A faith-based program at the Fayette County Detention Center using pastoral experience, Correctional psychology, Wisdom traditions including AA, group dynamics and volunteers. The project coordinator has 17 years experience in correctional consulting and 40 years experience in pastoral counseling (overlapping :-)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Herald-Leader features our Spiritual Growth Program, inmates and volunteers

Program helps inmates reverse their bad habits

By Robin Roenker

Jeff Dotson had made a lifetime habit of being a criminal. In and out of detention centers since the age of 11 -- thanks to his penchant for drugs and theft --his longest stint between incarcerations was only six months by the time he was 31.

Now 44, the Michigan native finds himself back in jail again, this time at the Fayette County Detention Center, charged with unlawfully seeking a controlled substance via a prescription that wasn't his own.

This time in jail is different, though, Dotson said.

"I realized I wanted something else for my life," Dotson said.

Thanks to a "spiritual growth" program called "A Fierce Landscape for the Spiritual Warrior," a completely volunteer-run initiative at the Fayette County Detention Center, Dotson and other inmates say they have learned to be more introspective and to accept responsibility for their actions. And they have vowed to make more positive choices once they're released from jail.

"It's about having a habit of making the right choices," said Ronald Birdsong, 38, a participant who first saw the inside of a jail cell at age 17. "You have to practice on that daily. When we were out, we had a habit of doing wrong. But now we have to think positively and learn to deal with our problems differently. That's how we'll break the cycle."

Stopping recidivism

Breaking the cycle of recidivism and offering inmates an opportunity to make a new life once released from jail is precisely the goal of the Fierce Landscape program, begun by pastoral psychologist Paschal Baute four years ago. To date, more than 100 inmates have participated in the program, Baute said, with the average participation about 60 days.

Participants in the program meet Monday through Saturday for an hour with a community volunteer and then also for an hour daily among themselves. Ten inmates can participate in the program at one time, all living together in a similar cell block or "pod" within the detention center.

Although the Bible is used in the program, workbooks with personal inventories, checklists and journaling opportunities are also key, Baute said. Inmates are encouraged to practice positive behaviors every day and to be open to learning constructive social skills.

Participants are screened by Baute and asked about their motivation for joining the program before being admitted.

"Only about one in 10 is ready for the experience," he said.

While many of the Fierce Landscape participants also take part in other programs available at the detention center -- including AA and other addiction support groups, Baute's program is "different," Dotson said.

"The volunteers who come in really care," Dotson said. "They don't just hand you the materials. If you want to make a change, this is the program for you."

Weekly commitment

Currently the program's 10 active volunteers commit to working with the detention center's participants for one hour each week.

"I've never been involved with a program that is so important, so effective and so necessary in my life," said Guido Caspani, an assistant professor at Kentucky State University who has volunteered with the program for 21/2 years.

"These guys have been in and out of jail all their lives, but they've reached the point where they say enough is enough. It shows that there is hope. And they realize that today can be the beginning of the rest of their lives if they accept the responsibility to change," Caspani said.

Retired husband and wife team Barbara and Turner Lyman volunteer each Thursday morning at the detention center. They try to share their "personal (spiritual) philosophies," encouraging participants to "pick from it what they can use," Turner Lyman said.

"These are just ordinary people who made a wrong decision, and I can relate to that," he said.

Eva Hicks, a Lexmark employee who has volunteered to help launch a new women's Fierce Landscape group off the ground, believes that the work is something she's supposed to be doing, she said.

One evening Hicks felt that the material she'd prepared was a bit off target, and she let the session become more informal, encouraging participants to share their stories. After one young woman did so, an older inmate in her cell-group immediately volunteered to help her learn to read, while others pledged their emotional support.

"You could actually see the mentoring unfold," Hicks said. "It was amazing."

Upon completion of the program, participants receive a "diploma," and they are also offered assistance with finding jobs and life skills counseling once they're released from jail, said volunteer Moe Mercier, who also works as director of program development at OWL (Opportunity for Work and Learning), Inc., a Lexington agency that offers transitional work opportunities.

The program found 46-year-old inmate Keith Ralls of Lexington just at the right time, he said.

"I realized it was time to grow up and be a man, to make amends with the people I've hurt. The program has offered us keys to give forgiveness and to get forgiveness," he said. "It's teaching me to love myself."