Chaplains’ popularity growing in jails
BOULDER – When Shanna Sanford’s grandfather was buried this year, she had to be pried off the casket.”He’s all I had,” said Sanford, 26, of Longmont. “When I lost him, I feel like I lost everything.”Sanford turned to drugs to numb her pain, broke the law in her rebellion and blamed God for her problems. A few weeks ago, with tearful, bloodshot eyes, Sanford told her story to Janet McRoberts, a Bible study leader with Vinelife Community Church.”I’m fighting something in my head,” she said.And so were many others at that night’s meeting.Sanford is one of more than 400 inmates at the Boulder County Jail and one of more than a dozen women who regularly attend faith groups offered throughout the week. The programs serve nearly 1,000 inmates every year.”This is my favorite verse,” Sanford said during a Wednesday group hosted by Rocky Mountain Christian Church.With black numbers etched on the toes of her shoes, a bright wristband identifying her cell number and an orange jumpsuit pulled over a white T-shirt, Sanford followed along as another woman read from the Book of John, chapter 5.The verse tells of a man crippled for 38 years who has been lying by a pool waiting to be healed. According to the story, Jesus asks if he wants to be well, and then tells him to get up.”But getting well means he has to change,” said Glenda Buzbee, a volunteer Bible study leader. “I bet that after 38 years, he was pretty comfortable there.”The women agreed it can be difficult to change destructive habits. But they said that’s what they want to do, and that the jail’s religious programs are a big reason why.
Terri Dietrich, a 44-year-old inmate, said the jail studies have helped turn her life around.”I like myself now. I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “I can do this. I know I’m not coming back here.”‘Broken people’Although the chaplain services are among the jail’s most popular programs, the county didn’t begin paying chaplains as hourly employees until this year, when they realized most other jails in the state do so.Chaplain Joe Herzanek, who has ministered to Boulder County inmates on a contract or volunteer basis since 1993, now makes $16 an hour.”I am a recovering person myself,” Herzanek said. “But I became a Christian in 1980, and I felt the Lord was leading me to this type of work. It really just all fell into place.”During his tenure as chaplain, Herzanek has seen the number of programs and the participation increase significantly. When he started at the jail, its religious offerings were minimal, he said.Now, 75 volunteers run more than 30 religious programs a month. About 10 percent of the jail’s inmates attend the programs.”This is a place with broken people who know they can’t fix their problems themselves,” Herzanek said. “And this could be a defining moment. Some of them will make dramatic changes.”The spiritual programs offered reach beyond Christian denominations to include Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Inmates can participate in yoga classes, and Herzanek said the jail does what it can to accommodate religious observances and diets.
Jail Capt. Larry Hank said his staff works with the University of Colorado’s religious studies department to determine the validity of inmates’ religious requests.”But if a person of the Jewish religion comes in and wants kosher meals, we basically see to it that we meet them,” Hank said.Muslims who want prayer rugs for Ramadan can get clean towels, he said.”We even have had a Wiccan here,” he said. “Almost any religion out there, we’ve had people come in with.”On a typical Monday morning, jail employees will get a stack of letters requesting crosses, Bibles, devotional books or rosaries.”As long as they are using it right, it’s not an issue,” Hank said. “But if they use them to gamble, we’ll take them away.”Some go to religious programs for ulterior motives, Hank said. But he said others genuinely want to change.”This is a service that is essential to us, because you never know who the person is that we are going to help,” he said.Saving the shackledWith a silver cross dangling from his neck, a choked-up Dirk Anderson, 39, said goodbye on a recent Wednesday night to a room of about 20 inmates he’s gotten close with through the nightly groups.
Anderson just had received word that he is getting out.”I love you guys,” he said, asking them to pray he stays strong on “the outside.””We will,” said Jim Bracking, a volunteer Bible study leader. “As much as we like you here, we don’t want you back.”The men’s groups typically have higher attendance than the women’s, Herzanek said, because there are more men in jail.Although Herzanek works with every inmate who wants to talk, he said those in maximum security have limited privileges and can’t mix with others in group settings.”I do the more difficult ones, you would say,” Herzanek said. “I’ve had to deal with some people who have had to have shackles on when they talk to me.”Jeanette Minor, 24, has been in jail before for failing to curb her addiction to methamphetamines. But Minor says she’s been inspired by religion.”This is the only way I’m gonna get clean,” she said. “I know in my heart I’ll make it this time. I’m 120 percent sure.”When Minor gets out, she plans to attend a church and take her 1- and 5-year-old daughters along.”I pray to God every day to help me get through this,” she said.Story first appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.