NEW FRANKLIN — It’s been an uplifting week for eight inmates of Boonville Correctional Center who have found inspiration in their work on a new shelter house for the town park in this Howard County town.
The men’s work is part the 10th annual Boonslick Area Community Service Project, sponsored by the National Organization of Prison Fellowship, to build a shelter house and two new picnic tables for New Franklin City Park. The project, part of the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Restorative Justice Program, is led by members of the Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church in Boonville.
Each morning, the inmates are transported from the Boonville prison to the church for breakfast and devotional time. Pastors and laypeople lead the inmates in discussion and prayer.
“They receive encouragement on their Christian walk, but the program is non-denominational,” said Tom Maxwell, supervisor of the project and a member of Nelson Memorial. “The purpose is to show (the men) churches in their communities when they get out.”
Inmate Chad Saenz agreed with Maxwell.
“A lot of the men are afraid of being shunned by churches,” Saenz said. “These churches have treated them so kindly, and now they know they will be accepted.”
Inmates in past service projects have built ramps for people with disabilities, painted community buildings and fenced the Harvest House, a Boonville organization that provides transitional housing and food to those in need.
This is the first time the inmates have done a project in New Franklin, which lies just across the Missouri River from Boonville.
While supervising the prisoners’ work, Maxwell and fellow Nelson Memorial member Larry Long sat in the shade and discussed the history of the project. Long called Maxwell a hero for nurturing the program, but Maxwell quickly corrected him.
“The heroes are working,” he said.
Maxwell has been with the program since its inception 10 years ago. He has nothing but good things to say about the prisoners who volunteer for community service.
“The men need to be loved,” Maxwell said. “Some say they've never been loved. This program shows society they’re not all bad guys.”
Inmate John Schade said he believes the program will have a positive effect on his life.
“I’m an alcoholic, and that’s hard to admit — I lost myself within myself,” Schade said. “But being with Christians, it gives me hope that I can change. I look forward, not at the past.”
Inmate Jeff Canter said the project is preparing him for his upcoming release.
“I’m going home in three months; this will give me a good start,” Canter said. “It gets my mind off the negative on the inside (of the correctional center). I’ve committed a crime, but I’m still willing to change. It shows everybody we (aren’t) bad people. We just made bad choices.”
Rick Turnbough said the program reassures inmates. “It shows us that people haven’t (given) up on us.”
Maxwell said there is proof the program helps participants. To his knowledge, only one former graduate of Boonville’s Restorative Justice Program has returned to prison. According to Prison Fellowship International, participants in faith-based prison programs have a recidivism rate of only 16 percent. That’s far better than the overall U.S. rate of nearly 70 percent cited by the fellowship.
The programs succeed because they not only foster positive thinking but also because they prompt prisoners to join hometown churches and think through their actions.
In addition to overseeing the service projects, the program participants also lead Monday night Bible studies at the correctional center. Saenz said that’s important.
“In prison, we are sent through lots of programs. I, myself, am not a dad, but they tell the dads, ‘Be good dads,’ but they don’t show them,” he said. “This program shows them how — by being surrounded by Christian men.”
The inmates know their work through the Restorative Justice Program can only begin to repay society for the crimes they have committed, but they are thankful for the opportunity.
“I’m sure it doesn’t make up for what we’ve done, but it’s a start,” Fred Strahle said.
They are also grateful for the support they’ve received from members of Nelson Memorial and of New Franklin-area churches.
“They’re great people. They wait on us hand and foot,” Hugh West said of church members who have provided their meals.
“I’ve been living like a king this week,” Larry Simms said.
As many of the prisoners approach their release dates — ranging from Tuesday to three months from now — they’re looking to the future. West hopes to attend MU soon.
“I’ve been taking college classes (at the correctional center) for about two years. I just sent my application to Mizzou,” West said. “I get out Tuesday. I want to go to school as soon as I can. I want to do counseling. There aren’t many programs for counseling in prison.”
Saenz said he tries to keep his mind off his release date.
“It’s 35 days from today, but I’m not counting,” he said with a smile. “I’ve told my parents the first thing we do on Oct. 19 is to come out and look at this (shelter house).”
The men are proud of the work they’ve accomplished in just a short time. Many people at the correctional center told them they couldn’t finish the project in a week. The men laughed together as they prepared to roof the shelter house Tuesday afternoon. They were much further along than even they thought they would be.
“I don’t think I’ve laughed or smiled this much in two years,” Canter said as crewmates poked fun at Saenz’s trouble with a circular saw. Wiping sawdust from his face, Saenz admitted he’s “an office guy” with little building experience.
The project concludes today. The volunteers will be honored in a Sunday church service followed by a dedication that will feature remarks from state Rep. Danie Moore of Fulton, who is chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Corrections.