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Old 08-27-2004, 07:21 AM
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Post ARTICLE: Prison program aims to help inmates develop faith, skills to make it in out

Macon Telegraph

HAWKINSVILLE - At a moment's notice, convicted murderer Wanda Joyce Deriso can recite the Bible definition of faith: "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Not an unusual skill in prison, where "jailhouse religion" is proverbial.

But Georgia prison officials are hoping that Deriso and the other women in the E-6 building at Pulaski State Prison will write the definition of faith with their lives.

Deriso and her fellow inmates live in a "faith-based dormitory," one of the newest initiatives of Georgia's new prison chief.

Inspired by President Bush's call for more faith-based involvement in the work of government, the dormitory is supposed to allow prisoners to work on their own faith and character while developing skills to help them turn their lives around and make it in the outside world.

It's also an effort to supplement a badly depleted staff of prison counselors and teachers by using volunteers from churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious groups.

The prison system opened faith-based dormitories in July at Pulaski and five other prisons: Arrendale, Hays, Calhoun, Macon and Valdosta. The Pulaski program - the only one at a women's institution - will have a formal opening service Wednesday.

Eventually, Corrections Commissioner James Donald hopes to see faith-based dorms at all 37 of Georgia's state prisons.

"It's the beginning of something that I think is going to be an important step for the Department of Corrections," said Donald, who took office in December.

Participation in a faith-based dorm is voluntary. Inmates apply to join the one-year program and must sign a contract agreeing to abide by dorm rules and make progress toward their personal goals. They take part in religious activities of their choice.

The inmates also take some ribbing from prisoners who aren't in the program. At Pulaski, for instance, they get called the "holy sisters."

"It's all right," said Deriso. "I'd rather be called holy than unholy."

And although the program isn't supposed to be a ticket to release, parole is high on the inmates' prayer list.

Deriso is serving a life sentence, but through prayer she has staked a claim that one day she will go home. And what will she do if that doesn't happen?

"Still keep the faith and go on in life, you know."

Currently, 24 participants are working on the first three-month phase at Pulaski. Every three months another 24 will be added until all 96 residents of E-6 are involved.

It's not all Bible study. Inmates have jobs inside the institution. They also are expected to perform community service, such as tutoring younger prisoners.

The program is open to inmates of any faith, or no religious affiliation at all.

"(They're) mostly Baptist. We have some Holiness, some Pentecostals, some Catholics," said Judy Knapp, a Lutheran chaplain who drives down from Atlanta four days a week to help coordinate the faith-based dorm at Pulaski.

There are also prisoners like Carla Gastin, who said she doesn't belong to a denomination. "I have a faith, but not one in particular. I believe in God. That's basically it," said Gastin, serving three years for aggravated assault.

Gastin said she was drawn to the faith-based dorm because it offered education and counseling services - the kinds of services Gastin said she did not find in the free world.

"I'm basically interested in the programs that they have for me and not so much the faith, because I already have my own faith," Gastin said. "Right now I'm focusing on how to get my life together, how to stay off drugs, how to stop doing criminal behavior and stuff like that. ... I don't want to come back to prison."

Providing those services will depend on how well Georgia's religious community responds to the prison system's call.

More than 4,000 volunteers already work inside Georgia prisons. Many offer religious services such as Bible classes.

Bill Hinton, a senior manager for risk reduction services, said the system will rely on volunteers to serve as mentors and tutors, and help the prisoners in the faith-based dorms make the transition to life on the outside. Officials hope the faith community will be there with things like transportation, job training, clothing and even help finding a job and a place to stay.

It isn't coddling, officials say - it just makes good sense to try to help convicts become better citizens.

"Ninety five percent of them are going to come back into society and be our neighbors," Commissioner Donald said. "What kind of neighbors are they going to be?"

Donald said he hopes the inmates develop relationships with volunteers that continue once they are released.

"When he's let out, he has that guy who's supposed to meet him at the gate," Donald said. "I hope to be able to (offer) that myself, but I just don't have the resources. I don't think the taxpayers of Georgia can afford the up-close and personal programs like the ones we can get through our faith-based program."

Because of recent budget cuts, the prison system lost 25 percent of its counselors and teachers - the kind of professionals who ordinarily would provide a bedrock for the kinds of rehabilitative services that Donald envisions.

And therein lies a problem, said Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"The overarching concern that we have is these kinds of programs allow politicians to evade responsibility for adequate and effective rehabilitation programs," she said.

"It's not surprising to find that cutbacks in tried and tested prison programs are often accompanied by this effort to turn to religious leaders as the sort of source of a solution to the problems that we've seen. ... The reason politicians are turning to them is they're cheaper."

At Lighthouse Missions in Macon, Dot Pinkerton has worked for 25 years to help prisoners make the transition to freedom. She serves on the prison system's faith-based advisory committee. And while she is excited about Donald's vision for the prison system, she also knows from experience that most churches aren't exactly champing at the bit to work with convicted criminals.

"I've gone to churches. They'll pat me on the back and say that's the greatest thing that ever happened," she said. "But as far as being an outreach from that church, it has not happened. It's going to take volunteers to go in that's dedicated to this type ministry."

Americans United has considered suing to block states from using faith-based prison initiatives that appear to push a particular denomination's creed.

That does not appear to be the case with Georgia's program, which is voluntary and does not exclude any inmate on the basis of his or her beliefs.

"This is not a backdoor way of proselyting," said James T. Laney, president-emeritus of Emory University and a member of the prison system's faith-based advisory board.

He noted that the prison system has always had chaplains to serve the inmates' spiritual needs.

"As long as it's voluntary, I don't see where there's a problem," he said. "It's an attempt to change, insofar as the inmates want to, the very atmosphere that pervades the prison. We know the prisons are not an optimal situation. But they don't have to be the kind of jungle that some of them fall into.

"We have to do something about our prison situation, if for no other reason than it's becoming financially insupportable," Laney added. "The burden the prison system is placing on the American public is enormous."
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