published Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Program targets inmates' character, interfaith relationships


by Andrew Pantazi
Donnell Black directs while Donnie Ray Perkins sings and plays guitar as they and other inmates in the Walker State Prison choir rehearse at the Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Ga., on Wednesday. Later that morning, a commissioning ceremony was held denoting the prison as Georgia's first Faith and Character Based Program.
Donnell Black directs while Donnie Ray Perkins sings and plays guitar as they and other inmates in the Walker State Prison choir rehearse at the Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Ga., on Wednesday. Later that morning, a commissioning ceremony was held denoting the prison as Georgia's first Faith and Character Based Program.
Photo by John Rawlston.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. — The men walked into an office in Rock Spring, Ga., turned in their driver's licenses and put their names on the sign-in sheet when the announcement was made:

"Gentlemen, welcome to Walker State Prison, the first faith- and character-based prison in Georgia," said the corrections officer who would escort them inside.

Georgia inmates at the medium-security prison now can apply to enter a two-year program that some believe will turn them into good people and help them when they stand before a parole board.

The program began in August and about 400 of the 650 prisoners at Walker State will go into it, officials said. The inmates will be screened so only those without past problems in prison can participate. About 250 prisoners in the drug rehabilitation program will not enter the new program.

The prisoners will write a journal entry every day during the two-year program. Warden Tom Chapman said the journal can be about anything the inmate chooses. He said he hasn't decided if the journals will be kept private or used with a counselor.

State Parole Board Chairman James Donald said about 30 religions are represented at the prison including Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Some inmates are atheists, he said. Prisoners in the program will attend one to three classes every day on faith and character issues, including lessons on religious diversity and how to live with those of other faiths, Chapman said.

The inmates also will see a counselor once a month, as opposed to the Georgia prison standard of four times a year.

Officials with the Georgia Department of Corrections and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles have tried to create a faith- and character-based prison since 2003. Department of Corrections re-entry services director A.J. Sabree said research shows that such programs are effective at rehabilitating prisoners.

There are 12 faith- and character-based dormitories in Georgia prisons, but Walker State Prison is the first institution to dedicate the whole prison -- except the substance abuse program -- as faith- and character-based.

Chapman came to Walker State as warden in June from Pulaski State Prison, where he said the faith- and character-based dorm made a difference for the inmates.

To make sure the prison isn't violating constitutional principles, a team of lawyers oversaw the program before it launched, Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens said.

The prison must, Owens said, be neutral by not promoting one particular religion over another and allowing people of no faith to participate.

"It's not a requirement that you be a Bible thumper," Chapman said. "But it is a requirement that you have good character."

about Andrew Pantazi...

Andrew Pantazi is an intern at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who says that when he was 7 he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: play hockey for the Colorado Avalanche. Unfortunately, he says he wasn't any good at hockey, so he became a journalist instead. He writes about the lives we hide, like the man who suffered a stroke but smiled, or the football walk-on who endured 5 ...

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