Faithful Behind Bars
Optimistic and good-natured Floyd Bledsoe doesn’t sound like a man who spent nearly 16 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Yet Bledsoe, 39, credits Assemblies of God U.S. missionary Donald W. Starnes and participants in the Freedom Challenge program with encouraging him to stay strong in desperate environs.
Starnes has served as director of Freedom Challenge since 2005, when it became a full-scale drug and rehabilitation program behind prison walls in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Although he didn’t have any criminogenic life-controlling issues himself, Bledsoe graduated as the first Freedom Challenge intern. In an effort to help others, he went through advanced leadership training and development and personal studies to obtain Teen Challenge certification.
One of the key components of Freedom Challenge is forgiveness, an attribute Bledsoe learned early in his incarceration.
“Forgiveness is most beneficial to the offended party,” Bledsoe says. “Forgiveness is setting the offended person free and restoring what’s been taken from him.”
Bledsoe stayed almost 16 years in Kansas institutions after being wrongfully convicted of the first-degree gunshot murder of 14-year-old Zetta Camille Arfmann, his sister-in-law. He had been sentenced to life in prison.
While incarcerated, his wife divorced him, his two young sons forgot him, and his parents grew estranged from him.
Bledsoe maintained his innocence — and his faith — over those trying years. In December 2015, based on recent suicide notes from the real killer — Bledsoe’s older brother, Tom — plus DNA tests, Floyd walked out of prison a free man. Thanks to the persistence of the Innocence Project, a Kansas court exonerated Floyd and dropped all charges, however the state offered no remuneration for the years he had been wrongly imprisoned.
“Freedom Challenge helped me grasp that God is in the devastation,” says Bledsoe, who in addition to repairing furnaces and air conditioners is a public speaker on forgiveness and judicial reform. Bledsoe is trying to convince Kansas legislature to implement a compensation law so that future prisoners who have been errantly imprisoned will be eligible for funds once liberated.
Freedom Challenge is similar to other Teen Challenge programs in that students are given daily time for group instruction, individual study, and prayer. However, to a greater degree than Teen Challenge centers on the outside, those most experienced in this program mentor the neophytes.
Bledsoe counseled, befriended, and held others accountable in the faith-based program. He found his time working with Freedom Challenge to be rewarding, yet strenuous.
“Sometimes you need to allow people dealing with extreme hurt or anger to vent so they can get to the root cause of the issue,” Bledsoe says.
Although Freedom Challenge technically is open to any prisoner, the spiritual direction offered is based on the gospel. Inmates who voluntarily choose to be involved in the rigorous eight-month training understand what specific religious materials will be used to teach character and values.
Typically, participants are involved in Freedom Challenge five-plus hours every weekday, taking courses on subjects such as theology, family, and leadership. More than 200 men, some of them lifers, have completed the studies.
“Being able to make choices and set goals is a different experience for men in prison, where they are told when to wake up and what to eat every day,” says Starnes, 57. “If they go back into society, they will be better equipped at communicating and interacting.”
Starnes seeks enrollees interested in forming positive relationships.
“They have to be teachable,” Starnes says. “Humility is the attitude of learning.”
Prison officials didn’t require Freedom Challenge to compromise any of its teachings before approving the program.
Sam Cline, who is the warden at Hutchinson Correctional Facility where 1,860 inmates live, says Freedom Challenge students have a more positive demeanor and an increased willingness to converse than the typical prisoner.
“They seem to have a certain amount of joy that’s reflected in their personality,” Cline says. “A lot of the men in prison are sullen and withdrawn, but these men seem to be able to cope better with the difficult realities of this place.”
Cline says Freedom Challenge staffers aren’t afraid to confront untoward behaviors.
“Don has a very obvious commitment to the men in the program and to making sure the program itself is one of extreme accountability,” Cline says.
Overall, Freedom Challenge has 85 volunteers engaged in some capacity, including 15 who regularly go inside the correctional center. For the past four years, a Freedom Challenge mentoring coordinator has worked at the Hutchinson facility as well as with parolees on the outside.
Starnes still makes a daily 90-mile round-trip drive from Wichita to oversee the program.
“Don treats everybody with the utmost respect, care, and compassion,” Bledsoe says. “The lengths he is willing to go to see people succeed amazes me.”
Starnes tries to connect those released from prison with Bible-believing churches. He also has business connections so that inmates can begin working a job even before being freed. Those who are accountable to their parole officer, employer, relatives, and churchgoers are most likely to conquer their past, he says.
“If they have a sense of purpose and motivation to pursue it, their chances of returning are minimal because there is something greater inspiring them than just surviving,” Starnes says. “They feel like they are making a difference for themselves, their families, and the kingdom of God. When that happens, they desire to avoid evil, and they won’t come back.”
Pictured: Don Starnes (left) remains good friends with Floyd Bledsoe.