Saving Grace 

From the toughest tier at the city jail to new jobs and a fresh start, Kingdom Life Ministries gives inmates a second chance.

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click to enlarge Participants in the Kingdom Life Ministries program have weekly Bible study meetings at the transition house on Brook Road. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Participants in the Kingdom Life Ministries program have weekly Bible study meetings at the transition house on Brook Road.

One morning in February more than 100 men took their seats in what is now referred to as the program tier of the city jail. Arrayed in orderly rows, they wear uniform jumpsuits with blue bottoms, yellow tops and white T-shirts. They remain quiet and respectful when Scarbrough and Harry Greene address them as part of the ministry's regular program.

They all know Scarbrough. The young brunette has spent hundreds of hours visiting the jail, and seems at ease surrounded by dozens of inmates, including many convicted of violent crimes. In her remarks, she describes recent efforts made by Gov. Bob McDonnell to restore civil rights to nonviolent felons, and then turns over the floor to Greene.

"I've been where you're sitting," Greene tells the inmates. He explains how as a young man he ended up in Arlington County jail facing as much as 50 years behind bars. "I made bad choices," he says. "I wasn't living, I was existing." After years of disbelief, he decided to get right with God, and God gave him a second chance. He got out of jail in 1972 with a full pardon from the governor.

"I don't want to know how bad you are," Greene says to a rapt audience. "I want to know if you want to change." He tells them how difficult it will be on their own. "The hardest place to change is on the street," he says. "The old gang will welcome you right back. But you can say, 'I'm not going to do that anymore.'"

After Greene's pep talk, one man after another rises to give testimony.

"My life has been in turmoil because of the use of drugs," says one inmate identifying himself as Lamont. "I know I can change my life by changing my thought processes and believing in a higher power."

"KLM helps us to see a different way," says another man, Ricky. "We learn to put God first. We are all for a change. We can't do nothing on our own — we need to plug into another source. I'm talking about having faith in something greater than myself."

click to enlarge After participating in the Kingdom Life Ministries program at the city jail, Peair Harris became the newest member of the transition house in mid-March. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • After participating in the Kingdom Life Ministries program at the city jail, Peair Harris became the newest member of the transition house in mid-March.

Another describes how he had no support growing up. "I turned to the street. I drowned the pain with drugs. Coming into this program is giving me hope to live a life without drugs," the inmate says. "When I feel discouraged, these guys help pick me up."

There is no street language — no profanity, no terms of abuse. It's the language of healers and therapists, Christianity and self-improvement.

The men express a desire to change their lives. But they face long odds. It's difficult for anyone to find a job these days, and even more so for these men. Few have completed high school. When inmates get out of jail, they often have no money for clothes, a car or a deposit on an apartment. Many have accumulated child support obligations they'll never be able to pay off. For many, the path of least resistance is to move back to the old neighborhood with a family member or girlfriend. It's all too easy to fall back into their old ways.

Kingdom Life Ministries short-circuits that process by helping inmates develop re-entry plans — preparing for the job search, getting a driver's license, finding a place to live and reconnecting with family members. The program also provides basic life skills, emphasizing anger management, communicating emotions and accepting the obligations of fatherhood. "Drugs and alcohol are only 10 percent of the problem," Scarbrough says. "It's the anger and character flaws that lead to destructive behavior."

What sets the ministry apart is its peer-based model, she says. Rather than relying upon credentialed substance-abuse professionals, few of whom have had any personal experience with, say, heroin or cocaine addiction, the program recruits former inmates who know firsthand the pain and temptation that substance abusers experience. When someone suffers withdrawal symptoms, Scarbrough says, they would rather talk to someone who has walked in their shoes.

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click to enlarge Kingdom Life Members old and new gather after the Sunday service at Establish Covenant Ministries International — Karl Green, Gilbert Howard, Tyrone Fleming, Chris Henry, Melvin Bolling and Darryl Cousins. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kingdom Life Members old and new gather after the Sunday service at Establish Covenant Ministries International — Karl Green, Gilbert Howard, Tyrone Fleming, Chris Henry, Melvin Bolling and Darryl Cousins.

Four years ago, Timothy Green (no relation to Karl Green or Harry Greene) found himself sitting in jail, a three-time loser, looking at 20 years to life for attempted murder of a police officer "after a night of drinking and drugging and more drinking." His marriage was in ruins. Two of his children refused to speak to him anymore. In desperation, he turned to Kingdom Life Ministries.

The program turned his life around. "My heart felt alive," he says. "God did not create me to spend the rest of my life in prison." When he completed the program in the Richmond jail, the authorities reduced the charges against him and released him.

Green didn't want to go back to his old haunts. "If you've burned your ties to your family and good friends, if you've lied to them, stole from them and misrepresented yourself to them, you will end up with other criminals, who will accept you," he says. So he moved into the ministry's transition house as a safe haven.

Viewing it from the outside, you'd never imagine that the transition house has nine men living there. The house contains a small kitchen, a dining room with space for a desk and a computer, and a living room with big, stuffed sofas and a big-screen TV. The men keep their bedrooms as neat as a pin.

The ministry provides structure. Everyone must get a job, or do community service. The men attend Bible study in the morning and go to church on Sundays. They each pay $300 a month toward room and board.

There, with the support of the other men in the program, Green stayed clean. He reconciled with his family. He got a job with Ashley Furniture. When the retail chain opened a new store on Laburnum Avenue, it appointed him store manager. Today, he serves as an inspiration to the other members of the transition house — a shining example of how someone can turn his life around.

Scarbrough says the structure provided by the transition house is key. Some halfway houses have few rules, or don't enforce them. "They have as much drugs and prostitution as on the street," she says. The Kingdom Life program enforces high standards. "If you don't have a job," she says, "you're out."

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click to enlarge Kenneth J. Barbour, the senior pastor of the Establish Covenant Ministries International, mentors the men in the Kingdom Life Ministries program. "Some of them have just given up," Barbour says. "We help them believe they can achieve." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kenneth J. Barbour, the senior pastor of the Establish Covenant Ministries International, mentors the men in the Kingdom Life Ministries program. "Some of them have just given up," Barbour says. "We help them believe they can achieve."

Virginia politicians have long held a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude toward criminals. That's changing. In 2010, Gov. McDonnell established the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council with the goal of reducing recidivism and easing the re-entry of prisoners into society. He's expedited the process for prisoners to obtain identification cards and drivers' licenses before they leave jail and has pushed through mandatory re-entry savings accounts that set aside a portion of funds inmates earn while in lockup to give them nest eggs when they're released.

Those measures just scratch the surface, though. The causes of recidivism run deep. Trouble is, no one keeps track of what works and what doesn't. The Old Dominion hasn't kept pace with the leading states in implementing evidence-based practices to drive down recidivism, Scarbrough says.

While her research shows that Kingdom Life Ministries does a better job than several other treatment programs in Richmond in keeping men out of jail, Scarbrough concedes that's just one study in one city, and was conducted without benefit of apples-to-apples data for many organizations. The sad truth, she says, is that no one really tracks which programs work. Too many taxpayer dollars — and the lives of too many damaged and dangerous men — are at stake. S

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