Saving Grace – Style Weekly
From Style Weekly – May 1, 2013 – by James A. Bacon
Karl Green recalls committing his last act of violence as if it were yesterday. Three years ago he was serving time in the Richmond City Jail. A veteran of Virginia’s correctional system, he had a simple survival strategy: Don’t take nothing off nobody. “I was like a beast in the jungle,” Green says. “I had to become wild to survive.”
When he wanted to watch something on TV, he changed the channel. If someone didn’t like it, he threw the TV on the floor. He used the phone whenever he wanted. If someone objected, he yanked the phone out of the wall. Kindergarten rules don’t apply in jail, he says: “There are wolves snapping at you!”
Prison authorities had stuck Green in a small, high-security tier for beating up a man in a poker game. The street enforcer, now 52, quickly established his dominance over the younger men; they called him “uncle,” a term of respect given to older inmates. Then a new guy showed up. This dude was big and strong, and he acted like he ran the show. Picking fights, he intimidated the younger guys. “He thinks he’s tough,” Green told himself. “I’ll show him who the real five-star general is.”
One day the new guy was watching television. Green turned the knob to a different channel.
“He said, ‘Man, what you doing?’ I said, ‘Nigger, I don’t want to look at that.'”
He changed the channel. Green changed it back. “I said, ‘I know you’re a talker now. We don’t have to do the dance with the TV. I’m challenging you. I’m going to beat your ass to submission.'”
Half a lifetime of heroin addiction had sapped some of Green’s natural strength, but he still had quick hands and lots of street-fighting experience. After some more posturing and trash-talking, the two men grappled. The younger man tried to grab him in a bear hug. Green hit him with an upper cut and again in the cheek. He slammed his head into the prison bars and, as the fight rolled around the tier, into the commode.
“He started crying, started pleading to the little dudes to pull me off him. I was stomping him on the back. He rolled under the bed. ‘Uncle, I don’t want no more. You’re the best.'”
One of the younger men in the cell asked Green to stop. And he did. He sat down on a table. “I started to cool off,” Green says. “The blood-red veil came off from my eyes like a curtain lifting.”
That night he lay in his bed. “I prayed that Jesus would come into my life and I would never have to do another violent act,” he says. He was getting bone-tired of dealing drugs, beating people up, floating from place to place and having few true friends. He stayed up that night reading the Bible. The next morning, the guards said, “Pack your bags.” They were moving him to a different tier, the so-called McCovery tier.
The McCovery tier was a section of the jail where outsiders put on self-improvement programs, including Narcotics Anonymous, anger management, Bible study and preparing for life on the outside. Green fell into a circle of men involved in a program that later would be called Kingdom Life Ministries.
“I got serious about reading the Bible,” he says. “The more I did, the more I saw my life becoming free, clear, with more promise, more hope and more purpose.” He says he started shedding his aggressive behavior “like a snakeskin.”
After a while, the authorities moved Green to the state prison system. He missed the fellowship of the inmates on the McCovery tier, and worried what would happen when he was released. If he moved in with family or friends, as he’d done before, Green feared he would drift back to the streets. He wanted to reconnect with the men on the program tier. As luck would have it, when his sentence was up, Kingdom Life Ministries had an empty slot at its transition house near Virginia Union University.
Moving in, Green committed to remain there a year and promised to live by the strict house rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no women. He studied the Bible and went to church. He found a job, went to work every day and paid his share of the rent. After his year was up, he found his own place.
Does Green ever fear he’ll slip back into his old ways? “That doesn’t even cross my mind. I won’t go back,” he says. “I’m three years clean, and I’m not going to give that up. I want to stay in God’s grace until he calls me home.”
Virginians spend $1 billion on the state correctional system and many millions of dollars more on local jails. One reason is that there are so many repeat offenders. When released, inmates of jails and prisons get the proverbial $25 and bus ticket home. All too often, they gravitate to their old haunts and old associates, and fall back into drug abuse and other habits that got them into trouble.
According to research conducted by Sarah Scarbrough for her doctoral dissertation at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kingdom Life Ministries has built a promising track record during its brief history. Tracking some 500 men who participated in the program for three and a half years, Scarbrough found that only 34 percent were re-incarcerated during the study period, compared with 44 percent for jail inmates as a whole.
As part of her dissertation, Scarbrough calculated that the program’s reduced recidivism rate saved the city roughly $7 million during the study period, plus nearly $1 million in lower medical charges because of fewer men hospitalized from fights. Before the ministry moved in, assaults were a routine event on the tier. Since then, she says the number has fallen to zero. If the commonwealth could replicate those results across the state, she says, it could save hundreds of millions of dollars yearly.
While finishing her doctorate, Scarbrough took a full-time job as director of Virginia’s Executive Mansion, but she still devotes considerable time to Kingdom Life Ministries. Serving on the board of directors, she and other board members are working to expand the organization. They have recruited prison-ministry veteran Harry Greene (no relation to Karl Green) as organizing director. During a 20-year period he’d grown Richmond-based Good News Jail and Prison Ministry into an international organization that has placed chaplains in jails in 21 countries.
“KLM is the best-kept secret in Richmond,” Greene says. “The program is outstanding.” By September, he aims to have built an organizational structure and developed a fundraising plan. The long-term goal is to operate 15 transition houses throughout the Richmond region and Central Virginia.
The Richmond jail is overcrowded, averaging 1,400 inmates per day in a 1960s-vintage facility designed for 856 people. When he took over in 2006, Sheriff C.T. Woody says inmates slept on the floors and wandered the halls freely. Visitors smoked pot in the parking lot and smuggled drugs into the jail. Inmates extorted other inmates, Woody says. Violence was endemic.
The sheriff says he instituted sweeping changes to restore discipline in the jail. In what he calls “one of the best moves I made,” he expanded the presence of faith-based ministries. When he arrived, only two chaplains were visiting the jails. Now there are 86 religious organizations delivering 130 programs and dispatching some 70 to 80 chaplains to minister to inmate needs both spiritual and practical.
The McShin Foundation, founded by Richmonder John Shinholser, was one of the first groups to respond to Sheriff Woody’s call. Shinholser, a former addict, has made drug and alcohol rehabilitation his life’s mission.
“Jails aren’t what they were 30 or 40 years ago,” Shinholser says. “They’re not full of criminals. They’re full of addicts who do criminal things. … The criminal justice system is focused on the war on drugs. The war on drugs is not the solution. When you treat addicts and alcoholics like they have a disease, you’ll get a better outcome than if you treat them like a bad guy.”
In 2007 Shinholser introduced the McCovery program to the F2 tier of the city jail. By August 2009 the program experienced enough success to sustain itself as a freestanding not-for-profit company. After turnover at the executive-director level and the engagement of new board members, the program became Kingdom Life Ministries in October 2010.
Sheriff Woody is a big supporter. The program has helped transform “the worst of the worst,” he says. “That was the most feared tier in here. … The program has taught these men to believe in themselves, respect others and attend to family. It works miracles.”
One morning in February more than 100 men took their seats in what is now referred to as the program tier of the city jail. Arrayed in orderly rows, they wear uniform jumpsuits with blue bottoms, yellow tops and white T-shirts. They remain quiet and respectful when Scarbrough and Harry Greene address them as part of the ministry’s regular program.
They all know Scarbrough. The young brunette has spent hundreds of hours visiting the jail, and seems at ease surrounded by dozens of inmates, including many convicted of violent crimes. In her remarks, she describes recent efforts made by Gov. Bob McDonnell to restore civil rights to nonviolent felons, and then turns over the floor to Greene.
“I’ve been where you’re sitting,” Greene tells the inmates. He explains how as a young man he ended up in Arlington County jail facing as much as 50 years behind bars. “I made bad choices,” he says. “I wasn’t living, I was existing.” After years of disbelief, he decided to get right with God, and God gave him a second chance. He got out of jail in 1972 with a full pardon from the governor.
“I don’t want to know how bad you are,” Greene says to a rapt audience. “I want to know if you want to change.” He tells them how difficult it will be on their own. “The hardest place to change is on the street,” he says. “The old gang will welcome you right back. But you can say, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.'”
After Greene’s pep talk, one man after another rises to give testimony.
“My life has been in turmoil because of the use of drugs,” says one inmate identifying himself as Lamont. “I know I can change my life by changing my thought processes and believing in a higher power.”
“KLM helps us to see a different way,” says another man, Ricky. “We learn to put God first. We are all for a change. We can’t do nothing on our own — we need to plug into another source. I’m talking about having faith in something greater than myself.”
Another describes how he had no support growing up. “I turned to the street. I drowned the pain with drugs. Coming into this program is giving me hope to live a life without drugs,” the inmate says. “When I feel discouraged, these guys help pick me up.”
There is no street language — no profanity, no terms of abuse. It’s the language of healers and therapists, Christianity and self-improvement.
The men express a desire to change their lives. But they face long odds. It’s difficult for anyone to find a job these days, and even more so for these men. Few have completed high school. When inmates get out of jail, they often have no money for clothes, a car or a deposit on an apartment. Many have accumulated child support obligations they’ll never be able to pay off. For many, the path of least resistance is to move back to the old neighborhood with a family member or girlfriend. It’s all too easy to fall back into their old ways.
Kingdom Life Ministries short-circuits that process by helping inmates develop re-entry plans — preparing for the job search, getting a driver’s license, finding a place to live and reconnecting with family members. The program also provides basic life skills, emphasizing anger management, communicating emotions and accepting the obligations of fatherhood. “Drugs and alcohol are only 10 percent of the problem,” Scarbrough says. “It’s the anger and character flaws that lead to destructive behavior.”
What sets the ministry apart is its peer-based model, she says. Rather than relying upon credentialed substance-abuse professionals, few of whom have had any personal experience with, say, heroin or cocaine addiction, the program recruits former inmates who know firsthand the pain and temptation that substance abusers experience. When someone suffers withdrawal symptoms, Scarbrough says, they would rather talk to someone who has walked in their shoes.
Four years ago, Timothy Green (no relation to Karl Green or Harry Greene) found himself sitting in jail, a three-time loser, looking at 20 years to life for attempted murder of a police officer “after a night of drinking and drugging and more drinking.” His marriage was in ruins. Two of his children refused to speak to him anymore. In desperation, he turned to Kingdom Life Ministries.
The program turned his life around. “My heart felt alive,” he says. “God did not create me to spend the rest of my life in prison.” When he completed the program in the Richmond jail, the authorities reduced the charges against him and released him.
Green didn’t want to go back to his old haunts. “If you’ve burned your ties to your family and good friends, if you’ve lied to them, stole from them and misrepresented yourself to them, you will end up with other criminals, who will accept you,” he says. So he moved into the ministry’s transition house as a safe haven.
Viewing it from the outside, you’d never imagine that the transition house has nine men living there. The house contains a small kitchen, a dining room with space for a desk and a computer, and a living room with big, stuffed sofas and a big-screen TV. The men keep their bedrooms as neat as a pin.
The ministry provides structure. Everyone must get a job, or do community service. The men attend Bible study in the morning and go to church on Sundays. They each pay $300 a month toward room and board.
There, with the support of the other men in the program, Green stayed clean. He reconciled with his family. He got a job with Ashley Furniture. When the retail chain opened a new store on Laburnum Avenue, it appointed him store manager. Today, he serves as an inspiration to the other members of the transition house — a shining example of how someone can turn his life around.
Scarbrough says the structure provided by the transition house is key. Some halfway houses have few rules, or don’t enforce them. “They have as much drugs and prostitution as on the street,” she says. The Kingdom Life program enforces high standards. “If you don’t have a job,” she says, “you’re out.”
Virginia politicians have long held a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude toward criminals. That’s changing. In 2010, Gov. McDonnell established the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council with the goal of reducing recidivism and easing the re-entry of prisoners into society. He’s expedited the process for prisoners to obtain identification cards and drivers’ licenses before they leave jail and has pushed through mandatory re-entry savings accounts that set aside a portion of funds inmates earn while in lockup to give them nest eggs when they’re released.
Those measures just scratch the surface, though. The causes of recidivism run deep. Trouble is, no one keeps track of what works and what doesn’t. The Old Dominion hasn’t kept pace with the leading states in implementing evidence-based practices to drive down recidivism, Scarbrough says.
While her research shows that Kingdom Life Ministries does a better job than several other treatment programs in Richmond in keeping men out of jail, Scarbrough concedes that’s just one study in one city, and was conducted without benefit of apples-to-apples data for many organizations. The sad truth, she says, is that no one really tracks which programs work. Too many taxpayer dollars — and the lives of too many damaged and dangerous men — are at stake.