Much to his surprise, Sam Dye would spend years behind bars.
Ensconced in the corner office he occupied as an operations director for the Iowa Health System in Des Moines, Sam Dye was comfortable, well paid, and in charge of the state’s physician clinics. Then he answered an unexpected request that ultimately led him to prison ministry.
Now, after 21 years with Prison Fellowship®, Sam has served in many of our programs, from the Prison Fellowship Academy® to his most recent role as senior vice president of Warden Exchange®.
Warden Exchange convenes corrections officials who want to enhance their leadership skills, exchange transformative best practices, and join a network of peers committed to creating safer communities inside and outside of prison.
We sat down to talk with Sam in the final days of his tenure with the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.
Prison Fellowship: Is it true that you originally had no interest at all in prison ministry?
Sam Dye: In 1999 Iowa was going to be the second state for a Prison Fellowship Academy site called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® [IFI] back then. Someone brought a [promotional] videotape to my house and said, "Sam, you might be interested in volunteering for this." And I said, "No. Not really." Because I never did prison stuff, wasn't interested in prison stuff. I had no empathy for prisoners. It was just not on my radar.
He invited me to be a speaker for the orientation of this [IFI] group. So, I went into the Newton Correctional Facility, spent the evening, [and] I really had a good time. I talked to a lot of the guys, and that prompted me to sign up to be a Prison Fellowship volunteer.
How did that person envision you as a prison volunteer when you didn’t see that for yourself? Why were you so set against it at first?
We had been friends for years. We went to the same church. I did a lot of Bible studies, that type of ministry, and worked with kids. And he just thought this would be of interest to me, but I just ... I don't know where it came from, but I think I had a very typical attitude: Those people made their bed. Let them sleep in it. And I just didn't have a lot of empathy for prisoners. I didn't know anybody who'd been to prison. You see TV and movies, and you get this caricature idea.
[At this point,] I was in my early 40s. I lived most of my life with a prison 30 miles down the road, and I had worked with many groups of people, at-risk children, and so on. So, I saw lots of people change, become very different people. But I think, unfortunately, I had a typical attitude that some people have who are Christians and think, People in prison can't change. They've done such terrible things. They don't want to change. That type of thing. It's hard to say this [now], but [after] I went into the prison, and I actually talked to [the prisoners] and saw them as people ... I don't know. It's weird how it changes you, to just walk in a prison and spend some time.
Was that what ultimately changed your mind about prison ministry? Getting a chance to meet prisoners?
Yes. I think people like myself, who have been Christians for many years, before they ever went into a prison, you get affected by the media. You get affected by the movie Shawshank Redemption. You get affected by the prison reality show, Locked Up, and you get this caricature of what people in prison are like, which is totally false. Not that there's not evil people, and people that should never get out again. There are, but that's a small, small, small amount of people in prison.
Most people in prison are just like you and me, and I just had no understanding of that. Dan Kingery, [Prison Fellowship's executive vice president of field programs], says it this way, and I've always remembered it:
Life is like a track meet. And when people are in a track meet, they get down and they put their hands on the track at the starting line, and they put their feet in the blocks. Some people have two strong legs, and they get a good start. Some people start with a broken leg, and some people start with two broken legs."
Now that doesn't excuse anybody's criminal behavior, but it does give an understanding that people start at different places, and sometimes that start greatly affects your ability to make it.
I tell this to the [outside] community: "You've got to go visit a prison. You won't understand it till you go in the gates." And I tell wardens, "The more people you can get into a prison, the more volunteer base you'll have. So welcome people. Bring 100 in at a time, if you have to,” which freaks them out, but that's what it takes.
So then, how did you become a Prison Fellowship employee?
Again, we were at church, and this guy who had gotten me to go speak the first time, that started me as a volunteer ... said to me, "Man, Sam. It's too bad that you have such a great job, because the director's job [at the Iowa Academy] just came open." So I said, "Well, I do have a nice job, but that doesn't say if something came up …"
Well, a long story short, I put my name in and got hired as the Academy director.
The day I turned in my resignation was the Monday after Chuck Colson had come to Des Moines to speak at the prison for the Academy grand opening. So, his picture was on the Des Moines Register, The Sunday Register, front page. People knew I was leaving.
And the doctors [I worked with] who were believers came into my office with their copy of the Des Moines Register, because newspapers were still big back then, saying, "Is this what you're going to do?" I said, "Yeah. That's it." And they said, "Oh, wow. That really sounds interesting."
Then the doctors who weren't believers brought their newspapers in and said, "Is this what you're going to do? Are you out of your mind?" It was quite the difference between where people were in their faith perspectives and where I was going to work following my operations job.
Then there were many changes at the ministry. How have you served in the ministry since leaving the Academy?
I became a vice president. Vice president over the field, all of the field. So I had 15 direct reports and oversaw all the field activities. Back then it was Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™, Bible studies, and reentry—those were the three things the field did. And I was that until 2013, and then I became a senior vice president over the field.
After current President and CEO James J. Ackerman came in 2017, I approached him and said, "You know, James, I would really like to do Warden Exchange. I'd like to be a program director in Warden Exchange. … So, he pitched an idea that I would take over Angel Tree®—Christmas, sports camps, camping—and I would then oversee the Warden Exchange program.
When I came to the Warden Exchange, we hosted 20 wardens a year. We did 15 [in-person] residencies, and we did five online. Now we're doing 120 a year. We're doing 18 residencies, but we're doing over 100 online. So, we've quadrupled the Warden Exchange numbers.
Plus, I think we've established a really good base of correctional experts, businesspeople, academics, media people, who come and present to the wardens and discuss the issues that are pertinent to them, in residencies and sometimes on Reimagining Prison®, our Warden Exchange podcast. We've increased our ability and our relationships with agency directors around the country. [Now] they're calling us wanting their wardens to go through the program.
Looking back over your time at Prison Fellowship, what’s a favorite moment you can share?
Well, last week in Warden Exchange, three out of five online sessions were led by three graduates from the Iowa Academy when I was there [as director]. Nick Robbins, Robbie Robinson, and Quovadis Marshall each led a session with the wardens from their perspective [as returning citizens]. That's a pretty cool bookend. To start with the Academy, end with the Warden Exchange, and see the connection not only from the bottom up, at the Academy, but from the top down, what the Warden Exchange does. That's a pretty cool way to end.
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