Faith, character-based program helps state prisoners - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Faith, character-based program helps state prisoners

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Calhoun County- "I found God in '99 in Valdosta State prison," says Jamal Smith.

Thirty-one year old Jamal Smith has spent the last 11 years of his life behind bars. He has a tentative parole in 2013, but he's already certain he'll never be back.

"It's amazing what you see on the inside. It's a lot that I see now about myself that I didn't even know that I had," Smith says.

Smith is one of 96 inmates in the Faith and Character Based Unit at Calhoun State Prison. The program isn't just for those who have already found religion, it also gives those like Luis Piedrahita who never really went to church a chance to find faith.

"This program helps change you permanently. Nobody is here against their own will, so if you want to be here it's out of your own free will, and I'm glad to be here, I'm glad to be here," says Luis Piedrahita.

The program is non-denominational. With the help of chaplains and counselors the inmates are given a chance to explore any religion they want while learning how to rebuild their character.

"In my forty years of ministry I don't think I've ever found anything more rewarding then being with men who so desperately need encouragement," says Chaplain Rodney Stamey.

They also spend time encouraging others by making cards for other inmates and patients at children's hospitals.

"Every man in here is in here because he wants to change. He wants something different in his life and that is what this is about," says Terry Bruner.

Fifty year old Terry Bruner is at the end of his 12 year sentence. He'll go home to Cook County in nine days. Bruner says he'll be back, but for another reason.

"By having a hands on experience in here if an opportunity comes up where we can come back and fellowship and minister we really want to," Bruner says.

Though the men live in a separate dorm, many of them have turned their attention to the nearly 1,200 other prisoners.

"I really concentrate on what's going on outside the dorm more than I do on the inside because a lot of the guys in here know what direction they need to go to, but I want to reach the ones out there outside the dorm," says Smith.

Counselors say to grow the program needs more volunteers who are willing to reach out to the men. Twenty three year old George Corouthers is one of about four other Muslims who says he needs a religious mentor.

"We need that, so if more Muslims come in it would look better," says Corouthers.

Even though they've only been in the program for a few months, prisoners say they've experience a change like no other.

"The Lord's provided and I've really got a future, a new life waiting on the outside, and I'm really excited about that," says Bruner.

"The bible says that if you continue in the truth, the truth is going to set you free, so the truth is setting me free," adds Piedrahita.

The men have found freedom in the one place designed to do just the opposite.

The program is about one year old and is strictly voluntary. It's also being implemented at Macon, Valdosta, Pulaski, Hays, and Lee-Arendale state prisons.

Posted at 7:10 PM by elaine.armstrong@walb.com