The Prison Fellowship Academy targets criminogenic thinking while offering prisoners a chance to learn marketable skills for their future.
No one ever thought Michael would go to prison. "I was a family man and a taxpayer—a law-abiding pillar of my community," he says. "If there had been a category for 'Least Likely to Go to Prison' for the yearbook, that would have been me."
Yet Michael soon discovered that sin doesn't discriminate. In 2006, he was arrested for attempted murder and received a 12-year sentence.
At first, Michael was sent to transfer facilities. He bounced around the system until he was eventually placed in a supermax prison. "Rows of razor wire, guards with M16s, and all that stuff—the kind of stuff that you see on maximum security prisons on TV," he recalls. "That's where they sent me."
Michael's fellow prisoners were mostly confirmed gang members or prisoners sent from other units for disciplinary reasons. "I wanted out of there bad," he says. "That place was just death."
After serving his time there, Michael was eventually transferred to the Jester State Prison Farm outside Houston. There, at the Carol Vance Unit, Michael was enrolled in the Prison Fellowship Academy®.
Located in select prisons across the country, the Academy is an intensive, biblically based program that takes incarcerated men and women through a holistic life transformation. Participants are guided by Prison Fellowship® staff and volunteers to identify the life-controlling issues that led to their incarceration and take responsibility for its impact on their community. The program specifically targets criminal thinking and behavior, life skills, addictions, victim impact, and prosocial culture change.
INVESTING IN PRISONERS
Life was different in the Academy. Michael was surrounded by like-minded people and supported by a community that wanted to see him find restoration. Leading figures of the local Houston community invested in Academy participants, and Michael enrolled in a journalism class taught by an editor for the Houston Chronicle.
"My whole family are journalists," Michael explains. "It was a good fit for me because I like to write. I got involved in the journalism class, and after … learning MLA and AP style guides and different writing techniques, I asked … 'Why don't we start a prison newsletter?'" Thus, The Herald was born.
It was slow going—the prison had a computer lab for the prisoners to use, but the computers were old and frequently crashed. When Michael's mentor, a prominent Houston lawyer, heard about The Herald, he donated several computers for the prisoners to use. Later, Michael discovered a couple of dusty video cameras in the computer lab closet.
"I got out the manuals, and I read them, and I taught myself all of the ins and outs of these cameras," he recalls. "What we had were not just some basic camera equipment—[these] were high-end.”" Former prisoner turned Prison Fellowship® staffer Chad Prince led video workshops "showing us not only how to operate the cameras, but also shooting techniques and things like that," Michael says. "I started a video production team, and I was just passing on the knowledge that I had learned to others … We ended up doing all kinds of stuff."
For security reasons, most prisons have restrictions on what can and cannot be filmed. The video production team was permitted to film only within the prison chapel. Although they were limited by the regulations of the correctional facility, they still had plenty of opportunities to put their news skills to work.
The video production team was asked to film the Academy curriculum in its entirety. By doing so, the team was able to create high quality DVDs that could then be used in other facilities where programing was restricted. The project opened the doors for more opportunities for the video production team, including a commercial for the Academy that aired on ESPN during 'Mike & Mike'.
"It was completely written, shot, edited, and everything right there in the computer lab using these computers that were donated and all of the equipment that Chad Prince and other people had donated to us," Michael says. "I didn’t even know what 'Mike & Mike' was, but volunteers would come and [say] 'I saw your commercial on TV!'"
SHAPING THE LEADERS OF TOMORROW
In the Academy, Michael was able to learn marketable skills he knew would one day help him on the outside. But he also had learned the importance of investing in community. When he found out he made parole and would soon be released, Michael was determined that The Herald and the video production team would carry on without him.
"I wanted to pass the torch and keep that legacy alive," Michael explains. Like his mentors before him—the Houston Chronical editor, the Houston lawyer, Prison Fellowship's Chad Prince—Michael reached out to the next generation of Academy participants. He invested in them, passing along the knowledge and skills that he had received during his time at the Academy.
Today, many of those who served on The Herald and on the video production team are out of prison and working in media and the audiovisual industry. "From the humble beginnings of a prison computer lab came all of this," Michael says in awe. "We’re living proof that not only [does] the [Academy] program work, but the skills we learned in there were marketable."
Investing in prisoners today means creating a stronger community tomorrow.
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