by James A. Bacon
In my previous post replicating an article published in Style Weekly, I put a human face on the ongoing battle to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars and turn criminals into productive, contributing members of society. It is so easy for policy wonks like me to dwell in the abstract realm of tables, graphs and position papers. That article reminds us that we are talking about real flesh-and-blood people.
Karl Green, the former drug addict and street enforcer profiled in the article, grew up in Wickham Court, one of Richmond’s more notorious housing projects. He described to me how he had to fight to survive from a very tender age. Literally, fight to survive. When he was seven or eight years old, older kids would snatch him up along with other children and make them fight little kids from other neighborhoods. The older guys would lay bets on who would emerge the winner. Green learned early on that only the strong — and the canny — survive.
For a man who has led a thuggish life, Green has a keen native intelligence. He actually made it through 11th grade and maintained a B average, he says. In prison, he became an avid reader of thrillers by Robert Ludlum, Dean Koontz and others. He has a natural gift for story telling and a knack for the vivid metaphor. But the life of the street — the drugs, the women, the partying, the violence, the macho posturing and in his case, the challenge of psychologically manipulating those around him — proved too powerful an allure. As he is the first to admit, he made bad choices. He dropped out of high school, became addicted to drugs and, except for a few years early on, never had a steady job. He had few possessions and rarely had his own place to live. He made money by selling drugs, robbing stores and beating up people.
How does a man like Green turn his life around? Getting old is part of the story. The drugs and violence wore him down. He bears scars on his arm from being stabbed on one occasion and sliced with a broken jar on another. He had a toe amputated from a gunshot wound. (His life is an amazing story; one day I hope to tell it.) At 49 he got tired of it all. He realized how empty and directionless his life was. That’s where Kingdom Life Ministries (KLM), a faith-based ministry operating in the Richmond City Jail, came in. While respectable society fears and ostracizes men like Green, KLM preached that God forgives all men, and that all men are equal in his sight. KLM provides structure, discipline and a peer-based support network as an alternative to the street, and it provides convicts with an avenue to achieve respect in the community as “men of God.”
As long-time readers know, I am an atheist. But I am not one of those atheists who is hostile to religion and wants to see it expunged from the public sphere. Religion can be a powerful force for good. For men like Karl Green, Christianity can fill the void with purpose and meaning. I may be an atheist, but I marvel at the power of faith-based ministries, be they Christian, Muslim or any other, because I’m interested in what works. And there is little question that some of these programs work. The trick is developing metrics that allow us to distinguish between the successes, the duds and the also-rans. And that’s another reason I like KLM — the organization keeps careful track of what happens to alumni from its program. All programs that aim to rehabilitate need to do the same.
The Commonwealth of Virginia spends $1 billion a year on the state corrections system, and local governments probably spend an equal amount. For too long, jails and prisons have been revolving doors, as inmates go in and out, in and out. Lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key does do one thing: It keeps criminals off the street. But it’s also incredibly expensive, and the system has done too little to equip inmates with the skills to enter productive society, which makes it doubly expensive.
Convinced that it has a winning formula, KLM is gearing up for expansion. Its transition house in north Richmond has room for only nine men. Many, many participants of KLM’s prison program have to be turned away. The organization has set a goal of setting up 15 or so houses around the state. The beauty of its “business model” is that it costs so little. KLM rents a house for eight or nine men. The men are required to find a job within a month or two and contribute $300 a month to cover food and rent. There is an initial start-up cost for rental deposit, utilities and furnishing the house but each house is largely self-sustaining.
Supporting a mostly volunteer organization like KLM is not something that government does well. But it’s something the community does do well. I urge you to join me in supporting KLM financially. Here is KLM’s Facebook page. If you are so inclined, mail a check to:
Kingdom Life Ministry, Inc.
P.O. Box 71059
Richmond, Virginia 23255