Beaufort County volunteers make two-hour trek to prison to lead life-changing program

loberle@islandpacket.comJanuary 11, 2014 

Editor's note: Only the first initial of the inmates' last names is being used at the request of the Allendale Correctional Institution.

At Allendale Correctional Institution, an inmate sits with a pitbull at his feet.

Happy was rescued off the streets. She arrived to Allendale skittish and scared, even turning aggressive at times. Her stomach was bloated, and most of her fur had fallen off from malnutrition.

For the past six weeks, Todd H., 38, has been fostering Happy through the prison's pet therapy program. He's been incarcerated since 2008 -- his second time in prison -- and has a projected release date in 2020.

"You name it, these dogs have been through it," Todd said, shaking his head as he patted Happy's stomach. "What people will do to them. They're found on the streets and in alleys and beaten so bad."

"A lot of these dogs would be euthanized," he said. "So this gives us a chance to make them sociable. We can make them adoptable."

Todd smiles as he tells of the progress Happy has made.

"Her coat has started coming in real pretty," he said.

She's started to come out of the box she sleeps in, will lay down for treats and let other people pet her.

"It was so neat to see her start building that trust and come out of her shell a little bit" Todd said. "Just to see her start wagging her tail more and getting interested in what's going on around her. She's starting to explore a little bit and be able to relax."

In 2008, Todd led a high speed chase from Georgia to South Carolina in a stolen vehicle, opening fire on the ensuing police. He had three prior felony convictions, and was sentenced to 23 years.

At Allendale, he is being punished for his crimes. But like Happy, he is also being rehabilitated.

He's been involved in numerous character building and education programs, many led by people from Beaufort County who drive two hours weekly to the prison.

"Having these people donate their time and care about you, it opens your heart up," Todd said. "It definitely gives me hope that when I get out, there will be people who will give me a second chance."

Last week, Todd said goodbye to Happy, who has been adopted.

EAGER TO GROW

John Pate, the warden at Allendale Correctional Institution, holds that 80 percent of inmates are good people with bad behavior.

"Punishment alone doesn't work," he said. "The vast majority of inmates can be reached and rehabilitated."

With that in mind, the Character Housing Unit began at Allendale in November 2011 and includes about 115 volunteer-run programs, many of which are led by Beaufort County residents. Pate said about 95 percent of volunteers at Allendale are from a religious organization.

"I want to change (the inmate's) character," Pate said. "If you can change his character, you change his life."

Hilton Head Island resident Mike Znachko has been facilitating a 12-step addiction recovery program at Allendale for the past five years. Since then, he has spurred more than a dozen members of his church, St. Luke's Church on Hilton Head, to volunteer at Allendale as well.

Meredith Kronz, wife of the St. Luke's pastor Greg Kronz, travels to Allendale every week with a group to conduct language arts and self-expression classes. Susie and Norm Galloway teach a parenting skills class. Tom Conner offers resume building and professional development services. Kent James teaches a blueprint class and has added lessons on installing patio pavers. Bob Smith teaches "Building Relationships" and procured art supplies, so art lessons are now offered. Several Beaufort residents are involved in Kairos, an international prison ministry. They visit Allendale throughout the year to give three-day courses on Christianity, with the goal of establishing a strong Christian community among inmates.

Class offerings expand even further, from quilting to carpentry to Bible studies and prayer groups. An inmate who suffers from PTSD after having served overseas in Iraq told Pate the only time his mind is at ease is when he's quilting.

"(The inmates) are so eager for information and knowledge," Pate said. "They are just waiting for something new, something to experience."

These programs are aimed at reducing the recidivism rate -- the rate that prisoners are released and later reincarcerated -- which has been slowly decreasing since 2005.

Of the 12,807 inmates released in 2008 in South Carolina, almost 40 percent of them are back in prison, according to the state Department of Corrections. Each inmate cost taxpayers $16,542 during the 2013 fiscal year -- in other words, reducing the recidivism rate by just 5 percent would save the state and taxpayers more than $10 million a year.

"We can't afford more inmates," Pate said.

Over the past two years, Allendale has facilitated nearly 200,000 hours of programs, which volunteers run and then train inmates to lead. It takes at least three years to measure recidivism, but Pate said he's already seen fewer fights, less contraband and improvements in general behavior.

"We've seen our (prison) yard grow quiet," Pate said.

Sherick H., 34, has been incarcerated for almost 13 years, charged with assault and battery with intent to kill. His projected release date is in 2018, a date he's not only looking forward to, but preparing for. He's taking advantage of the volunteer-run programs, including Spanish, life skills, understanding human behavior, truck driving, and authentic manhood I and II.

"It used to not matter because nobody cared. These people coming in let us know we haven't been written off completely," Sherick said. "You feel like you can make it back to your family."

FINDING CHRIST IN EVERYONE

Znachko travels to Allendale every Wednesday.

A buzzer goes off when he walks through the metal detector at security, and a guard waves a wand over the metal implants in his knees before conducting a pat search. He is then given a black light stamp, invisible on his skin except under UV light, that he must show in order to exit.

"What if I didn't have it? They wouldn't let me out?" Znachko asked an inmate during a recent visit.

"Hey, you could stick around," the inmate responded. "I could always use another roommate. Could trade out the one I got."

Fifteen years ago, Znachko, 77, founded Hope Prison Addiction Ministry. He has since trained inmates who have completed the 12-step program to run the classes, so multiple classes are now held each week.

Clarence M. has been at Allendale for three years serving a 13-year sentence. In that time, he has completed Znachko's 12-step program.

Clarence, 46, has been in and out of jail most of his life, starting in juvenile detention centers at age 16. It's his second time in prison; he was charged with possession of drugs in 2001 and served less than a year of his two-year sentence. But he returned to his old way of life, his old habits, and in 2009 he was arrested for carjacking, a crime fueled by his addiction to crack-cocaine.

"I'd never thought about a day without getting high," Clarence said. "I learned to admit I've got a problem. I had to admit I'm not in control."

With programs like Znachko's at the prison, Clarence was able to begin the process of rehabilitation. He's since earned his GED and a job skills certification, and recently completed Hilton Head resident Kent James' blueprint class. He is currently taking a beekeeping class.

"This is a place you can grow and learn," Clarence said. "It's given me the chance to humble myself."

A 30-year recovering alcoholic, Znachko can relate, knowing his flaws are many.

"I'm no better than them," Znachko said. "I grew up on the riverfront and ran with gangs. I drank and drove. I could be them."

It's not Znachko's job to condemn inmates. He is not the court, the jury or the judge. Inmates have already faced those people and received their sentence. Znachko has the freedom to see them simply as people who need help.

"I deal with killers. There's one who's an artist. He's the most gentle person. He does the most beautiful drawings," Znachko said, pointing to a framed picture of praying hands that hangs in the prison's office. A member of Znachko's Bible study just bought another one of the inmate's drawings. The artist, Allen D., has been incarcerated for 35 years, serving a life sentence for murder.

"If you really want to change, you can here," Allen said.

He has been eligible for parole since 1998, and has been denied four times. The last time he was denied, Znachko called to say he was sorry.

"But he said, 'No, God's not ready for me to come out yet,'" Znachko said. "I don't buy what he did, and I don't have to accept it, but he's my brother."

Where the rest of the world sees a convict -- a murderer -- Znachko sees someone God loves just as much as him.

"Christ is in everyone," Znachko said. "Find him."

SHARING THEIR STORIES

When Meredith Kronz tagged along with a friend who ministered at Allendale, Pate asked her, "So what do you see yourself doing here?"

Nothing, she responded. Kronz was just visiting to support a friend, who was volunteering.

"Well, if you were to come on a regular basis, what do you see yourself doing?" Pate asked.

Kronz had no plans to return. But as she met prisoners and saw their hunger for progress, those plans started to change.

"Once I got exposed, I got drawn in," she said.

She was observing the language arts class her friend taught. During that visit an inmate gave her something he'd written and asked her to read it. She felt like she had to follow up.

She now travels with three other women each week to teach language arts classes and encourage self-expression. One woman is teaching an illiterate inmate to read. Inmates sign up to meet one-on-one with Kronz to discuss what they wrote.

She doesn't have a background in writing. Her value isn't in her literary knowledge but her willingness to read what a prisoner has written.

"I read it and it's beautiful," Kronz said. "I ask them to tell me about this pain. What prompted you to write this? And they share their stories with me."

Inmates are writing their autobiographies, reflections on daily life in prison, fictional stories, poetry or music. It caught on so quickly that Kronz now takes their writings home to read so she has time to meet with more inmates.

"All this stuff is going on with them. They have so much baggage and are so hard," Kronz said. "But then they begin to write. And here is a grown man, a hardcore criminal, and he's crying. That was not what I was expecting."

As inmates, they know how the outside world views them. They know they are seen by most as the "scum of the earth," unforgivable and beyond the possibility of rehabilitation.

"I never think of them like that," Kronz said. "I never do."

She knows she's sitting among people who have committed violent crimes. But Kronz said she has never felt unsafe. A guard is always nearby, but she's never found herself looking for them.

"I forget sometimes," she said. "I go home and think, oh my gosh, I just spent 30 minutes sitting across from a murderer."

Kronz never intended to be doing this -- to travel two hours every week to encourage prisoners to write. As the wife of a preacher, mother of three, these prisoners lead a life she could never imagine for herself, one she could never relate to.

"I go every week, but I go home," she said. "I can't imagine what it would be like to be locked up for so many years. But I also can't believe I keep going back."

She sees a light come on inside these men, a transformation in even their physical presence, and is drawn back each week by their needs, their struggles, their fight for redemption and desire to be good.

At the end of each meeting, Kronz prays with the inmate, telling him that God will use him wherever he is, even in this dark place.

MAKING IT POSSIBLE

Pate's office is decorated with items inmates have made for him -- wooden sculptures, a turkey call, a nameplate that says "Warden Pate." Their artwork hangs on his walls and the tables in his office were made in their carpentry classes.

In the hallway is a trophy, standing several feet tall, which the Allendale Adult Education Center received in 2011 for first place in student achievement among similar security-level prisons statewide.

Behind it, though, is a frame with weapons that have been confiscated from inmates -- made out of hangers, door hinges, lawn mower gears, the hooks of eye-glasses.

"It's to remind ourselves that while we're doing good things here, this is still a prison," Pate said. "I'm not here to say any of these guys deserve a break. The court gave them their sentence, and I'm not arguing that. But it would be irresponsible for me as a warden to have someone in here for 15 years and not make some sort of difference.

"These people make that possible."

RELATED CONTENT

Allendale Correctional Worship Center website

Kairos of South Carolina website

St. Luke's Allendale Prison Ministry website page

Character Housing Unit brochure

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service