Through the years, the Muscogee County Jail has seen scores of volunteers enter its doors and minister to inmates. Through Bible studies and brief sermons and sometimes a little music.
But never has there been the steady presence of a chaplain, one who makes rounds and gets to every cellblock and organizes congregations to support inmates upon release.
Starting Monday, Neil Richardson, a member of First Baptist Church, will become the first full-time chaplain at the downtown jail. Most of the inmates — upwards of 1,000 on any given day — are awaiting trial or processing into the state prison system.
“Most of the day will be spent visiting the inmates. Nobody has consistently been going into all the units,” said Richardson, 56. “Goal One is to do rounds and go into every unit, and try to become a part of the fabric.”
As it is now, pre-approved church volunteers and ministers can visit inmates via video from noon-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. On Sundays, approved visitors lead services and studies from 2-3 p.m. A Muslim imam leads prayers for Muslim inmates. But with these visitations, though regular, contact is spotty.
Richardson will have an office at the jail, overseen by the Sheriff’s Department.
Richardson moved to Columbus in the summer of 2008. Through Republican state politics in Florida, Richardson knew automobile owner Rob Doll when Doll operated a dealership there; and their paths crossed through various state political and civic functions. A fifth generation Miami resident, Richardson was offered a job last summer as a salesman at Rob Doll Nissan in Columbus. Seeking work after suffering long-term effects from a staph infection, Richardson took it, even though he’d never sold cars before.
While in Florida, Richardson had also been a volunteer and later a fulltime chaplain with the South Florida Jail Ministry in Dade County.
“God used Rob to get me to Columbus,” said Richardson, whose last day at the dealership was Sept. 25. Also in September, Doll & Doll Motor Co. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.‘Just the right time’
Last year, Richardson started conversations about the possibility of starting the jail chaplaincy program. Richardson began soliciting input from congregations, many of which, like his, are in close proximity to the jail. He also had conversations with various people in the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department.
The newly created Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministry Inc., which is in the process of securing its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, will raise Richardson’s salary.
The presence of a jail chaplain was something the sheriff’s department had batted around, Sheriff John Darr said. “We’d talked about it before,” said Darr, elected to office last fall. “I think it can be a huge benefit. … I think the peo- ple in Muscogee County should want something like this. Mr. Richardson came along at just the right time.”
A 2005 study from the University of Alabama-Birmingham suggests that the practice of religion significantly reduces the chance of prisoners to engage in verbal or physical altercations, and increases the likelihood of reform after completing prison sentence time. In 1987, the United States Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates retain constitutional rights, including that of religion.
“The jail population is not going down, but when people get out, they become our neighbors,” said Maj. Randy Robertson, Public Information Officer for the Sheriff’s Department who oversees the administrative bureau. And while incarcerated, inmates who turn themselves around spiritually and emotionally are less likely to cause fights and therefore add to the public dole through medical costs and further court costs, the sheriff said.‘An extra battery’
Neil Richardson was licensed for this ministry by First Baptist last fall; he was also licensed in 1974 by the now-defunct Central Baptist in Miami. He has a bachelor’s from Jacksonville Baptist Theological Seminary. Divorced with three sons, Richardson said his first foray into jail ministry stirred a passion he didn’t know he had.
“When I was in Miami, the pastor of my church went to do a church service and I went with him and it just lit me up,” he said. “I asked him if I could go back.”
“Neil is one of those people that when God made him, he put in an extra battery,” said the Rev. Jimmy Elder, Richardson’s pastor who will ordain him sometime in the coming months. “He will do a great job with it. ... It’s also good for the ministers in the community. It makes it so the jail employees can do their job, for someone else to have this responsibility.”
As the new jail chaplain, Richardson said he’ll aim to steer clear of denominational differences and solving theological battles.
“We’ll talk about Jesus Christ crucified, buried and resurrected,” said Richardson. As for inmates who seek a faith leader from someone who isn’t Christian or Muslim, Richardson will try and make those matches.
The ministry won’t end once an inmate is released. The congregations in support will have mentors and other systems in place to help the person readjust to the other side of lockup.
“We’re trying to be responsible and use the time of inmates wisely, instead of them just sitting there,” Darr said. “There’s no way this could hurt.”