into society. The faith community would adopt brothers and sisters into their communions, becoming part-ners in worship. Incentives would be offered to live in recon-ciliation with their brothers and sisters in prison. Members of outside churches would participate with prisoners in work and educational programs both during confinement and upon release. Such relationships would be cultivated by a prison congregation that would have the involvement of a minimum of 12 members from church clusters. The clusters would be trained to develop relationships with persons in prison as well as with those who return to home, church, and communities.

    People who believe our nation is soft on prisoners and that programs and incentives only spoil them do not know the circumstances of individual prisoners. My wife, Carol, and I just got off the phone with our son, who lamented the lack of silence in his prison. At our worship service in Ionia we have a moment of silence, and many inmates say that this moment is one of the more moving elements of worship. Another is the childrens moment. Anyone who hears the prayers for prisoners children will soon understand that pris-oners are not spoiled.

    Joanna Thomas is the director of the Centre for Hope and Transformation in Cape Town, South Africa (read her story on page 20).

    An organization can have the best policies and programs in place, but without visionary leadership, and with-out the faith and determination to

    achieve the vision, things can actually get worse.I see prisons as universities and hospitals, places for edu-

    cation, healing, and reconciliation for both the incarcerated and those on the outside coming in. People who choose to

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    a place of faith. In my opinion, an ideal prison would look a lot like Kingman. Its not perfect I dont think any prison can ever be perfect but it addresses the question, Why do people become incarcerated in the first place? The answer is less complicated than you might think. People become incarcerated because they are lacking something. That some-thing is different for each person, but each person is lacking something. The ideal prison offers programs that fulfill as many needs for as many people as possible. The old adage If you teach a man to fish you can feed him for a lifetime is especially important in the case of inmates, many if not most of whom have never graduated from high school. At our facility they are required to study for their GED. Many people have been so indoctrinated into the drug culture, and yet they know nothing about what drugs do to the body. Similarly they do not know how to stop the cycle of abuse. At Kingman they attend mandatory classes to learn more about the prob-lem for which many of them are incarcerated.

    Its also true that you can lead a horse to water, but you cant make him drink, so programs wont work for every-one. Some people are lacking in heart, and only God can change a heart, but that is where I come in. Our prison has a serious faith-based group of inmates as well as over 60 community volunteers who come in for services or coun-seling. Without a firm foundation of faith, change can be elusive. But I have seen hardened men softened, reshaped, and renewed by the power of God. Thats why Im a chaplain.

    To punitively minded people who are critical of programs, I say, Look down your city block. One in every 10 house-holds now has a close family member somewhere in prison. Someday most will be released into society. When they are, do you want them to be a more productive person or do you want them to be worse than when they began their prison term? The punishment for their crime is loss of time. Too many people think that prisoners somehow enjoy their incarceration away from their families and their friends. Believe me, they do not. What they need what anyone who is struggling to survive needs is help. I believe that a prison should offer that help.

    Most people come into prison lacking respect for them-selves and others. An ideal prison would treat them with respect and teach them how to get along in a world which they have never really felt a part of. When an inmate is treated without respect and does not have the ability to bet-ter his situation he becomes bitter and more unruly. It is important for all of us that the inmate learns to respect him-self and others and enters the community as a responsible part of that community. Remember, prisons are run by the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Punish-ment. Punishment does not work, so let us get behind the real problems and on to real solutions.

    Alvin R. Joyner is serving his 39th year of a life sentence. He currently resides at Chester State Correctional Institute out-side Philadelphia, Pa., where he mentors younger prisoners, participates in work-shops with local university students, and in 2003 played a leading role in the theater production Living with Life.

    A prison should be like a department store, with something appropriate for everyone. If a prisoner has drug addictions, he needs help with that. If he has violent tendencies, he needs those issues addressed. If hes illiterate, he needs education. Every inmate is serving timethats his punishmentso beyond that, retribution has no place in prison, where the goal should be transformation, which is a process.

    When young men come in today, I try to help them take responsibility for their lives and stop blaming everyone else. I tell them, The real problem is the person you see in the mirror every morning.

    Prisoners need to be given as many choices and responsi-bilities as possible, so they can practice being responsible. Otherwise, its too easy to become institutionalized. Were told when to eat, where to walk, how to dress some guys get so used to prison life they cant imagine another way; they forget who they are. You see a guy with a haircut that looks just terrible on him, but he explains, Thats the style every-one else is wearing. Inmates need to be taught to be leaders,

    Continued on page 39.

    Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out by Lennie Spitale (B&H Publishing Group, 2002)

    Church of the Second Chance: A Faith-Based Approach to Prison Reform by Jens Soering (Lantern Books, 2008)

    Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton (University of Arizona Press, 2007)


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    out the lyrics crux, a line Sam none-theless sings with the lightest touch. Looking for the lamb thats hidden in the cross, the finders lost. Let the Is she

    still a Christian? crowd chew on that one while those who have loved too much, and now must go on alone, do so with Sam Phillips music up above their heads.

    J.D. Buhl appears in the music issue of Geez Magazine (Fall 2008). He teaches junior high English and literature at Queen of All Saints School in Concord, Calif.

    ment. Theres an opportunity to build a relationship and influence. I take it slowly, step by step, and once theres trust anything becomes possible. Someone asked one of the men why he trusted me, and his response was, Well, she trusted me first.

    Her approach for building trust is remarkably simple. I ask them how they are doing and inquire about their families. I just try to normalize the situation as much as possible. I ask them when their birthday is. I record their birthdays and then bring them a cardthat usually blows their mind! If I hear there has been a death or illness in their family, I will bring a sympathy card. Just doing the normal things, things you and I on the outside take for granted, makes huge inroads in the prison. Keeping promises is also crucial.

    What is it that draws Thomas back to the prison week after week, year after year? The Bible makes...