Vernon Pittman witnessed grandfathers, fathers and sons go to prison during his three decades as a Texas correctional officer.
Having retired as a prison warden, Pittman has set up a scholarship foundation for the offspring of inmates.
“I started a scholarship foundation that offers college scholarships to the children and grandchildren of offenders as well as the children and grandchildren of victims,” he said.
Pittman was one of the interviewees featured in vignettes of a forthcoming documentary on faith and prisons, shown during the Baptist Center for Ethics’ annual luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, held in Greensboro, N.C.
The luncheon was co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
Profiled were individuals who are trying to make a difference and break a vicious cycle in the lives of those who are imprisoned and released.
“We want to advance the common good by showing what others are doing in the hope that will spark the imaginations of congregations and communities of faith across the country to emulate and duplicate those models,” said Robert Parham, Baptist Center for Ethics executive director. “We want to profile constructive things the Christian community can do to engage this issue.”
The documentary will be released in 2014 with two versions. One version will be a short version for public forums. The other version will be a longer version for churches to use over four weeks.
The segments of the documentary shown during the luncheon offered a flavor of one of the most challenging mission efforts by faith groups.
Statistics indicate that 40 percent of those released from incarceration will return to prison within three years.
“When you walk out that gate to freedom, you’ve got to be walking to something. If you’re not walking to something, you’re walking back to the past,” said Linda Leathers, CEO of The Next Door, a Nashville-based prison ministry for women.
“I have never worked with an inmate, female or male, who has not had some sort of addictive process going on,” said Teresa McBean, pastor of the Northstar Community in Richmond, Va.
“Addiction is the driving dynamic that is filling the prison system. Incarcerating an addict without treatment only puts a pause button on their addictive processing.”
Those with addictions “either don’t know different, they can’t do different, or they, for whatever reason, have a stubborn resistance to change.”
McBean said addictions, if left untreated during incarceration, would resume upon release – even though the addicted individual may think he or she is “cured” because of abstinence in prison.
She said that a person must “retrain the brain” in order to deal with addiction, adding that retraining the brain is a “spiritual discipline.” It involves going to church, being with decent people, reading the Bible, praying.
“Developing a new community with a shared sense of core values and all these things that we were taught a long, long time ago by our grandmas – these are the very components that are necessary for a decent recovery system,” she said.
Randy Myers is president of the Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia, based in Richmond. In one of the vignettes, he discussed stereotypes of chaplains.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there about chaplains, the biggest being that they’re just bleeding-heart do-gooders that just are in there because they feel sorry for these poor criminals. That’s the biggie.”
Another: “Oh, they’re just extremely liberal. They’re so liberal that they think it doesn’t matter what faith you are. All faiths lead to the same path. Everything is the same.”
And another: “There is a perception among some that chaplains aren’t real ministers like pastors in churches. And I would say nothing could be further from the truth.”
Travis Collins, senior pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, discussed his church’s ministry to those in prison.
Collins cited Matthew 25, in which Jesus discusses clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and visiting those in prison.
“This is not just doing good,” said Collins. “These are matters of eternal consequence.”
Collins noted that there are many reasons for a church to avoid prison ministry: lockdowns that interrupt planned ministries, sex offenders that want to attend your church, different opinions among church members about how best to minister in the prison.
But since 1977, the church has viewed prison ministry as one of its callings.
David McCollum is a journalist in Conway, Ark., and a deacon at Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Ark.