No matter how locked away and removed you are from society — with a 15x5-inch hole your only visual connection to a wider world — someone can reach you.
It happened Tuesday at the Muscogee County Jail. After the Rev. Neil Richardson led a devotional on the third floor, where he had to speak louder than usual to penetrate the steel doors, one of the unseen women asked for prayer. Her room number, like the other rooms, was stenciled overhead in black. This inmate and others in her dorm have an added level of security because of disciplinary reasons, or as protection to themselves because of severe mental illness.
Richardson leaned on one leg and peered through the rectangular opening of room 303. The flap is typically used to pass through food. The chaplain and inmate shared a private moment, in a place that has very little of it.
This month marks the chaplain’s 10th month on the job. Last October, Richardson was named full-time chaplain at the jail — a first for the facility. He was ordained in February at First Baptist Church, where he’s a member. His days are filled with making rounds, leading devotionals, handing out Bibles and taking prayer requests on slips of square paper. Starting with the fourth floor and making his way down, he carries materials in a black square crate.
More recently, with additional volunteer ministers signed up for visitations, he’s working on securing a “safe house.” It’s close to the 10th Street facility and will offer ex-offenders a place to go 24/7 if they’re tempted to use drugs or commit a crime. He’s been speaking in churches to help raise awareness for the need.
Cycling in and out of prison is common among released prisoners, whether they are returned to prison while under parole supervision or not. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 52 percent of prisoners released in 1994 are returned to prison for new sentences or technical violations within three years of their release. Georgia’s recidivism statistics compare very favorably to these national studies, with a smaller share of returns to prison over time: the Georgia Department of Corrections found that 36 percent of prisoners released in 2000 returned to prison within three years of their release.
Richardson and others suffer no illusions that a chaplain can erase that rate — that they’ll never see the current inmates again; but they’re doing their part.
“I think we’re making a difference in here. Violence is down in a demonstrable way,” said Richardson, who has a desk and computer in a tucked-away room on the first floor. Nearby bookshelves contain books and pamphlets that are shipped free from various national ministries. Two of the most popular are “Tender Journey” and “The Unseen Essentials” by James P. Gill.
The jail, run by the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department, contains 24 cellblocks in addition to the 12 cellblocks in the old jail section. (The new jail was built in 2000.) Capacity is 1,069. The inmates are divided into three sections: Maximum security, medium and minimum. The commander is Dane Collins.
The inmates are not required to attend the Bible lessons or interact with the chaplain. If they’re not Christian, they can request a visitor of their own faith, or materials from it. As demonstrated Tuesday, many of the inmates simply want someone to talk to who doesn’t carry a gun. In one dorm, Richardson huddled with a group of six men to pray.
“It gives them a chance to vent. It’s made a difference,” Collins said.
Though Richardson works for the Sheriff’s Department, he doesn’t have an official role with inmates’ cases. In fact, he usually doesn’t know what they’re in for, unless someone tells him. He’s visited with some of the local “celebrities” at their request, including Michael Curry, accused of killing his wife and children in the 1980s and brought back to town last year.
“He mainly gets a lot of requests for reading materials, and they’re reaching out to him with spiritual issues,” Lt. Donna Tompkins, a 26-year veteran, said of the chaplain. “It’s good they have somebody. They don’t have a lot of contact with anyone but officers.”
Most of them call Richardson “chaplain” or simply “Chap.”
Collins, promoted to oversee the jail in 2009, said he’s trying to raise it to national standards. On one hand, he has to make the community safe by keeping inmates as long as the courts require, and prevent escapes. But he wants to help improve inmates’ lives while they’re locked up.
“They’re human beings. No one is disposable,” said Collins. “We’re trying to create opportunities while they’re here, to make good use of their time.”
One of the current inmates, Matthew Johnson, met with Richardson on Tuesday. In custody since March, he said he’s getting released Sept. 8.
“I’m not just talking for me, but for believers and unbelievers — we are seen as whole people. We still need help. He doesn’t show partiality with anyone. We can sense the genuineness. I commend the commander for bringing him in.”
Like his cellmates, Johnson wears a plastic photo ID bracelet with bar coding, state-issued clothing and shoes.
Richardson had experience with jail ministry before relocating to Columbus from Florida in 2008. A former volunteer jail minister in Dade County, Richardson moved to Columbus to sell cars at Rob Doll Nissan. That didn’t work out long-term because the dealership went out of business.
Around the time of Sheriff John Darr’s 2008 election, Richardson and a group of pastors talked to him about initiating the job of full-time chaplain.
Darr said the idea for such a position had already been batted around in his office.
“I think the people in Muscogee County should want something like this,” Darr told the Ledger-Enquirer last year. “Mr. Richardson came along at just the right time.”
The volunteer ministers, some ordained and some not, praise Richardson’s work. Two women met briefly with the chaplain on Tuesday before going upstairs to lead a Bible study. They’re Marti Jones, a member of Northside Chapel, and Wanda Grimes of Evangel Temple.
Grimes said she felt called to this mission work when she was 17 — but for various reasons it didn’t happen until she was 48. She stays with the women for about 90 minutes — “until they rattle the doors,” she said.
Grimes said she and some of the others prayed a long time for a permanent chaplain to come along. “The girls upstairs were praying just as hard as we were,” he said.
Richardson said he works hard not to judge the inmates. In his lessons to them, he confesses his own need for spiritual help. Regarding their individual cases, he sometimes prays the judge is in a good mood or that the lawyers have done their homework. Yet, “I don’t want to give them false hope,” he said.
Like anyone in any profession, there are people he bonds with more than others. “There are some people here — it’s hard to believe they did what they did, or were capable of doing it.” He described one man who’d just received a life sentence-plus-50, who walked back into his cell block after sentencing and led a Bible study.
“I know his family. I believe he loves the Lord,” he said.
In such cases, it’s hard for the chaplain to reconcile the conflicting parts. Is it the same person?
Then come questions from the others. In the women’s lock-down unit, the one with the flaps in the doors, a pair of eyes peeped out of one. Behind another, a woman laughed. He was getting through, if only with his voice. During his talk, a third woman shouted out to the chaplain behind her door.
“What does it mean to take up your cross?” she said.
Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237.