Prison ministry program helps inmates find faith behind bars

acornejo@thetribunenews.comFebruary 22, 2014 

John Sims, 40, has spent most of his adult life in prison for crimes he committed fueled by an addiction to methamphetamine.

The mild-spoken inmate at California Men’s Colony is serving a 23-year sentence for first-degree burglary. He anticipates release in 2025.

Two years ago, Sims lost hope and was ready to die. He stopped taking the medications needed to control his HIV and vowed to succumb to the illness that would follow as the disease progressed.

Then he found God.

“When God found me, I was suicidal,” Sims said. “The years ahead of me were daunting, but not anymore.”

Sims is one of more than 40 inmates enrolled in a new program at the prison called the Urban Ministry Institute, an intensive four-year program that offers seminary-level curriculum. The goal is to transform the inmates into Christian spiritual leaders who will not only help transform prison culture from the inside but also the urban areas where prisoners will return after they are released.

Philanthropist B. Wayne Hughes Jr., who has ties to San Luis Obispo County, committed $5 million to the Urban Ministry program in 2012 to bring it into all California prisons. Hughes started the Serving California Foundation to sponsor the ministry program and to create community partnerships to assist graduates of the program with re-entry once they leave prison.

“The system is broken, and here was this program where men and women were committing their lives to God,” Hughes said. “I think of it like a seed. You don’t really know what the plant is going to look like, but it is going to grow. These inmates are embedded in something I think is bigger than themselves — bigger than all of us.”

Prayer in prison

During a recent visit to California Men’s Colony, Hughes sat in the front pew of the prison’s chapel, bowed his head and prayed alongside the inmates. Dressed in their blue prison-issued clothes, Curtis McCowen and James Dale stood at the chapel altar and sang gospel songs.

Their fellow inmates, also their classmates, sang along, many of them swaying their bodies to the melody and raising their hands to a God many of them now credit with their redemption.

Inmate Carrington Russelle then gave a sermon, touching on the difficulty of departing from a past bound by crime to a future of redemption. Inside the chapel the bustle of the surrounding prison was unnoticed. Inmates, once adversaries in the prison yard and cellblocks because of the color of their skin or the crime they committed, sat next to each other in prayer.

The service was only a small part of what the program entails. Each inmate is expected to complete 16 courses, each 10 weeks long, in subjects of biblical studies, urban mission, Christian ministry and theology and ethics.

The program also includes a module that teaches inmates how to dress, how to speak, how to manage money once they are released.

“We are there for you and we’ve got your back,” Phil Dunn, president of Serving California, told the inmates during the recent visit. Sims said the fellowship created in the program carries beyond the walls of the classroom or chapel where the inmates gather to pray.

“Some of us sit together in the bleachers in the yard and preach. We eat together,” Sims said. “This Christmas we hustled $200 and bought toothpaste and soap and created care packages for people who don’t have anything.”

Yet, it’s not always an easy path to follow.

“To be in prison and be a Christian can sometimes be considered cowardly because we don’t cuss, we try to turn the other cheek. Some people in here see that as shameful, but we don’t care.”

The program has given Sims something to focus on — and hope of a future, he said. In the past, he was a methamphetamine addict who would steal from other people to feed his drug habit. In prison, he continued his habit by doing heroine and methamphetamine and smoking pot. He said he has now been drug-free for two years. He hopes to one day be a minister.

“It’s given me discipline,” Sims said. “It helps to know that there are people who think about us and believe we can be something different.”

Opportunity for impact

More than 60 percent of inmates released from California prisons will return there within a three-year period, according to a study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“Every one of our students, and most people in the California penitentiary system, know they screwed up,” Hughes said. “No matter how we feel about it, 90 to 95 percent of those people are going to get out.”

Hughes said he was disenchanted with national politics and wanted to offer whatever help he could to a program that directly impacted others positively.

“My internal compass had always been to start where your feet are,” Hughes said.

The California native, who resides in Malibu, owns a home at Nacimiento Lake and the SkyRose Ranch in San Miguel, where he hosts military veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Hughes learned of the prison ministry program, it was only at a few California prisons. With his multimillion-dollar commitment, the program is now in 19 of 28 prisons.

“We don’t just write checks,” Hughes said. “The message is that people matter. Today’s criminal was almost in every case yesterday’s victim.”

Many of the inmates who join the program do so with a fourth-grade reading level.

“It’s not that they are stupid, it is that they haven’t had opportunities,” said Dave Dove, who oversees the ministry in prisons throughout Northern California. “Ecclesiastic education today is typically a very solitary endeavor. This is very clearly a group project. We are all in this together, and no one gets left behind.”

Dove said the program is just a starting point.

“The bigger challenge is bridging the program back into the community and finding churches that will receive them and then take it to the next level,” Dove said. “We are pretty good at locking people up and keeping them there. We are not as good at welcoming them back to the community and supporting them in a way that keeps them from returning.”

Some inmates enrolled in the program, like Robert Morales, 55, may never make it out of prison but are challenged to change the culture inside.

“Prison culture is such that men are taught to isolate,” Dove said. “That is the way they survive in a brutal and repressive environment. This program cuts completely against the grain of that culture to create an environment where men are willing to be honest with each other about their deepest struggles and needs.”

Morales, who is serving a 35-years-to-life sentence after getting a third strike for armed robbery, said the program has bolstered his confidence and helped keep him away from trouble.

“For 16 years I was continually in trouble and deemed a troublemaker,” Morales said. “I was left abandoned to the system.”

Morales pointed to the track marks visible among the tattoos on his forearms and talked of a past when heroine was what mattered. His descent into a life of crime and drugs began when he was a young boy and found the body of his murdered and raped mother. He served time at more than 17 prisons in three states before being transferred to California Men’s Colony last year and enrolling in the ministry program.

“Prison is my ministry now,” Morales said. “I have attained a place in life where I am comfortable I may die in prison. I am here for a sacred reason — to call others to God.”


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