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The lowest place

Jail ministry meets inmates at the very bottom-and teaches them that they matter

The lowest place

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.-The Forsyth County Jail presents an innocent face to the world. Its modern exterior of red brick, glass, and granite looks cheerfully anonymous, blending in seamlessly with the other government office buildings in downtown Winston-Salem, N.C.

Inside, the building tells a different story. Through a dispiriting waiting room and a metal detector, the building becomes a maze of bland and antiseptic white hallways punctuated with gray doors leading to misery and despair.

Rodney Stilwell walks the hallways with the chipper self-assurance of a man at home. Tall and lean, with sandy hair and a native Carolina accent, he greets everyone-staff and inmate alike-with the same cheerfulness. Stilwell runs Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries, an organization that helps 1,200 inmates in three different facilities find Christ and prepare for life after prison.

Stilwell knows this world. Since 1985 he's been with the ministry, which was founded in 1978. He's also an ex-offender, incarcerated in 1974 for breaking and entering, grand auto larceny, and grand theft. When he talks about jail, he speaks from experience: "When you come to jail, your friends don't visit you. There's no more drugs, no more alcohol. The party stops. God is the only one who will visit you in jail."

The Forsyth County Jail is an entrance to the state's prison system. Inmates stay here after arrest and while awaiting trial. Murderers, thieves, drug offenders, sex offenders, and white-collar crooks are all tossed together in the maximum-security facility. It's an absolute low point, with nothing but the state prison system awaiting on the other side. Stilwell offers these inmates a message of hope: "We say, 'You are here, so let's see what God wants for you. Let's see what God has planned for you.' God finds us at our lowest place, and if we get to the bottom by crime and violence and brokenness, Jesus is there."

The ministry is a constant presence on the eight floors of the facility, which has two self-contained wings on each floor. In every cell block of every wing of every floor, the ministry offers volunteer-led classes three times a week: Bible studies, parenting classes, guides to surviving the prison system, guides on how to avoid recidivism. Ex-offenders lead new believer classes, to help strengthen and deepen the often shallow and temporary faith that may shoot up inside prison. The ministry places inmates in small groups that hold each other accountable. About 35 percent of the 800 inmates here are regularly active in the ministry.

It's easy to dismiss this activity as "jailhouse religion," since nationally two out of three inmates re-offend. But Stilwell is quick to point out that superficial belief is not unique to the prison system: "Many of us have church house religion; we act one way in church, and then another way outside, before we even crank up the car in the parking lot. It's easy for us to stand in judgment of the world, including jail. But we're all inmates, we're all sinners in the eyes of God. Our faith is superficial and God works through that. God is sowing seeds to get them past the superficial level to the change of heart."

David Smith is one of the ex-inmates whose heart changed, but he still cringes every time he enters a prison. He has a successful pest-control business, a happy family, and a nice house, but even after 22 years, part of him still feels the shame of being an inmate: "You don't want people to know," he says.

He comes back to volunteer and share the faith he found in prison with other inmates, to help them stay out upon release and build a new life for themselves. Smith first entered the system at age 17 and in 1983 was sentenced to 14 years for a robbery. In 1986, he became a Christian, the defining moment in his life: "I got to a point where I didn't really care about anything, not even myself. Once I became a Christian, it mattered. Things mattered after that. I cared about myself, about what happened to me. When I became a Christian it was so different."

Smith is sitting at a picnic table in the visiting area of Forsyth Prison, across town from the County Jail. The offices of Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries are in the prison, in a building that the ministry built and donated to the Department of Corrections. In contrast with the jail, the prison is low-slung and amiable. Except for the barbed wire fence, it could be an elementary school. Since Forsyth Prison is the last step for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, the ministry works to prepare them for the outside. It's a stressful time for prisoners, and the ministry tries to help them make the adjustment: "You get out, and suddenly you have to deal with the pressures of life," Stilwell says. "Your kids aren't 6, they are 16. The world's run by computers! Everything has been moving forward while you've been locked up."

Smith should have been better prepared than most. In addition to his faith, he had a job through a work release program. While still incarcerated, he had married, had a child, and even purchased a home. Despite all that, the transition to the outside world was almost too much for him. "The first two or three weeks were fine," Smith says. "Then came the pressure of having to be a parent, a husband, to maintain my job and my family. It felt like I was on my own. It was very overwhelming. I started to associate with some old friends. My wife and I almost divorced."

The ministry helped Smith find a church community, and the church pulled him back: "It gave me hope. They seemed like they cared about me. I wasn't used to that. It was the love that drew me in to Christ."

Support structures are crucial for success in the outside world, so the program pairs prisoners one-to-one with mentors after release. The ministry makes sure they are prepared for the transition by offering classes on managing money, work culture, and writing a resumé that includes experience gained behind bars. The ministry even runs a prison-wide mandatory class for inmates going out on work release. It's a staggering amount of access for a nonprofit Christian ministry that receives no government funding: "It's all about trust," Stilwell says. "We have these programs and this access because we have trust. We built this building and gave it to the Department of Corrections and work here at the prison because of trust. You earn that right to have access and to have mandatory stuff."

Lacy Colón is counting the days until his release from prison on Sept. 18. He's been an inmate for over 15 years. Two years ago he was a proud and militant Muslim. Now he sings in the chapel choir and works in the ministry office as his official prison job. He became a Christian after hearing the pastor at a ministry service preach a sermon about Jonah. "When I was a Muslim, I was angry and bitter and full of vengeance and wrath, because Islam tells you it's OK," Colón says. "Islam actually preaches that 'those that transgress against you, transgress ye likewise but do not exceed the bounds.' It's an eye for an eye. With Christianity I feel more at peace, but that actually makes it hard sometimes."

When Colón was 18, he tried to settle a beef by shooting up a car carrying two of his enemies. The car swerved and hit a woman on the side of the highway, a tragedy that still haunts Colón: "I wanted to exact my revenge and an innocent person got hurt. The only innocent person in the whole thing is the one who got hurt." Now with his release imminent, Colón has a plan to make sure he never returns to prison: "I'm going to stay away from the lifestyle I used to live. God is putting people in my path to help me, they're already trying to help me. It's been a blessing."

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the South regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries Factbox

Location: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Founded: 1978

Mission: Helping prisoners come to Christ and prepare for life after release.

Size: Serves 1,200 inmates in 3 facilities.

Staff: 6 permanent staff members and more than 900 volunteers.

Annual Budget: $365,000 per year. 40 percent from churches, 40 percent from individuals, 20 percent from fundraisers

website: www.forsythjpm.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky