Allegan County jail program helps inmates with reentry to community
In the midst of the Christmas season, a celebration occurred in one of the most unlikely places.
Eight heavily tatooed inmates wearing bright orange scrubs at the Allegan County Correctional Facility graduated from the jail’s community reentry program Friday, Dec. 15.
Sheriff Frank Baker congratulated the graduates and said the Christmas season is a time of sharing, giving and hope.
“Over the course of this program you’ve shared a lot with the volunteers and they’ve shared back; it’s a time of giving and they’ve given a tremendous amount of time so you can complete this program,” he said. “It’s a time of hope, and hopefully we have given you hope for your future so you can have a life outside of this facility—a life free of the addictions that may have helped to bring you here—but it is hope for a better life and for your families.
“The community wants to welcome you back as a viable and contributing member and hopefully you’ll be able to help others that are in this same kind of position.”
Each inmate stepped to the podium and gave heartfelt testimonials after sharing their gratitude to the volunteers who facilitate the reentry program through Forgotten Man Ministries.
The graduates included Brian Foster, Anthony Schafer, David McNees, Shane Risner, Gary Berzley, Danny White, DuWayne McEwen and Michael Doolin. A ninth graduate, P.J., was moved to prison but also sent his gratitude.
“The community reentry program has been a blessing for me,” said Michael Doolin. “The first day, it felt like I made a positive decision for the first time in years.”
Like most of the inmates who followed, Michael Doolin thanked Maré Westin for Moral Reconation Therapy, a program that identifies the roots of behavior through moral reasoning.
“Maré and the MRT program have shown me that I have been in an identity crisis most of my life,” he said.
Doolin said it will take some time to mend the shame he brought to himself and his family but thanks to finding God, he is turning his false identity away and learning to be the man he was supposed to be.
Brian Foster choked up while saying it seemed like all his life, all he’d done is fail. He said the programs have given him hope, shown there’s a life out there and opened his heart.
“I see how the community is looking at me, that I’m wrong and I need to change the way I’ve been living,” he said.
Given the opportunity to get his GED, he said there’s now things in his life that give him purpose.
“I’ve been so far down in my addiction I’ve tried to commit suicide—there was no point of living—but today I can honestly say there’s no where in my heart that wants to die.
“I’ve given my life to God and I’ve made a commitment to do something with my life and for my family.”
Anthony Schafer said he’s been in many different jails, prisons and programs but none where he felt the presence of God or the love from volunteers like in Allegan.
“I never had the desire to change until now,” he said. “I’ve taken something from each class and put it in my toolbox to use when I go home.”
After being mocked for reading the Bible by an inmate who said it was just a made up story, Schafer told the man he believed—but if it was just a story then it was a good one. Eventually the inmate asked for a Bible and to be led into a Salvation prayer.
“Next to my kids’ births that was the best day of my life,” he said. “Some strange old grumpy man told me that I inspired him to change.
“That’s what gave me the desire to go into the reentry program and once I got in there I had so many questions about why I do the things I do in life, why I make these choices when I don’t want to but I do it anyway.
“Through the different groups and classes, being able to express myself, to trust people and be trusted—that was eye opening and made me understand why and gave me the inspiration to change.”
The program started seven years ago, said Sgt. John Sexton of the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department. Friday’s ceremony was the 30th graduating class, the 15th out of the new jail facility and the largest graduating class of all them.
The 10-week program allows its students to live in one pod to study and support each other throughout the program. They have two life-skills classes five days a week through Love INC. Coursework includes job skills, budgeting, addiction recovery, anger management, parenting, spiritual warfare and optional Bible study. Inmates must also follow courtesy rules and a strict schedule.
“We’re not the catchall or the end all, we’re just here from the very beginning, giving them craftsman tools,” Sexton said, also mentioning volunteers will continue to help after graduation if there’s a bump in the road.
Sexton said while the program is no guarantee, most inmates who go through it don’t return and if they do, it’s a lesser offense.
“A local defense attorney wrote me a letter saying he had three clients ask for longer sentences so they could finish the program,” Sexton said.
For those who are sentenced to prison, jail chaplain Sarah Lindstrom of Forgotten Man Ministries, said the seed has been planted—all they have to do is water it.
“Seriously amazing things happen here,” she said. “They are all so different than when they came in here 10-weeks ago, you can see it in their faces.
“It is possible for people to change their lives.”
One student said he found a new family. Another said the program broke him out of his own personal prison caused by addiction.
Bible study volunteer Dennis Norman said he thought he got more out of the program than the inmates did. Sean who also volunteers in the “God pod” said it’s the best two hours of his whole week.
There’s also Maré Weston, Bob Moore, Jean Pleasire Gary Bronson, Russ Pogodzinski, Linnay Moore, and others, volunteering two to 20 hours a week.
Volunteers, judges, probation officers, law enforcement and family are all invited to the graduation followed by a pizza party.
The program has been so successful the county set up a women’s program. Its first students graduated in September 2016 and offers the same classes but also offers individual counseling with a therapist and more parenting classes.
Forgotten Man Ministries provides jail ministries in 34 county jails across the state, said Lindstrom. “But not all of those have the community re-entry program.
Life-skills programs are emerging in county jails but aren’t widely used. Allegan County’s program is serving as a model for other jails and is one of the best in the state, said Sheriff Baker. “And it doesn’t cost the community anything.”
If you’d like to donate to Forgotten Man Ministries, go to www.forgottenman.org.