Monday, April 29, 2019

A Corrections Officer Who Lived Micah 6:8 in Prison Work - Guest Post by John Stephenson

Correctional Work as a Christ Follower 
I spent the majority of my working career as a Correctional Officer with my Provincial (State) Corrections Division. After attending University I worked in the business world.

I had a period when my use of alcohol and drugs caught up with me. I had an 8 to 10 week binge that started in Halifax, Nova Scotia and ended in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had traveled about 2,200 miles. That motivated me to seek treatment and deal with my addictive behavior. This was in the summer of 1973. I entered a Rehab Program at The Salvation Army and 3 months into it came back to faith in God, and became a Salvation Army Soldier in January 1974.

Coming off the program I took a temporary fill in position as Science Resource Specialist at a High School for a couple of months while the incumbent was off sick. When they returned I started working as Counselor/Chaplain and Evening supervisor at The Salvation Army Men’s Social Services Hostel in Winnipeg.

During that time I started dating a woman who was a lifelong Salvationist and we got engaged and married. We entered Training College in 1975 and were commissioned in 1977. We left TSA a few years later and worked for a Presbyterian Church in Canada for a few years, mainly on a Northern Mission field before returning to Winnipeg. 

It was just after that I took a position with Manitoba Corrections as a Correctional Officer. I worked at the Winnipeg Remand Centre (Pretrial Detention). I had wanted a Probation Officer role but they weren't hiring for that at the time. Little did I know that I would spend 20 plus years working in institutional corrections.

So I then began to experience a world that was dark and different. As a new CO1 I was tested by both staff and inmates. Staff, knowing I had been a Minister and a Salvation Army Officer were leery thinking I was a bleeding heart liberal. Inmates tried to pull the wool over my eyes for the same reason.

But I saw an opportunity to effect how Inmates were treated in Correctional facilities. I also saw an opportunity to affect how staff dealt with Inmates and how they viewed inmates, often times, as less than human.

I resolved to try and practice what one of my favorite verses said in the Bible. Micah 6:8 (NCV):

“The Lord has told you what is good. He has told you what He wants from you: ‘Do what is right to other people, love being kind to others. And live humbly, trusting you God.’"

This verse speaks of compassion, mercy, and justice. It was my goal to live this out in my duties. Staff saw that I could deal with violent inmates and hold my own in an environment where use of force was often needed. Inmates saw that I treated them as humans who mattered. In fact I often joked that their job was to be a criminal while mine was to make sure they stayed in jail and behaved while there.

So how did a brand new CO1 do that? One example came from one of the duty assignments that two staff had during the working shift-Coffee and Cleaning…you and your partner saw to the Inmate Trustees who swept, mopped and cleaned that jail, did the laundry and distributed the coffee between meals to Inmate locations. I noticed that many of our trustees were being fired or thrown into segregation and figured out through talking to them and watching that many had no idea of how to sweep and clean properly. So I began asking each new trustee if they knew how to sweep, mop, do laundry and took time to show them how to. All of a sudden the function was being done properly.

It did not take long for the message to get around to inmates that I , while tough and demanding, actually was willing to teach them, and would take time to talk with them and give them suggestions.

They noticed I was different. Staff took notice as well, including our Shift Managers. But it didn’t become an issue because they realized that in a fight situation or a code call that I could hold my own. Our facility was a dangerous one with issues regarding safety and health. Not just for staff, but also for inmates.

It didn’t take long before I was trusted by both staff and inmates. In fact within a year and a few months, I was elected President of the Corrections Component covering the jail, a youth facility, and component chair for the full provincial corrections component.

As a result I ended up as Operations Coordinator for that facility with CO4 rank within 3 to 4 years of my start. I was then tasked by Corrections Division and our Superintendent to coordinate the building process of a new standalone Remand Centre and to create a new method of Inmate Supervision.

Balancing the need for staff safety and providing safe housing for inmates in an environment that included Correctional Officers, providing case management, and counselling as well as Security was like walking a tightrope at times but it worked.

Along the way in those first 8 years of my career in Corrections both staff and inmates picked up on the fact that I was a believer. 

No, I didn’t tell them you need to get saved or else but I practiced and lived Micah 6:8. I tried to show compassion and mercy, even when disciplining inmates, and as a manager disciplining staff. And it worked.

I can remember as a CO1 being on a Hospital Escort with another CO1 when he asked me why did I even talk with him, and treat him as a friend when I knew he was going straight to hell due to his lifestyle of drugs, booze, and sex. My answer was: "You're my friend." I ran into this guy at a funeral 2 years ago-almost 30 years after that day, and he believes in Jesus.

I also remember being on mercy seat duty at a Divisional Congress here in Winnipeg. It was a Sunday evening meeting when a guy off the street came to the mercy seat. I recognized him! 

I knew that I had to deal with him rather than some of the others on mercy seat duty. He was a regular prisoner who on almost every occasion when he came into jail was a major security problem, and fought staff constantly. I knelt and prayed with him, talked with him, and all of a sudden he was a friend. The next few times when he came in to jail I never had an issue with him. 

Many years later when I was Jail Security Operations for the Division I was at Headingly Gaol in the basement gym and off in a corner I could see him using weights. He noticed me, put down the weights and headed over. Staff tried to intercept him. I told them not to-just watch. He reached where I was, put his arms around me and hugged me thanking me for what I had done years before. That turned into a teaching moment for me when I turned to the staff there, and explained what happened and why.

And today as a 68 year old retiree I am convinced that we need more Christians working as Correctional Officers. It is the influence and attitude that comes with faith and following Micah 6:8 that can impact a criminal and bring change as well as impact staff to realize that inmates are humans who are no different in their needs than ourselves.

Biography of John Stephenson
I was born in New Waterford on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia on 24 May 1950. I was brought up Roman Catholic and was active as an Altar Boy through to about 17. I was being recruited by a couple of Orders of Priests and our Diocese to be a Priest.
I started University in September 1967 under the Regular Officer Training Plan with the goal of being an Officer in Canada’s Military. Finished University in 1971. While at University I get heavily involved in the Hippie Movement of the late 60s as well as Radical Politics and Student Activism. As well I became a user of illicit drugs (LSD, Marijuana, Hashish, Magic Mushrooms et al) as well as alcohol abuse .
Eventually dealt with my straying from faith and my chemical addictions in 1973 after a 10 to 12 week 2,000 mile drug and alcohol binge. This also meant coming back to faith in God and joined The Salvation Army. Got married attended Training College (1975-1977). My wife and I were commissioned and ordained in 1977. Eventually resigned and worked for PCIC as a Minister and Missionary in a far Northern Isolated area for a few years.
Started working for Manitoba Justice-Corrections in 1984.
Retired in 2005 as Chief Correctional Officer working for Director of Institutional Corrections as Jail Operation Specialist.
Have 4 children and 4 grandchildren.
Presently a member of living Hope Community Church of  The Salvation Army in Winnipeg where I serve as Vice-Chair of Ministry Board , teach Bible Study , and serve as Chair of Social Services Advisory Community Board of The Centre of Hope.