Jails' religious services under new leaders

Standard-Times/August 25, 1999
By John Doherty

DARTMOUTH -- A little-known evangelical church has taken over the coordination of all non-Catholic religious programs in Bristol County lock-ups, causing some uncertainty about the future of worship in the jails.

As of Aug. 1, Grace Gospel Church of Swansea began administrating the regular Protestant Bible study and worship sessions for prisoners of the Bristol County Sheriff's Department.

And according to Grace Gospel spokesman Tom Taylor, the church has begun evaluating existing programs instituted by New Bedford's InterChurch Council, the former contractor for Protestant religious services.

"It's too soon to tell what changes will be made," said Mr. Taylor. "We do expect to make some changes. ... Some programs obviously will hit the mark, and there are sure to be other things that are just not going to make it."

Grace Gospel will have four ministers working in the prison regularly and will coordinate the religious activities run by other congregations' volunteers.

For Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, whose reputation for no-frills, disciplined corrections policies peaked with the introduction of chained prisoner work crews this spring, religion is central to rehabilitation.

Grace Gospel not only underbid the InterChurch Council, their experience in prison ministries in Rhode Island and at Bridgewater's state prison complex convinced the sheriff they would continue the high level of service Bristol County needs, he said.

"I can say without question this is not a fun place to do time, because we've taken the fun out of it," said Mr. Hodgson. "We worked closely with (InterChurch Council) to try to develop a more comprehensive program of spiritual services. ... We believe it gives prisoners a critical component of success rehabilitation to have access to spirituality. There isn't any rehabilitation without it."

The 20-year-old non-denominational Christian church, with a congregation of about 1,000, outbid the InterChurch Council last month for the contract to provide services to non-Catholics in county facilities.

They will provide Protestant worship service and other programs for $48,000 per year -- about $2,000 less than the cost of InterChurch's proposed plan. The contract is a one-year agreement with options to renew for an additional two years.

For those not aware of Grace Gospel Church, their annual "Heaven's Gates or Hell's Fire" dramatic tent worship event in Swansea -- which ended its three-day stint this year last night -- and its high-profile billboards along Route 195, are the congregation's most visible presence.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River maintains its own separate ministry programs for prisoners -- the majority of whom identify themselves as Catholic.

Since Aug. 1, Grace Gospel has held about 39 prayer or worship activities a week at the county's four facilities.

Mr. Taylor said the church has been contacting the volunteer workers in the prisons previously affiliated with InterChurch and indicated many will continue their work.

Ironically, it was the InterChurch Council's wish to expand the programs they offered to prisoners that necessitated putting the services out to a bidding process, in which they lost.

The expanded programs were to include additional outreach programs for the families and children of inmates and new services for Hispanic inmates.

But with the added programs came added costs, and Sheriff Hodgson decided the services needed to go to a public bid.

The Rev. Edward Dufrense, director of the InterChurch Council, said the 40-plus congregations that make up the Council will be disappointed to not have the prison mission.

And the change was a bit surprising.

"In our conversations with the sheriff he had nothing but praise for the work we'd done in a short time," said the Rev. Dufrense. "We wish Grace Gospel all God's blessings and we hope they continue what we consider has been some remarkable work. We stand ready to help them in any way we can."

Other area clergy were also taken aback by the change in providers.

Though not members of the InterChurch Council (all of which are Christian Congregations, area Jewish leaders praised the group's inclusive approach.

"They were always gracious enough to extend us invitations to their events," said Rabbi Raphael Kanter. Though the county's Jewish prisoners have always been few in number, the relationship with InterChurch ministers working inside the walls reassured Rabbi Kanter those Jewish prisoners felt comfortable requesting visits and service from area rabbis.

The change could cool that feeling.

"There's simply new faces, new procedures for those prisoners seeking our assistance," he said. "If you are the only Jew in there you cold be reticent to come forward, and you have to be educated that those services are available."

But Mr. Taylor said that period of adjustment is already under way.

The first service he led at the Dartmouth House of Correction drew no prisoners.

The turnout has slowly increased he said, and 39 prisoners attended a Sunday service this week.

"They're getting to know us, we're getting to know them and the population," he said. "We don't want to come in and say we know it all."

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