Make no mistake—Walker State Prison in Rock Springs, GA is very much a prison. Visitors can bring nothing inside that has not been cleared. You have to leave your car keys and an ID before being escorted through several ominously clanking locked doors and gates. It’s a medium-security facility housing up to 444 male inmates.
But once inside, those expecting to see orange jumpsuits and shackles will be very surprised. Inmates wear white-and-blue uniforms that make them look more like sailors than prisoners. The ones in the central quad area might be playing chess or reading.
Chaplain Jeremy Stroop and I stop into the art studio, where some are making piñatas for the upcoming family day. “Does it look like a fish?” one piñata-maker asks me anxiously. “Looks more like a bomb to me,” chuckles someone from the back of the room. We all laugh.
“And here are the ‘grandfather clocks,’” says Chaplain Stroop, showing off what are really mixed-media sculptures made by inmates. “Is there a place where people can buy these?” I ask. “We give them away to volunteers,” he says. “It’s a way to say thank you.”
Georgia prisons have been in the news a lot recently, and not for their art programs. Violent outbreaks and accusations of mismanagement have resulted in big shakeups across the state. But Walker continues its quietly revolutionary approach. It is a “faith and character” prison. And that is why I am here.
Chaplain Stroop has reached out to religious organizations of all faiths to participate in the prison’s diversity program. He contacted the Chattanooga Zen Group, of which I am a member, to see if we’d be interested in coming in to talk about Buddhism, and then begin a monthly zazen sitting with interested inmates.
On this visit, I am bringing in some basic implements for zazen and I express concern about the striker for the gong, which, after all, could be used as a weapon. “Don’t worry,” says the chaplain. “We brought in a shofar (ram’s horn) during the Judaism sessions. Your gong should be no problem.”
The philosophy behind this program is that by allowing the inmates exposure to diverse traditions, those who have not yet found a spiritual base might do so. According to Byron R. Johnson, Baylor University professor of social sciences, writing in “Corrections Today” about Texas faith-based prison programs, “it was the active presence of faith-motivated mentors that was the most important factor associated with lower rates of recidivism.”
Georgia’s program is new—so new that the first “graduates” of the two-year program are just reaching that milestone. Chaplain Stroop says they will be tracked “forever” to ascertain recidivism rates. The Florida program that begun in 2003, and now encompasses four correction facilities, has so far failed to show significant reductions in the rate, according to Diana Brazzell in the online academic magazine “Footnote.” But Brazzell also states that combining the faith-based aspects of the program with other components, including, critically, post-prison contact, called “aftercare,” shows promise, and Johnson concludes, “…there is now preliminary but important evidence that a faith-based program combining education, work, life skills, mentoring and aftercare has the potential to influence the way corrections professionals think about issues like recidivism and the successful return of inmates to society in a paradigm-shifting way.”
Why does this matter? Because the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population that any other country on Earth—at last count, some 2.3 million of its residents—amounting to 25 percent of the world’s population of prisoners. “Putting them in jail and throwing away the key” with three strikes laws is bankrupting federal and state systems. And the people inside, most of whom are paroled or serve their terms, re-offend and are reincarcerated at extremely high rates. They learn nothing except how to become better criminals.
The men in Walker State Prison that I interact with are polite and respectful. I ask Chaplain Stroop about their backgrounds; are the stereotypes about broken homes true? “Oh, yes,” he says, “most come from families without a father figure, and the rate of physical and sexual abuse is extremely high.”
The men in Walker State Prison have had to request to come to this facility and participate in this program, and to be accepted, have to be model prisoners in their previous prison. I meet one man who has transferred in only a few days previously. He comments on the prison’s new “no locks on the lockers” plan. “It’s so different here,” he says.
On this night, I teach a group of about 10 inmates to sit quietly in meditation. We laugh about how hard it is to sit still in the beginning, even for five minutes.
I tell them, “Everything changes.” Even being able to sit still. Even being in prison. Even, maybe, your chances for never coming back here.