Carl sees prison conditions more now than he ever did as a police officer. And prison is one of his favorite places to be.
Retired police officer Carl Wooten lives down the road from Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC), a prison near Oklahoma City. He used to see it every time he left the house for work. Back then, he never saw himself stepping inside as a prison ministry volunteer.
His wife Karen suggested they try volunteering in prison after she befriended a woman who had been incarcerated. The former prisoner shared how church volunteers had made an impact in her own life. Around that time, Prison Fellowship® connected with the Wootens’ church about volunteer opportunities. Karen said yes to the chance right away. Carl said he would look into it.
"Honestly, I didn't really want to go into prison at first. I'd been on the other side of the law as a police officer," says Carl, who left the police force after 25 years.
He was about to see a side of prison he'd never imagined.
AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP
The Wootens began the process to become certified volunteers and met Aaron Cosar, Prison Fellowship Academy® manager at LARC. At select locations nationwide, the Academy takes incarcerated men and women through intensive curriculum and guides them to become transformed citizens in their communities—behind bars and beyond the gates.
In the process of training to be certified volunteers, the Wootens accompanied Aaron behind bars meet some men in the Academy.
"When I went in, it felt like God just did a download of love in my heart to be there," says Carl.
Two months after their first visit, the couple found themselves in the prison classroom again. This time, they were teaching.
Carl appreciates how the Academy's biblically based curriculum serves people of all backgrounds, faiths, or no faith at all. "The curriculum is an open-door opportunity to minister, for positive outcomes. It shows men another way of thinking and approaching situations."
As they guide Academy participants through the curriculum, they get to know the men on a personal level. In time, he has seen God move in their lives. Carl stays an extra two hours after class or Bible study, just to spend time building relationships.
Tibbs, an Academy participant about Carl's age, is tall and burly with a no-nonsense personality. But he's also kind and loves to joke around once you get to know him. Tibbs grew up in Seminole, Oklahoma, not far from Carl's hometown, and it didn't take long for them to bond over similar experiences and connections. More than a teacher-student relationship, it's a friendship.
"There's that attitude that develops of 'us' and 'them,'" Carl explains. "But the Lord kept correcting me if I started to think that way. God is amazing in what He does. He can change your heart."
A TOWN DOWN THE ROAD
When Carl sits to play cards or dominoes with the men after class, he knows it's about more than the game. It's about showing the men that he cares. That authenticity keeps the door open for him to serve and mentor well.
Carl didn't tell the Academy cohort about his career in law enforcement right away. When he finally shared, some had already guessed his background. "I guess I carry myself that way," he says. "They had embraced the fact that I could come in and minister to them. They feel like it's genuine."
"I see the prison conditions now more than I did as a police officer," continues Carl, who still wears a uniform—this time, working part-time security at a bank. "I saw the mentality that leads people into a destructive lifestyle. Before, I really didn't care about how bad it was in prison. But I care. I believe in reformation, that people can be reformed. And if you are reformed, you should have the opportunity to be free again."
With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, many prisons have been closed to programming. Carl misses going into LARC and investing in the men who, not long ago, were just strangers behind prison gates. But now Carl knows that prison is just another town down the road.
"It's joyful to get to go in, to share Christ, to give men hope that they can live a better life in prison and in the future if they get out."
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