On a recent Friday morning, I went to prison.
I got out that afternoon, then I went back two weeks later.
It might sound odd, but my first visit inside a medium security correctional facility was remarkable. It was encouraging, inspiring and rewarding.
I joined two media colleagues – Gwyneth Saunders, who writes for this newspaper, and Holly Bounds Jackson of SCETV in Beaufort – to go to the Allendale Correctional Institute (ACI) in Fairfax. We had been invited to speak to a journalism class about news writing.
After clearing security at the front gate, we were buzzed through a couple of heavy doors, and led to a conference room. There, a group of inmates were having coffee and waiting to welcome us.
And what a welcome it was. Two dozen men, ranging in age from about 25 to 60, came forward to shake our hands. They had made a “thank you” poster for us – which included our names – and taped it to a door.
We proceeded to talk about the inverted pyramid and how to write news stories – telling who, what, when, where, why and how. We talked about finding reliable sources and quoting them accurately.
When it was time for questions, hands went up around the room. These eager listeners wanted to know everything!
You see, they had created their own newsletter and were looking for ways to improve it. Their editor told us he is passionate about getting it right, about providing useful stories to their readers.
We spent two hours with them, covering all sorts of topics. At some point, I felt a sense of camaraderie in that room. It was, I believe, a shared enthusiasm for doing what we do.
This class is one of many programs inside the prison that are open for inmates who seek to better themselves, learn something new, pursue a trade.
Allendale is not your typical prison. It is a respect-based facility, the first of its kind in our state, where residents work to improve their social skills, manners and knowledge base. Staff and volunteers work with the men to prepare them for life on the outside, as productive members of a community.
It’s a longer story that I can tell here, but it’s a fascinating one.
Perhaps Warden John R. Pate sums it up best, as he tells newcomers that “Your first step inside these walls is your first step toward going back out.”
Among other programs are beekeeping, agriculture, aquaponics, and service dog training. Volunteers come in and facilitate clubs for art, Bible study, music, and books.
Another special program is the Toastmasters club. It is sanctioned by Toastmasters International, and adheres to meeting protocols as any other club would.
And that’s why I went back to prison.
Some of the men in the journalism class, who are also members of Toastmasters, invited us to a celebration marking their achievement as a Presidential Distinguished Club. That’s a big deal for any club.
Gwyneth and I were pleased to hear impassioned speeches and to participate in the telling of a “Never Ending Story.”
Once again, we were welcomed with smiles and handshakes. We were introduced to family members and acknowledged from the stage. We enjoyed a lovely lunch, sitting at tables with the men and their families.
I never forgot that I was behind bars, and so were these men. But in my time there (and yes, I will go back again), I was reminded that everyone deserves a second chance.
I am encouraged to know that, at Allendale, those who work at it are far more likely to get one.