Prison Talk

We firmly believe that even though a prisoner's body is locked up, their mind can always be free to travel the world and learn about anything they are interested through the magic or books.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Ex-convict says his prison ministry is keeping inmates from becoming repeat offenders

Tim Terry looks for information on a JumpStart Inside program participant. JumpStart Ministries is a group that provides in-prison classes for prisoners, transitional housing for people who have been recently released from prison, and employment opportunities for ex-offenders. Tim Terry, executive director of the group, said one of the goals of the prison ministry is to seek to reduce recidivism rates in South Carolina.

Meet Timothy Lee Terry: age 47, a father, a Christian, a leader of a local, faith-based prison ministry program, and an ex-convict guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Sentenced to 30 years in 1987, Terry said his life changed when he found God in prison.

"For the first time in my life, I felt the weight lift off of my shoulders," he said of his experience in McCormick Correctional Institution. "I knew I was saved."

He was released on parole in 2002. Now he directs JumpStart Ministries, a prison ministries program for reforming inmates through God.

Terry thinks the problem is that the state's correctional system too often fails to correct behavior. There are 22,666 incarcerated men and women in South Carolina's prison system; one in three of these inmates would end up back in prison within three years if current trends continue.

"I have seen people come through the system that I've dealt with before, and obviously I'm not happy when I see them," said Barry Barnette, Seventh Circuit solicitor.

Taxpayers pay for them to return to prison again and again, at the cost of $16,000 a year.

Locally, Greenville and Spartanburg counties commit more people to prison than other counties in the state.

But Terry says almost no one who goes through his program goes back to prison.

When Terry talks about the night he killed his wife and his eventual journey to God, he tells prisoners that he was "tore up from the floor up."

"I tell people I used to be a dope dealer, now I'm a hope dealer," he says.

His story always addresses his youth. He often says that 99 percent of inmates are behind bars because of unresolved childhood issues.

For Terry, his problems began when he was a 14-year-old boy enrolled in a Christian school.

"I had a mama who loved God," he said. "And all of the sudden, out of the blue, this woman, she took my little .22 pistol and stuck it to her chest."

After his mother's suicide, he said he shook his fist at God and sought comfort in alcohol and drugs.

"That sent my life into a tailspin," he said. "It went from smoking marijuana to drinking liquor to doing an ounce of cocaine a night because of that raging monster inside of me."

Terry hears similar stories through JumpStart's 40-week in-prison program.

At the chapel inside Livesay Correctional Institute in Spartanburg in November, Terry's class was in its 39th week. Dozens of inmates listened to stories of bad childhoods and mistakes. Grown men broke down in tears, sang songs, read poetry.

After they told their stories and their reasons for being behind bars — most for stealing and dealing drugs — the room grew quiet when Terry revealed his voluntary manslaughter conviction.

Terry told the crowd that, following his mother's death, he dropped out of school, got married to his high school sweetheart and had a daughter and a son. Through it all, he said he kept using and selling cocaine and marijuana.
But his marriage soured, and he killed his wife one night in anger. He tried to overdose immediately after. His 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son were in a nearby bedroom.

"I didn't want to live anymore," he said.

He ended up with a 30-year sentence at McCormick Correctional.

In prison, he found lucrative ways to keep dealing marijuana.

Then he met Paul Gray.

Gray arrived at McCormick via Kairos Ministries — a national prison ministry — and took Terry to the prison library, where Terry collapsed in tears and reconciled with God.

"That event in the library took a 29-year-old man trapped in a 14-year-old's body and set him free," he said.

He got rid of the marijuana and cleaned up.

"At (the) expense of people calling me names, I said, ‘Listen, y'all, I've done this stuff for 29 years, and the best it's gotten me is 30 years in this penitentiary. I'm going to try things another way,' " he said.

From living in prison to living in Spartanburg

In 2002, Terry walked free, having served 15 years of a 30-year sentence.

In his 15 years, he'd seen inmates leave prison only to repeatedly return. He set out to change that through programs that help ex-offenders make a successful transition back to society.

Terry uses pastor Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven Life" as his lesson plan for the 40-week course for inmates who are up for parole or release within two years.

The duration helps "whittle out the riffraff," he said.

Tommy E. Timms Jr., 37, stuck with Terry's program and is now awaiting release next March. This is his third stint in prison. All of his charges are drug-related.

He says he's ready to make a change this time. He's now a team leader in Terry's in-prison program at Livesay Correctional Institution in Spartanburg.

"My real test is coming in just a few months," he said to the class. "So I ask that you all keep me in your prayers."

He's asked Terry to help him find a good church and a room in JumpStart's transitional housing, a strategy that prison officials support.

"It's very beneficial to have someone on the outside who is willing to mentor them and keep them accountable," said Lloyd Roberts, chief chaplain with the S.C. Department of Corrections.

JumpStart manages seven units of transitional housing in Spartanburg County and several other parts of the Upstate. After inmates serve their time, Terry shepherds them into JumpStart's housing, where they must abide by strict curfews and visitation limits.

Levonne Jamison, 34, served seven years for a lewd act on a minor and was released Sept. 30. He's living in one of the JumpStart houses in Spartanburg County and has recently found full-time employment.

Jamison said he grew up in the Midlands but chose to stay in Spartanburg because he knew he had to stay away from his childhood neighborhood.

"You have to leave the old behind," he said.

In prison, he said he saw people from his neighborhood get out and quickly return to prison.

"It's a revolving door," Jamison said. "They go right back to the same thing they did before. … They go and come back and get more time."

State corrections officials say Terry's program helps break that cycle.

"The product that Tim is putting out on the table is a very good product because what they do is very much needed," said Gary Boyd, director of inmate services for the corrections department.

Boyd said the state doesn't track the percentage of JumpStart's clients who end up back in prison, but he said that rate is very low for a similar program called Changing the Way.

Breaking the cycle

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