Madras UMC provides support, encouragement for local inmates
Editor's note: KH's initials are being used in this story to protect his privacy.
When Rev. Nancy Slabaugh Hart moved to Madras in 2017, she was pleasantly surprised to know the church was partnering with Central Oregon Community College to provide educational programs at the minimum-security Deer Ridge Corrections Center, but chaplaincy wasn’t what she was after.
“I certainly have the skill to be helpful. But, I wanted to help the men in the education department with a wider range of options—reading, writing, social skills, public speaking,” Hart said. “(Inmates) know I am a pastor (for my day job) but they appreciate that I don’t have any religious agenda. I am there because I want to help.”
Her help has led to one inmate earning his GED with powerful writing skills and an incredible story to tell. When KH is released in April, he wants to go back to school to become a drug and addiction counselor, because of what he says he has to offer others that may be heading down the same path he did.
“I have spent most of my adult life either in ‘the life,’ or in prison. I reached a turning point when my mother died. I was in prison, working on my GED. The teachers here were different. They really cared about the students,” KH writes in an essay published on the Conference website. “When they looked at us, they saw us as people, not what we had done. I began to think I could make a difference when I got out. Maybe I could help kids to not make the same mistakes I made.”
Hart said there is a lot of vetting and education that is required to become a volunteer in the prison. She and an associate member of the Madras UMC congregation, Jan Kozak, both went through the training.
Hart said most of the inmates are within a couple of years of getting paroled, depending on a variety of circumstances. There are limited educational opportunities outside of GED support, because of a limited budget. Hart said the welding program is very popular, but also incredibly hard to get into. Volunteers are trying to create a wider array of program availability like establishing a bicycle repair shop.
She was assigned to work with KH because, as staff told her, he appeared to be going through a time of deep reflection about his life. She said he is a natural leader, other students listened to him and he has great charisma, among other character traits. But he also had a reading disability that was challenging him as he continued to work on his GED.
“We began to work on increasing his reading fluency,” she said. “We chose things to read that meant something to him, as a black man, wanting to read his own stories. This led to him wanting to teach others about those stories, particularly the stories about men and women who most people have never heard of—who have been pivotal in the story of black people in America”
As the two became more acquainted, Hart said KH began telling her about his life growing up dealing drugs and being part of a gang in New Orleans. His whole family, he writes, appeared to be caught up in “the life” of crime.
“I encouraged him to write his story down, so people would understand where his journey had led him. For the many months, I have just listening to his story, and helping him to shape it in a way that he can share with other people. He wanted me to share the result,” she said.
Hart said most of the men she’s worked with at the prison have never had much of a chance to move past the kind of life they’ve lived; from learning disabilities to mental health issues, abuse and neglect, many have never had a positive adult presence in their lives. Then, when the inmates are released from prison they are generally sent back into the community from which they came, where there may not be housing available, and if it is, it’s in the same neighborhoods where they committed their crimes and had access to drugs.
“The only time Grandmother said she loved me was when I was in prison,” KH writes. “But now, she says she is proud of me.”