Plight of the Former Inmate
Buford Dooley returned to a much different world in 2015 when released from a Texas prison. At the age of 71, he had been incarcerated for nearly 35 years.
“I served it all at one time,” Dooley says. “I didn’t do it on the installment plan.”
Dooley, a ninth grade dropout, went to a penitentiary in 1980 after being convicted of murder. But in 2006 he enrolled in a faith-based program in prison, and the following year he committed his life to Jesus.
Upon being freed four years ago, Dooley went straight to Calvary Commission an aftercare program in Lindale. For two years, he attended classes four days a week covering areas such as biblical counseling and anger resolution. Over 2,000 people have graduated from Calvary Commission since its inception in 1977. Calvary Commission, located on a 186-acre ranch, helps parolees to achieve their quest to stay out of prison. The organization provides an environment where former inmates eat, learn, work, and live.
“They told me who Jesus was,” Dooley explains to AG News. “They taught me the Word of God and what it meant.” Dooley graduated with an associate’s degree in theology. Today he is director of transportation at the ministry.
“If it hadn’t been for Calvary Commission, I wouldn’t have survived,” Dooley says.
Of course relatively few of the long-term released inmates in the nation are able to move to aftercare living quarters such as Calvary Commission. Yet former prisoners who have made a faith commitment inside the walls must have Christians on the outside to help them make the transition effectively.
The need is especially acute because the nation with the highest incarceration rate is dealing with an unprecedented aging inmate population. The issue is complicated by the reality that middle-aged and even elderly Americans increasingly are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Bureau of Prison statistics show that 46.2 percent of inmates are age 41 or older.
“The aging of the American prison population is exploding,” says Daniel J. Odean, correctional ministries representative for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries. “The USA has 21 percent of the world’s total incarcerated population.”
Odean, 59, says aged individuals who have spent a significant portion of their lives behind bars and have just finished a long sentence face daunting problems upon re-entry. In addition to adjusting to a society that has changed greatly since they left it, many deal with health care issues, mental health problems, locating affordable housing, loss of family, making friends, and developing marketable job skills.
“A mentor figure in their life is the biggest key to transitional success,” Odean says.
Churches with an active ministry to assist released inmates are rare. But Marcus Hubbard is grateful that Russellville First Assembly in Arkansas accepted him in 2007 after his seven-year lockup.
“It was so important for me to jump right in and surround myself with fellow believers who were there with me every step of the way,” says Hubbard, 56. “Satan comes at us with both barrels and sometimes all I could do was to make it through the doors at church.”
Recently released prisoners commonly feel like outsiders at church, that they don’t belong, according to Hubbard. But repeatedly at the altar, Hubbard says the Holy Spirit has directed the right person to pray for him.
Since being released, Hubbard has worked full time for Pope County as head of building maintenance for the courthouse as well as all other county departments. He also is in his second stint as a deacon at the church of over 700.
“The nonjudgmental, unconditional love of other people is so important,” Hubbard says. “The congregation elected me, despite my past. I didn’t want to become another statistic.”
NEED FOR MENTORS
Assemblies of God chaplain Michael L. Reighard started Jericho Commission in 2006 while spending 15 years as supervisory chaplain at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. The organization identifies congregations willing to partner with inmates looking for a church home upon release from prison.
The Jericho Commission seeks to recruit, train, and connect mentors to incarcerated people before they are released.
Along the way, Reighard — who now leads 461 Response, the AG Chaplaincy Ministries program ministering after catastrophes — mentored several inmates at the facility in the yearlong program, including Michael A. Williams.
“I didn’t know how to pay bills, I didn’t know how to be a dad, I didn’t know how to be a man,” recalls Williams, now 58. Williams, who spent 18 years inside five different penitentiaries following bank robbery and drug use convictions, credits Reighard with going above the call of duty and compassionately caring for him.
Reighard says there continues to be a desperate need for churchgoers to act as mentors.
“It is hard enough for aged people to find meaningful relationships, let alone returning inmates,” Reighard says. “Hopelessness and suicide rates run extremely high in this people group. That is why the Church is the perfect answer.”
Most Christians already have such skills, even if they have never practiced them or even recognized them, according to Reighard. All they need is training in mentoring.
Today, eight years after finishing his sentence, Williams is president of the Jericho Commission Board of Directors. He also is a drug court counselor and associate pastor of Springfield’s Highlife Church, where he met his wife, Tammy.
“Long-term people coming out of prison need somebody to come alongside us or we’ll get lost real fast,” Williams says.
Tracy Kovach, who spent more than a decade incarcerated in California and Arizona on drug and theft charges, agrees.
“If you’re saved in prison, it’s important to get connected with a church when you get out to stay grounded,” Kovach says. “So many things can go wrong; we cannot do this on our own.”
If an inmate who has been locked up for years goes back to his or her old haunts, Kovach says the likelihood of returning to prison goes up exponentially. Kovach, 53, became a Christian in prison and went directly to Arizona Teen Challenge once released. He graduated from the U.S. Missions ministry in 2010 and joined the staff afterwards. Today he is a behavioral health case manager.
Calvary Commission founder Joe Fauss, 78, says long-term inmates face myriad issues once freed.
“If they are Christian, they need a new family of God on the outside,” says Fauss, a U.S. Missions chaplain. “The released inmate needs a wraparound group and a sponsor to assist.” He suggests small groups at church can specifically welcome and support newly freed prisoners.
Much of the onus is on the one who is suddenly back in circulation, Fauss says.
“There is no shortcut in building a new life,” Fauss says. Calvary Commission works extensively with those in aftercare to find their purpose and realize their potential. Buford Dooley believes his calling by God as a Calvary Commission missionary helped him overcome myriad health woes.
Various doctors and parole board members told the incarcerated Buford Dooley he would die in prison. And no wonder. He took 18 prescriptions for diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
As he prepared to move to Calvary Commission, Dooley told God he couldn’t serve Him toting a bag of medicines wherever he went. He surprised skeptical prison officials by walking out the prison gate after almost 35 years.
“They didn’t check with God,” says Dooley, who says the conditions no longer bother him. “It’s amazing what God can do if you ask Him. I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been.”