Garner: Opinion

Column: Stepping into unfamiliar territory

Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.
Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.

For many of us, there will never be an opportunity to see the inside of a prison. And for most of us, that’s perfectly fine.

Last week, though, staff writer Kara Bettis spent a morning in the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh working on a story about a prison ministry designed to give the women incarcerated there a chance to find a spiritual alternative to the behaviors that landed them in prison to begin with.

She talked to inmates and volunteers. She took pictures and produced a video, all designed to give us a closer look at the ministry and how it impacts the people the volunteers are there to work with. You can see all that work on our website at

Bettis said the experience was a good one, though she was visiting a place most of us hope never to see.

In fact, I suspect most of us, unless we know someone in prison, don’t give the inmates a second thought. They are out of sight, out of mind. But as Dew4Him Ministries president Jane Wolfe told Bettis, more than half the women in that prison will end up back behind bars within three years of their release.

If we toss people in jail and make no effort to help them change the focus of their lives, we shouldn’t expect anything less than seeing them back in jail in short order. Consider this: most of the time when we get punished for something, whether we’re a child who lied, or an adult who stole, we serve out our punishment, survive it and realize the punishment’s not as bad as we thought. It’s no longer a deterrent.

But if we help people understand there are better ways to go about living a life, there’s an incentive to do things differently once we’ve served our punishment. Not to be too big a bleeding heart here – there are some who simply can’t be reformed and should never return to a civil society – but it seems to me we would all be better served if we help criminals find better alternatives in their lives.

A faith ministry like the one Bettis wrote about is but one way people can find those better alternatives. Education programs and work skill development programs give prison inmates more productive choices. We ought to look to our leaders in North Carolina to admit that mass warehousing of people for some period of time just isn’t going to get the job done.

Those who have enduted basic training in the military know that the first part of boot camp is designed to tear recruits down for the express purpose of building them up and raising them up in the military tradition.

The same approach ought to be in place in our prisons. Yes, criminals deserve punishments for their crimes. But we must all build them up and the benefit of doing that can be seen in Bettis reporting, all because she went somewhere most of us would likely be too uncomfortable to go.