Prison ministry offers different perspective on crime and punishment debate

by Keith Barber

Prison ministry offers different perspective on crime and punishment debate

(counter clockwise from left) Tim & Cynthia Key, Anderson Glenn, William Thompson, Calvin LaFrance.

At age 19, Calvin LaFrance got involved in a fight “that went terribly wrong” and he wound up being convicted of second-degree murder. Ten years later, LaFrance is serving out his sentence at Forsyth Correctional Center in Winston- Salem. LaFrance said he’s experienced a change of heart during his years of incarceration.

“I grew up in the church and around the church but it just never took hold,” LaFrance said. “When all this began for me, I guess [I had] an epiphany or revelation that apparently that I hadn’t been living my life like I should. I pled out to Christ and felt that I was forgiven.”

LaFrance, who has served time at 13 different correctional facilities, said the presence of the Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries at the Forsyth prison camp altered the course of his life.

“Truthfully, I think it’s been through volunteers, Yokefellows, through these chaplaincy programs that has changed my life as well as most others,” LaFrance said. “We’re offered schooling. We’re offered counseling, but at the end of the day it comes down to a personal relationship with God.”

Yokefellows is just one of several programs offered by Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries. Every Thursday, community volunteers visit the minimum-security prison to meet one-on-one with inmates to listen and offer spiritual support. The prison ministry also offers tutoring services, mentoring, a community sponsorship program, along with its chaplaincy services. The jail and prison ministry serves more than 13,000 men and women annually.

Robert Wolfe, who has served as chaplain at the Forsyth prison for nearly 15 years, said LaFrance’s story of transformation is actually the norm rather than the exception.

“Prisoners change while they’re in prison; there’s no doubt about that,” Wolfe said. “It doesn’t matter whether you think God’s calling you to something different or whether you’ve got kids in a family that you want to be with instead of here. Whatever’s motivating you, there are opportunities, but it has to be driven from within. Rehabilitation works because the guys want it.”

William Thompson, an inmate at the prison, echoed Wolfe’s sentiments.

“You got to really want to change,” Thompson said.

“When I first came into the prison system, I was a cocaine addict. I went to church but I was playing church before I came into the system. When I got into the prison system, I started learning more about being for real with God to give him my all and all.”

LaFrance said true rehabilitation can only begin after a long period of personal reflection.

“At the end of the day, it has to be the individual’s choice if he’s going to rehabilitate, if he realizes there’s things wrong with his life,” LaFrance said. “None of us are in here because we were singing too loud in the church choir on Sunday mornings. Obviously we didn’t do something right and we were removed from society.”

Thompsonsaid Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries is unique among prisonministries in that it shows genuine caring and compassion for allinmates. But the deck is stacked against those same inmates when theyattempt to make the transition back to the world. That’s where ForsythJail and Prison Ministries steps in, Wolfe said.

“Gettingout of prison and going someplace different than you’ve ever beenbefore is harder than anything you and I have ever done,” Wolfe said.“Some of the guys don’t appreciate how difficult it is to make thattransition. You start working on it here, but you have to have a PhD todo it on the outside.”

Cynthiaand Tim Key have both served as volunteers in the Yokefellows programfor more than 13 years. They have witnessed firsthand the perils thatformer inmates face as they attempt to transition back into the world.In 1997, Cynthia and Tim allowed an inmate to live with them for threemonths after his release. Cynthia said it wasn’t easy but they lovedthe man like a son. They watched the man’s old friends and oldlifestyle “coming out of the woodwork as if it was trying to trap himand bring him back,” Cynthia said.

However,the former inmate attended church regularly, got his own place and wasmarried within a year. Today, the former inmate is the father of threechildren, owns his own business and volunteers for the Yokefellowsprogram.

Cynthiaand Tim Key said former inmates that serve as sponsors in theministry’s programs are pivotal to the success of inmates on theoutside.

AndersonGlenn, an inmate at the Forsyth prison, said he doesn’t know what hewould do without his Yokefellows sponsor. With a sponsor, inmates areallowed to attend church services outside of the prison and develop arelationship with a local church.

“By the time you get out, you already have a sense of direction which way you’re going to go anyway,” Glenn said.

Also, sponsors keep in close contact with former inmates after their release to offer spiritual and practical support.

“Itcan be a very significant thing from the practical support but also thesame kind of support that any men’s group at church gives each other,to encourage each other,” Wolfe said. “I’ve seen guys get out of hereand go to Greensboro, stay at a home in Greensboro, and come back toWinston on Sundays because that was the church that sponsored them out.Those were the folks that loved him, that took care of him, that prayedfor him, and when he was struggling, he knew he could turn to them.”


Lastmonth, Gov. Beverly Perdue asked her attorneys and the NC Department ofJustice to review all options available to the state to reverse anddelay the NC Supreme Court ruling in the State v. Bowden case.

“When I learned thatthe Supreme Court had issued a ruling that meant offenders serving lifein prison would be released after a mere 35 years, I was appalled,”Perdue said in a formal statement. “Like most of my fellow NorthCarolinians, I believe life should mean life, and even if a lifesentence is defined as 80 years, getting out after only 35 is simplyunacceptable.”

Perduewent on to say that her staff continues to work on stopping the releaseof 20 offenders originally scheduled for release on Oct. 29.

“Theseare people who have been denied parole repeatedly, and many who havenumerous infractions during their prison stay,” Perdue said. “I do notbelieve they are ready for release onto the streets of our communities.”

LaFrancesaid prison changes a person, and the good work of prison ministries tohelp rehabilitate offenders should not be overlooked in the currentdebate over crime and punishment.

“Afterseven years of incarceration, studies say you’re psychologicallychanged forever and I think that’s a positive thing,” he said.“Readjusting to society is difficult because we have no responsibilityhere. After such a great amount of time in prison, you’re not the sameperson who committed that crime if you did in fact commit the crime.”

Thompson,53, is scheduled for release in February. He has a job waiting for him,and a new direction thanks in large part to the blessing of ForsythJail and Prison Ministries, he said.

“I’mgoing to get out and continue to give back what God gave to me,”Thompson said. “One thing, I got to remember where I come from — I wasan addict and I can’t turn my back on the ones out there. I need God tocontinue to keep me strong so I won’t be caught back up in that worldwith them when I see them when I get out.”

JoneReid, church and community relations coordinator for the prisonministry, said she shared many of the same misconceptions most peoplehave about inmates when she first began working for the ministry 14years ago, but that changed over time.

“When I first came here, I thought, ‘They all did crimes and they deserve to be here, and I’m not sure why I’m here,’” she said.

Duringan Easter service at the prison chapel, Reid said a heavy wooden crosswas passed through the congregation and she experienced an epiphanythat forever changed her thoughts about passing judgment on those whohad been imprisoned.

“Allthese hands are going up to support this cross with their hands on thecross, and the chaplain [said], ‘Christ died for everyone’s sins,’ asthose hands went up,” Reid said. “There were all these dirty hands onthat cross, but there were also volunteer hands on that cross. My handswent up on that cross. It was a real turning point for me.”