Inmates of any faith are encouraged to apply to the first “Faith and Character-Based” prison in Georgia, at Walker State Prison, located in the northwest corner of the state. The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is seeking to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism through this newly established program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity, and faith.
An important part of GCO’s research within its Prisoner Reentry Initiative involves visiting correctional facilities throughout the state to view firsthand what programs and services GDC offers to prepare offenders to transition back into society. This varies greatly by the quality of education, training, and treatment they receive during their incarceration. Some facilities are better than others, and this prison impressed us as having great potential for success.
Changed Expectations: A Prison of Hope
Pulling up to Walker State Prison, it appeared that the prison was just like any other from the outside: razor-wire fence, guard tower, patrol car, lock-down facilities, and an overall feeling of intimidation. However, inside the prison, the atmosphere was quite different from what I expected. We were greeted by respectful inmates with head nods and hand-shakes, who appeared somewhat happy to see visitors. From observing a group of men in a classroom taking guitar lessons to seeing a large mural in the cafeteria depicting a scene from the Garden of Eden, an air of hope seemed to permeate the otherwise grim state facility.
What the GDC started in recent years with a dozen or so faith and character-based dorms throughout the state has evolved into this new two-year initiative being tested in Georgia. The success of these initial dorms paved the way for expanding the program into a prison-wide capacity at Walker in August 2011. This idea was first tested by Lawtey Correctional Institution in Starke, Florida, whose faith and character-based program has shown to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism since 2003.
Once inmates complete the two-year program, they will either transition into society (via parole, probation, or maxing-out) or transfer to another prison to finish their sentence. Participation in the faith-based component of the program is optional to inmates, but it can be readily accessed through taking various elective classes that are offered. Further, volunteers from the community come into the prison to mentor and help inmates grow in their respective faiths.
Culture of Reform = Unlocked Lockers
At the core of the program is the idea that inmates should be men of character. This is not a policy that is forced from the top-down; rather, it is a goal that each inmate internalizes personally.The pilot group of men adopted articles that govern the way they interact with each other and painted them on the cafeteria wall to be on display for all to see. They even decided to keep all of the lockers in their living quarters unlocked as a reminder to be men of integrity. This powerful symbol – exemplified in the unlocked locker – shows the extent to which the inmates strive to create a culture of reform that is distinct from other prisons.
The staff and inmates at Walker State Prison are cultivating something that is indeed unique among Georgia prisons, as well as in the country at large.
The chaplain shared with us that sometimes men come into his office crying because they feel a sense of release from the oppression that marks the prisons from where they came.
It often takes time for inmates who recently transfer into Walker to adjust to the new prison culture. However, once this starts to happen, the shell around their heart begins to crack, and for the first time in years an inmate may be seen with a smile on his face, finding a ray of hope during this dark time in his life.
During our visit, I had the opportunity to attend one of the elective classes offered at the prison, taught by volunteer Bruce King. He provides valuable assessments to measure inmates’ vocational competencies and gifts, where they discover the type of jobs for which they are a good fit. They also learn how to reframe their story in a positive light and explain to employers why they are the best candidates for a particular job. This seminar gives inmates priceless tools to overcome formidable barriers to employment (such as getting hired with a criminal record), as well as the confidence to know what they are naturally good at doing.
Much more than seminars are offered. In fact, the entire prison has an educational focus. The inmates spend their day taking both general education and elective classes. The general education classes have proven to be very successful in enabling inmates to acquire a GED certification. Elective classes are more faith-focused, allowing inmates to choose classes based on their respective faiths. Currently Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Wiccan faiths are represented.
The electives are facilitated entirely by inmates and volunteers, as the state does not provide funding or staff to run the faith and character-based program. Two electives at the prison, Greek and Hebrew classes, are taught by seminary-trained inmates from Phillips State Prison (this prison offers courses from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). This model of inmate-facilitation provides a great opportunity for inmates to assume leadership roles, to grow in confidence, to hone their professional skills, and to positively impact their fellow inmates.
Beautiful Trash and Second Chances
The counselor at the prison introduced us to several inmates throughout our tour, and one of these men supervised the art program. We had the privilege of seeing pictures of some of the masterpieces this group produced. The majority of their paintings depicted scenes from the Bible, such as Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Daniel in the lion’s den. They paint the murals on bed sheets and donate them to churches, foster homes, vacation Bible schools, etc. The group also uses recycled cardboard to build creative works of art, including a toy castle, motorcycle, model plane, and a life-sized grandfather clock with coke insignia all over it (this piece looked so good that it’s now sitting in the Coca-Cola Museum).
The supervisor of this group of artists told us that the message they want to convey through their artwork is that God takes what the world deems as trash and turns it into something beautiful.
It is this same message of redemption that they hope to communicate with their lives.
On a larger scale, at Walker inmates are beginning to see what is possible as they develop a new way of thinking and believing, recovering what has been marred from years of destructive thought patterns. They are seeing their worth as human beings who have been given unique gifts and abilities, and recognizing fresh opportunities where they can serve other people.
For offenders who desire a second chance at life, Walker State Prison is a good place to begin this journey.