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Friday, February 17, 1995

God: Sent to jail

Memphis Commercial Appeal, February 17, 1995
by Michael Donahue

Don't cry in jail.

That's part of what R. Michael Cunningham has learned after more than a year as a volunteer lay prison minister for juvenile offenders at the Criminal Justice Center.

Cunningham recalled an inmate who did cry. "It was touching because he was in there for a serious crime. He said, 'I come to a jail cell. We're all from the same ethnic group. Because I wouldn't give somebody a pack of cookies, he took it. And when I said something about it, he threatened to kill me.' "

Cunningham continued, "I saw a female guard come to him and say, "Look, do you want to step out? Do you want to leave? 'Cause you can't cry in here. If you cry in here, that's just the beginning of a nightmare for you.' "

Cunningham, 32, is one of 70 lay ministers in the juvenile mentor program of the Criminal Justice Ministry. He visits the Criminal Justice Center on Thursdays to talk to 56 young men ages 15 to 17.

Fourteen religious organizations conduct prison ministry programs for the inmates at the center. But the Criminal Justice Ministry, an outreach program of Calvary Episcopal Church, has the only program just for juveniles, said Jail Director Denis Dowd.

The Criminal Justice Ministry began in 1978 to minister to women in jail, said Novella Smith Arnold, executive director since 1982.

The juvenile mentor program began in 1993 because of the large number of young men in the Criminal Justice Center.

"Here were all these youngsters in jail locked down 24 hours," Arnold said. "They were acting like caged animals. And that's what they were because they weren't getting any kind of nourishment. No food for thought. Nothing. So, we had to do something."

Arnold enlisted the help of men at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, which has a large male ministry. Cunningham, who recently became national sales manager of the sports market for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, was one of them.

Three rooms are going at one time on Thursday nights, Arnold said. A Muslim mentor works with youths in one room, and Bible study or church services go on in the others.

Some of the volunteers talk one-on-one to the juveniles in their cells. "We give them the love and God's ministry," Arnold said. "We tell them that God loves them and that he will forgive them if they ask."

Arnold also would like to give them some education. "These are children treated like adults, children that have been remanded from Juvenile Court to be tried - and treated - as adults.

"Nothing from nothing gives you nothing. So, if you hold these kids for five or 10 years giving them nothing, those who have not been convicted for life will come out being nothing again. And then you and I will have to watch ourselves on the street."

Cunningham, who now is assistant to Arnold, doesn't ask the inmates, whom he refers to as "my guys," why they're in jail. "I think that society has labeled them so much already. I try to be as objective and as nonjudgmental as I can."

'He's trying to set us on the right road'

The sound coming from the various pods, or groups of cells, on a recent Thursday is like the din of a high school cafeteria at its peak lunch hour.

Cunningham, wearing sweats and tennis shoes, carries a stack of printed poems, articles and other inspirational material.

Hands immediately stick out of the cells in the first pod he visits. The inmates shout out his name. The guys are starving for something to read, Cunningham says.

Red and Prune, two inmates, reveal some of the well-worn paperbacks in their cell. The titles are Dakota Promises, Colorado Gold and a romance novel, The Search for Mr. Perfect. They've also got a Bible, one of them says.

Red has plenty of tattoos. He says he makes them with a combination of materials, including a staple, a toothbrush, ashes, Colgate toothpaste and Suave shampoo.

A large "G" on his chest stands for "Gangster Disciples," which he says is an "organization" or "brotherhood." The Disciples are actually a Chicago-based gang that has absorbed scores of neighborhood gangs in Memphis in the past several years, police have said.

But another tattoo on Red's left hand says "God" and "Love."

The inmates, some of whom are shirtless and just wearing underwear, say they appreciate Cunningham's visit. "We don't have anybody come here to talk to us," Red says.

"He's trying to set us on the right road instead of down that big old bad road," says an inmate in another cell.

Cunningham is surprised to see a familiar face in a pod farther down the hall. "I just saw him on the street," Cunningham says. He repeats the same sentence, almost in disbelief, a little later.

Even though most of the guys are friendly, all of them, no matter how young, act tough. "Any time you have to act tough all the time you can't be a human being. Our society teaches us that if you cry, you're weak," Cunningham says.

But like tears, fear is forbidden in jail, too. "I would say 100 percent of them are scared. But if you show fear in jail, you'd be taken advantage of. They'll take your food. They'll take your clothes. As the kids say on the street, 'They'll take your manhood if you show weakness.' "

'They are ... not animals ...' 'They can change'

Cunningham, who graduated from Rice University with a bachelor's degree in political science and the University of Memphis with a master's degree in communication studies, began giving motivational talks to high school athletes. He played professional basketball internationally.

But he thought prison ministry would challenge his motivational abilities. "To go into high school and speak to kids who are already doing well, who think they can do everything anyway, is not really a challenge.

"But you find that if you go into prisons you have a lot of people who have given up on themselves. They think, 'Well, gosh, I've really messed up this time.' Or 'I'm doomed to a life of crime because I'm 15 years old and I'm labeled a murderer, a drug dealer.' They feel that's their life and they can't change. But they can change."

"Just because you're in jail, don't think that when you get out there's going to be a whole lot of changes. You have to start in jail," said Rickey Smith, another lay prison minister at the Criminal Justice Center.

Smith, 35, who works for Federal Express Corp., has been a lay minister at the center for about a year. He has worked with outreach ministries with youths in the community for some time.

"There are two places on Earth that are full of talent: the graveyard and the prison," Cunningham said. "These kids have personified that statement 'cause there are some of the most talented kids you'll ever see: artists, poets, rappers, electricians, a lot of real sharp minds.

"The unfortunate thing is a lot of them have not been channeled to do the right things. They've been encouraged or influenced to do the wrong things. They become their environment. They become a better criminal instead of reaching their potentials to be positive influences.

"The thing that bothers me the most is that prison isn't the bed of ease that our society paints it. These kids will tell you about fights they've had in which people have gotten shanked (stabbed), how they file down the end of toothbrushes to stab each other, how any metal becomes a lethal weapon."

Can't the guards do anything about the problems among the inmates? "If they know about it, they can," Arnold said.

As for those who say criminals deserve what they get, Arnold said, "If they are guilty, they should get what the law says they should get. If it's a jury trial and they say life without parole, so goes life. But they are still human beings and not animals. And the Bible tells us that these are people we should minister to. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners."

Cunningham said his athletic background and laid-back approach draw teens to him. He tells them Bible stories they can relate to. "Paul, who wrote over half of the New Testament, was a serial killer. What was Paul's job before he got transformed? He persecuted Christians.

"These kids have helped me learn a lot more about the Bible 'cause they're going to ask you questions and you've got to know. They're going to ask you questions about your personal Christianity."

Cunningham hasn't been a prison minister long enough to know if he's had any success stories. "But I get encouragement every day. One guy told me he wants to be a lawyer. I don't know if he's going to be a lawyer or not, but he's going to be successful 'cause he's a leader. He has a strong will. He's a confident person. He just needs to be channeled in the right direction.

"I may not know for 10 years if I've helped anybody or been an influence," Cunningham said. "But that's the day I'm looking for. Ten years down the line somebody I don't recognize will walk up to me and say, 'I was in the jail. You used to bring these pamphlets. You used to tell me about God. You used to tell me about life.

"'You told me I could do it, and now I did it. Now I'm married. This is my wife and two kids. I'm a plumber. Making an honest living.' "

Edition: Final; Section: Appeal; Page: C1
Copyright 1995 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN


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