You’re free to go, they tell you. Good luck. And we hope we don’t see you again.
You change from your state-issued jumpsuit to street clothes. Stepping into the bright sun, you squint. It’s been awhile since you’ve seen the sun.
Here’s one option: If you’ve just been released from the Muscogee County Jail, the SafeHouse on Seventh Avenue is a short stroll away. Sandwiched between two bail bonding companies, it’s a newly refurbished house providing a variety of services to ex-offenders: Christian-based 12-step recovery meetings; a clothes closet; TV, coffee and snacks; computer access; and comfortable furniture where you can relax, talk to someone and get your head on straight. It’s a place to land if you’re thinking of “getting stupid,” as the Rev. Neil Richardson coins it.
Such a place didn’t exist before now. Following the formation last year of the Chattahoochee Jail Ministry, the SafeHouse came into existence after the nonprofit located a house.
“This was a shack,” Richardson said on a recent tour. The wood-framed house has been brought up to code, including new floor joists, flooring and HVAC system. Art work and fresh paint cover the walls. Volunteers from various church groups and local companies have had a hand in the effort. It’s staffed by a married couple, Willie White and Shirley Gates-White. The jail ministry is overseen by a board of 14, with the Rev. Roy Plummer of Faith Tabernacle Community Church serving as president.
Richardson, the full-time chaplain at the jail, pitches in at the SafeHouse when he can. He’s on call after hours, typically hearing his phone ring several times on weekends.
On a recent weekday, Jimmy Rubey was checking e-mail on one of the six computers. He’s been incarcerated twice. The last time he was in “major trouble,” he said, was in 2005. He most recently was picked up for sleeping in an old building; you can get charged with burglary and spend 60 days behind bars for that. Rubey did that time in Macon and has been locked up on and off since 1980, prison records show. After he was freed in ’09, he was able to get some clothing from the SafeHouse, among other things.
“This is a big help for me,” said Rubey, whose home is Savannah, but he’s making Columbus his new city.
Another former inmate, Jerome Lawson, has gotten involved in the ministry. A member of Macedonia Christian Ministries, Lawson goes every Tuesday to the maximum security floor of the jail to lead Bible study. Starting at age 16, he served 10 years of a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. He got out in 2008, according to prison records.
“Now I have a desire to help people,” he said. “When I came out of prison, I didn’t really have the knowledge” about getting on with life. “I didn’t have those means.” Now employed, Lawson compared this ministry to a circle of giving. People who have the means help those who don’t.
“It’s a biblical concept,” Lawson said.
Richardson said the SafeHouse, as the name implies, provides a non-judgmental atmosphere. Yet, they will be called on their nonsense, if need be, by trusting friends. “It’s in their nature to hustle,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to pull their coattails,” added Lawson, standing in the kitchen door as a pot of coffee brewed.
In addition to grabbing snacks and perhaps a bit of TV, a guest can search for work on the computers or take GED training. The jail ministry works closely with local agencies and social services agencies to help the ex-offenders readjust. For instance, Richardson said, organizations can provide free tax-filing services, so people don’t use the high-rate fast refund businesses.
Willie White and Shirley Gates-White seem uniquely fitted for this work. Former drug and alcohol addicts, they initially got involved in jail ministry in Russell County through a church in LaGrange. The couple met in LaGrange. Shirley said she’s been clean 16 years, and she’s a graduate of the House of T.I.M.E. in Columbus. It’s for women in recovery. A female caseworker in LaGrange helped her get sober.
“She helped me like a mother would,” Shirley said.
Like Rubey, Willie and Shirley have made the Columbus area their new home -- away from old friends and old ways in LaGrange. In addition to the Russell County Jail, they also volunteer at the downtown Columbus jail.
The Whites married in 1997, divorced in 2002 and remarried in 2007. They’ve seen the worst and the best in each other. Members of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist in Phenix City, they met Richardson through the jail ministry.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” Willie White said. “God is using us to touch people’s lives; we’re just a small part of it.”