What I Learned From Eight Hours in a Maximum Security Prison


Robert Parham, center, interviews prison volunteer Dan Ashby while Cliff Vaughn runs camera. In the background, Mike Freeman, left, tutors an offender. (Photo: Rich Larsen)
Mitch told his nephew he would be back home in a couple of hours. That was in 1985. He will not return home until 2034.

I met Mitch at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Ind., last week, where we were working on our forthcoming documentary on prison and faith.

Wabash is predominantly a maximum-security facility with towering lights and glistening silver barbwire rolls. Three rows of fencing encircle the prison. The inner row doesn't have enough electricity to kill an individual, but enough to make someone who touches the wire wish they were dead, so we were told.

A railroad track parallels one side of the compound. A four-lane highway is on the other side. Fields of soybean and corn border the prison grounds. It's small-town Indiana.

The prison staff numbers 650, not counting the host of contract workers and some 300 volunteers. The overwhelming numbers of volunteers are people of faith.

Our host, a correction official, reminded us that 97 percent of the 2,100 inmates will return home.

Mitch Swallows is one of those who wants to go home.

We met him inside the prison dorm that houses the PLUS program. Dressed in prison khakis, he readily shared with pride what gave him great joy.

After we had visited for a while, he agreed to speak on-camera about why he was in prison.

"I got arrested in 1985 for rape, attempted murder and criminal confinement. I have approximately, at this point, 20 years to go," he said.

"My first 10 years, it was kind of a blur. I remained in the same behaviors I brought into prison with me. The drugs, the alcohol and stuff like that. It just slowly started occurring to me that, one day, I will be released. And I'm hoping sooner than it's set for, but I've got to work towards that," said Mitch, who has earned in prison his paralegal certificate, an associate of arts degree and almost a bachelor of arts degree.

He added, "And you can't exhibit those behaviors up until it's time to be released and then think you can change all of a sudden. So although I'm in prison, it doesn't mean I can't do positive stuff or work on myself and be a person that my family is proud of."

What in heaven's name can someone sentenced to 50 years for attempted murder, criminal confinement and rape do that's positive? To make his family proud?

Actually, what Mitch does along with his fellow offenders is as unexpected as it is remarkable.

They make quilts. Yes, quilts. Lots of quilts. High quality quilts.

Quilts of such quality that the co-owners of the Quilter's Nest in Evansville, Ind., bragged about their work. One even said that when she visited the unit she really couldn't teach the men anything new.

Furthermore, the men make quilts from donated material using less than the best tools, including the kind of snub-nosed scissors used by first-graders.

The men in the PLUS program made 3,200 quilts last year that they gave to help others, to give back, to do good. They made small quilts (11-foot by 6-foot) that are distributed to the homeless. They made queen-sized quilts (14-foot by 11-foot) to honor those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After the 2012 EF-4 tornado hit Henryville, Ind., the men stayed up all night, making 150 quilts for the victims.

They make quilts and quilt-like handbags for Chemo Buddies at the Evansville clinic of the Oncology Hematology Associates.

On the Saturday morning of our trip, the Evansville Courier & Press had a news story about how the men had made a quilt for Goodwill Industries' annual fundraiser that floats rubber ducks down the Ohio River.

Mitch heads up the "felonious quilters" of the PLUS program, something for which his family can certainly be proud.

PLUS stands for "Purposeful Living Units Serve."

"The program ... provides offenders with an opportunity to explore and choose alternatives to criminal thinking and behavior through an emphasis on spiritual, moral and character development, life-skills training and intentional preparation for living as law-abiding citizens who contribute to the well-being of their communities," reads information from the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC).

"[A] strong positive peer culture, a curriculum that addresses several criminogenic needs and a mentoring relationship with a positive role model from the community" are keys to the program.

PLUS offenders live in a special dorm. Admittance to the dorm demands that offenders have met strict eligibility requirements. Additionally, admission requires the positive vote of acceptance by offenders already in the program.

Offenders agree to take either the faith track or the character track that requires 16 months of study and community service. Study includes Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Community service includes making quilts.

The PLUS program works. That is, the PLUS program has a low recidivism rate and makes a measureable difference in the behavior of inmates.

Recidivism numbers vary. A commonly cited figure is that 50 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years. The Indiana recidivism rate is 36.1 percent.

During our interviews, a correction officer said that the PLUS program's recidivism rate was about half of the state's rate.

Yet an earlier IDOC document reported: "Since the program's inception in 2005 through the end of 2008, 1,164 adult PLUS participants completed the program. Of these, a total of 227 have been released back into their respective communities. Of these 227, only 21 (9.25 percent) have been returned to IDOC."

Now, that's a success story.

Faith and character tracks make a difference.

And apparently, IDOC is at the cutting-edge of making a difference on the rehabilitation front.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Editor's note: See photos from the Indiana shoot here in our Facebook photo album or here in our Pinterest prison documentary photo board.

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Tags: IDOC, PLUS Program, Prison and Faith Documentary, Prisons, Robert Parham, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility


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