A new strategy for failing prisons: hiring former inmates

I recognized Deputy Warden George King’s booming laughter from down the corridor, well before entering Central Mississippi Correctional Facility’s vocational wing. I had observed him almost 10 years earlier teaching in another classroom—that time, when Mr. King was himself still an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.

Now, here he was in C.M.C.F.’s culinary education room, surrounded by a group of 10 prisoners. “The key to delicious gourmet stuffed chicken is to not cut that pocket too deep,” he was saying. “Cut right down the middle, right here. You’re just creating a little pocket for all that deliciousness.” A graduate of several “prisoner enrichment” programs in prison, Mr. King takes his job seriously.

George King is one of many prisoners who have sought opportunities for acceptance and redemption, but he is extraordinary among them because he was provided such an opportunity. His presence at C.M.C.F. benefits the prison system in the form of expanded compassion and understanding for prisoners, as well as the perception among current inmates of a more legitimate prison authority figure who has “been there.”

As a Catholic engaged in prison ministry, I have been repeatedly struck by the deep engagement of evangelical Protestants in the field. Catholics work in prison ministry too, of course, but our work seems more ad hoc and less sustained. We could do more.

Catholics work in prison ministry too, of course, but our work seems more ad hoc and less sustained. We could do more.

I spent five years at Angola as a researcher documenting the effects of religious education at the prison. During our first meeting at Angola, George King was a “trustee” prisoner and graduate of multiple rehabilitation programs, including the prison’s accredited Christian seminary. In addition to earning his bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry inside Angola, Mr. King availed himself of every other program available there, including Toastmasters, horticulture, financial management, automotive, small engine repair, H.V.A.C. systems, culinary arts, welding, plumbing, electrical repairs and even cement finishing.

“I did literally everything I could do.” As we walked outside after his class, I heard Mr. King repeat something I still remembered him saying in Angola: “When I got to prison, I decided I could roll over and die, or I could become reborn.”

He added, “I chose the latter. My job now is to convince my fellow citizens here to make that same choice. And I love this job.”

At Angola and other prisons (including Sing Sing in New York), those who earn degrees through Christian ministry programs, like Mr. King, emerge with an awakened consciousness about their past decision making and how they ended up in prison. Cultivating new opportunities for personal growth becomes a new focus. “It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the nurtured,” one prison seminary graduate told me.

Those who earn degrees through Christian ministry programs, like Mr. King, emerge with an awakened consciousness about their past decision making and how they ended up in prison.

When Congress revoked Pell Grants for felons in the mid-1990s, Christian educators began designing collegiate coursework to be offered free to inmates. Sadly, these religious volunteer efforts fall well short of meeting the demand for rehabilitation programs (and, again, Catholics seem underrepresented in running them), even as conditions inside U.S. prisons are deteriorating. The understaffing of U.S. prisons, the result of increasing challenges in recruiting applicants to work in the criminal justice system, “is taking a severe toll,” according to a story on the political news site Stateline.

A recent Justice Department investigation of the Mississippi State Penitentiary illustrates the dimensions of the problem: details about epidemic suicide, gang extortion of prisoners’ family members, staff brutality, rampant sexual violence and “administrative indifference” saturate the report. Similar conditions have also been recently documented inside prisons and jails in Alabama, Florida, New York and other states.

As the threat of federal intervention loomed over the Mississippi Department of Corrections, I visited Mississippi repeatedly over the past few years to understand how the state was striving to improve conditions. Its biggest challenge? Finding enough employees willing to work in its prisons—a byproduct of both the dangerousness of these institutions and the state’s low rate of pay for corrections jobs.

In response to these concerns, the new Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner, Burl Cain—George King’s former warden at Angola—entertained a paradigm-shifting move: hiring nearly a dozen released model inmates from his former prison to work for him as chaplains, counselors and teachers. (The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman achieved re-accreditation by the American Correctional Association in February.)

“My former prisoners have unique credentials for this work that neither you nor I will ever have. They successfully managed a prison sentence and changed their lives.”

“How’s that for trusting in my work?” Mr. Cain asked me. “Somewhere along the way we forgot that prisons are supposed to help people—that’s why we call it corrections. I intend to get back to that. So I’ve hired multiple men I trained at Angola to work for me here. And you know what? I’ve learned something.”

He explained, “My former prisoners have unique credentials for this work that neither you nor I will ever have. They successfully managed a prison sentence and changed their lives…. God wants people to be able to earn forgiveness, and I want to give them opportunities to earn it. If you give people forgiveness and the opportunity to change their life—they take it.”

Getting Real About Lowering Recidivism

Prisons are deeply contested spaces of public policy, resistant to change from both within and outside. But research proves that the more time someone spends unproductively in prison, the more likely they are to reoffend.

Many U.S. prisons today are warehouses of violence and despair, unstructured by any rehabilitation programming or resources to help prisoners transform their lives. Recidivism is the norm, with 79 percent of state prisoners being rearrested within six years after release. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, prisons at both the state and federal levels remain dramatically understaffed.

While George King was still an inmate but after he graduated from Angola’s seminary, he was identified as a leader among prisoners. Mr. Cain nominated him to serve as an “inmate missionary” from Angola to assist chaplains in parish jails and other prisons all around Louisiana. His job was to help prison staff establish new education programs like those at Angola. In completing each of these assignments, Mr. King earned respect—most importantly from Burl Cain.

About 18 months after his final release from Angola, King was successfully employed in the private sector and living his life. He recalled that when he looked down at his cellphone one day, “I see it’s Burl Cain calling. I thought, ‘O Lord, I’m in some kind of trouble.’”

But Cain had a unique proposition: “George, you want to hear something crazy? I need you to come work for me again. This time out here in Mississippi—on the state payroll—as a program warden. Doing exactly what you did before.”

By the time he got to C.M.C.F., George King was by far the most qualified applicant Mr. Cain could imagine, with a college degree and over 15 years of practical experience doing exactly what Mr. Cain needed.

“Almost no one with a college degree applies for jobs in prisons,” Mr. Cain said. But George King is a role model. Says King:

Look, I know what worked for me personally. Angola had so many programs. For me, Angola became like a finishing school—in the good sense. I enrolled in everything I could, especially if I knew nothing about the subject. And I can honestly say, the prison saved me, as a man. That’s the truth of it. Angola actually gave me things I never had and would never have found on my own…. Believe me, a prison can care for people and help them change if it’s done right.

The human potential of incarcerated citizens must be nurtured for any successful rehabilitation to occur, rather than thwarted in the name of “getting tough on crime.” Foolhardy belief in the false promise of punishing our way out of the crime problem is clearly not working. Mr. King is proof that religious education programs in American prisons can demonstrate both the value and potential of choosing a different path.

[Read next: “A state-funded reentry program stops the revolving door for Colorado’s formerly incarcerated.”]

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