Having retired following 18 years as a corrections officer at several facilities in Michigan, Billy Stewart is once again returning to prison—this time as a volunteer with Prison Fellowship. Denise Harris, Prison Fellowship’s field director for the Detroit area, asks Billy to share his thoughts about his perspective of prisoners as an officer, and what is taking him back behind bars.
How long did you serve as a corrections officer?
I served 18 years with the Michigan Department of Corrections—at Mound Correctional, Macomb, and the Charles Egeler Reception Center.
Overall, what was your experience as a corrections officer? Is there anything that might surprise people?
Stewart: My overall experience was, “if you give respect, you get respect.” It was a rewarding, yet stressful at times due to the unknown of anything happening at any given moment and knowing how to react.
The thing that surprises people the most, and the most asked question of my entire career is, “Are you armed around the prisoners.” They are always surprised when I tell them “no.” We only carried handcuffs and a radio. It wasn’t until 2012 when we trained and started carrying tazers to help reduce injury to staff breaking up physical altercations.
From your experience, how big a role do faith-based programs like Prison Fellowship play in the transformation of prisoners?
Stewart: I believe faith-based programs like Prison Fellowship play a huge role, having witnessed the transformation of prisoners through the years. The volunteers model the same Christlike way day after day, year after year, and recognizing that commitment is key to these prisoners following Christ.
It is very easy for some officers to become jaded in regards to prisoners. Many feel they will never change and they don’t deserve a second chance. You’ve probably worked with that type of mentality. What caused you to feel differently about them?
Stewart: I have worked with hundreds of staff over the years that could care less about prisoners—they just wanted a paycheck. I saw them as I viewed myself, a man needing to be saved and forgiven. When I did share with them, I tried to help them see that there are consequences for our actions, whether good or bad. They appreciated the upfront honesty.
What was it that led you to want to return to prison as a mentor?
Stewart: I believe it is my calling to return to the prison system and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with inmates. I can communicate honestly and openly, having worked with them every day for almost two decades. They see I’m not feeding them lines, or what they might want to hear, but truth in love. I have a burden on my heart to help them see that just because they are locked up physically, they don’t have to be locked up spiritually.
How do you see your previous experience as an officer helping you in your new mentor role?
Stewart: I see my experience as a former corrections officer as a real opportunity to share with prisoners. I understand what they have experienced, having been inside with them. Even though on the other side, I have always encouraged and tried to steer prisoners to honesty, being good, attending worship services, passing out Our Daily Bread devotionals, and just being an ear to listen to their problems of being incarcerated—offering advice, and even writing letters on their behalf to the parole board as to their conduct, work habits, and improvements made being incarcerated.