Column: "Faith makes a difference at Kingman prison

Courtesy

Courtesy

LAKE HAVASU CITY (AP) - Wayne Bayse, 59, isn't your typical prison chaplain. Then again, Arizona State Prison-Kingman isn't your ordinary prison.

"There's prisons, and then there's this place," said Bayse. "I'm here because this is not your standard prison."

When trying to win over skeptical prisoners to a life of faith, Bayse has something of an edge over other chaplains.

"I don't just preach this, I eat, sleep and breathe it," he said.

Bayse is a former inmate and a former drug addict, who served hard time in California after a botched robbery of a Coco's restaurant in Los Angeles.

"I took four hostages and was captured by the SWAT team," Bayse said.

Then 38, Bayse was booked into Los Angeles County Jail and placed in a cell next to Richard Ramirez, the notorious serial killer known as the "Night Stalker."

"I looked out, and I knew who he was, but I didn't know who I was," he said.

Locked up in a California state prison, Bayse turned to religion, which helped him stay clean after his release. For the next 15 years, he worked as a volunteer chaplain in some of California's worst prisons. Now, as if coming full-circle, he recently found employment as a chaplain at Arizona's newest state prison in Kingman, a minimum-security facility for largely nonviolent offenders.

With a stated goal of providing the treatment and training inmates need to rebuild their lives after release, the Kingman facility offers a wide variety of educational and rehabilitation programs, from high-school equivalency classes to alcohol and drug treatment.

"This is a psychological, spiritual healing ground," Bayse said.

Increasing from about 20,000 in 1995 to slightly less than 35,000 in 2005, Arizona's prison population is expanding fast and shows no signs of slowing. The financial burden of incarceration is growing even faster: Between 1997 and 2007, spending on prisons more than doubled from $409 million to $817 million.

If those trends persist over the next 10 years, the growth rate of Arizona's prison population will outstrip virtually every other state in the nation.

According to a study by the Council of State Government's Justice Center, Arizona's state prison population is projected to increase by 52 percent between 2007 and 2017, from about 35,000 to 56,660.

Yet perhaps the greatest pressure on the prison system is the state's high recidivism rate, which returns 42 percent of all those released back to prison within three years. One-third of those admitted to prison are those who have violated probation, with 17 percent more locked up for parole violations.

Drugs also play a huge role in the prison population boom. According to a study by the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, nearly one out of four inmates in Arizona's prisons are locked up for nonviolent drug offenses.

Arizona State Prison-Kingman, with 1,500 beds, was built with just those prisoners in mind and offers a unique combination of drug treatment, education and spirituality to help prisoners change their lives for the better. The minimum-security prison opened in 2004, and plans are in place to add an additional 1,500 beds.

The facility's inmates, many of whom have served time in a wide spectrum of prisons, call it a special place, where dozens of volunteers from a wide array of religious faiths interact with prisoners every week.

"There's no prison like this in Arizona," said inmate Jose Orlando Cordero, 48. "They're touching minds and they're touching hearts."

During his time in Kingman, Cordero became an ordained minister, leading prayer groups within the prison. After his release, he plans to continue his ministry work.

"I was criminally minded. I was a gang leader," Cordero said. "Now I'm working for the Lord."

Inmate Ivan Owens, 48, has done time in some of the country's toughest prisons, including California's notorious San Quentin. He called the Kingman prison a unique place, where prayer and faith were breaking down racial boundaries.

"Don't get the wrong idea, this isn't a perfect place. This is prison," he said. "But there are people from different walks of life and cultures who come to me in my pod and sit on my bunk. This is taboo in prison - a Mexican isn't supposed to sit on a black guy's bunk. But people respect me because of the Lord."

Owens belongs to a faith-based public speaking class headed by volunteer pastor Durmond Blatnik, who has spent 16 years counseling inmates at the Mohave County Jail and, since its opening, at the state prison in Kingman.

"It's the brothers within the Christian community that are really changing me," Owens said.

Like all penal institutions, the Kingman facility has its problems. Inmate Jason Thibodeaux, 36, a recovering drug addict, said that drugs were readily available. "This yard is saturated with drugs," Thibodeaux said. "It's off the chart."

The strong community of faith at the prison, however, has helped keep him from backsliding.

"I'm in the face of all the same stuff I would be out there, but through Jesus Christ I'm staying sober," he said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for inmates will come not while they are imprisoned but once they are released. Besides one facility limited strictly to women prisoners, no state-funded after-release facility exists in Arizona.

"For every man that comes out of here, they need an after-prison facility of some sort," said Bayse.

"Everybody knows that we need more, but it boils down to dollars and cents."