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Volunteer chaplains fight odds at Ellis County’s jail

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Ellis County Press
WAXAHACHIE — Volunteer chaplains in the Ellis County Detention Center are fighting an uphill battle in an effort to give God a chance to rehabilitate prisoners.

The main obstacle?


'Some are there only 24 or 48 hours,' said Chaplain Gene Calvert. 'They may stay up to four months before release or sentencing to Huntsville. We have to make every moment count.'

According to Calvert, 80 percent are incarcerated because of drug- or alcohol-related crimes. 'Either driving while intoxicated, or doing something else they shouldn't be doing,' he said.

Consequently, one of the main focus points for chaplains is a 12-step program for substance abusers.

The program, nicknamed CASA, which stands for 'Christ Against Substance Abuse,' seeks to acquaint inmates with the Bible and the teachings of Christ in a one-on-one setting. But CASA takes 12 to 14 weeks to complete.

'Sometimes an inmate gets transferred to Dallas after a couple of weeks,' said Calvert. 'Later, they may be transferred back, or they may not.'

Calvert has volunteered an average of 35 to 40 hours a week at the jail for the last four years. His associate, Randall Dyess, has been going in for eight years. Both men are self-supporting — Calvert as a manufacturer's representative and Dyess as co-owner of a company that manufactures cooling units.

Other volunteers include Ron Ansell, owner of a printing company; Tommy McLemore, Junior High School Principal; Rick Newsom, an accountant; Darren Bentley, a res-tauranteur; and Paul Cornwell, who is with TXU in Dallas. A total of about 50 area evangelists are approved to enter the facility.

In addition to the 12-step program, these volunteers also offer a number of Bible studies and church services. Utilizing a curriculum called 'New Life Behavior,' which was developed by Dr. Hillary Motzinger of Lancaster, the men teach inmates about true freedom, Christian marriage, parenting and sense of self among other topics.

Any inmate who requests a Bible receives one, and all are encouraged to write letters to family members or friends. Waxahachie's College Street Church of Christ provides funding for the Bibles, the curriculum, the stationery, and any other paperwork.

Calvert said Sheriff Ray Stewart is supportive of the ministry. 'We've been through quite a few administrations,' Calvert stated. 'Every kind of abuse to every kind of help.'

But other obstacles to effectiveness are facility space and turnover of jail personnel. The current building contains only one multi-purpose room, and that room has to be used for everything, including training of staff.

'The administration has first choice, so if anything comes up, we have to cancel,' said Calvert. 'We have to constantly start and stop.'

But Calvert hopes building the new detention center will alleviate some of this trouble. Ground-breaking ceremonies for the center are scheduled for Oct. 2.

The personnel turnover problem, Calvert believes, is caused by low salaries.

'They can make more money at McDonalds,' he mused. 'As soon as they are certified, they go to some city or to the academy, and they can double their salary overnight that way.'

Calvert says the county spends a great deal of money on training for employees who don't stay.

'The system runs on money,' Calvert continued. 'Sometimes I wonder if justice is not just one big dollar sign.'

Calvert has seen prisoners have their probation revoked over a dollar. Some individuals are seemingly harassed, more and more demands placed upon them, while others slide by. 'I don't know if they're trying to get the numbers up (on prisoners in this jail), or what,' he said.

Despite the difficulties, the men have seen some fruits of their labors: Approximately 100 men and women have been baptized so far this year. Some, they never hear from again.

'Most go on to fulfill their sentences to society,' Calvert said. 'By law, when an individual is transferred, they must correspond back to us before we can find out where they go.'

About 100 prisoners currently correspond with the chaplains.

And the volunteers keep working, with one thing uppermost in their minds. 'I love them,' Calvert said softly of the inmates, 'because they are a child of God. I can show them a better way.'

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