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Effective Compassion: Mending broken minds - S3.E4

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Mending broken minds - S3.E4

Trauma healing is vital for many inmates seeking freedom in Christ


iStock/klebercordeiro

Diane Thomas will never forget the afternoon of September 9th, 2010. She and her husband, Tommy, lived in the suburbs of Delaware. They had raised three boys and were empty nesters. That day, the phone rang. It was their youngest son, John. He lived in Louisiana and worked as an underwater diver on an oil rig. He was 26.

DIANE: And he told me he was arrested.

Arrested? A few months earlier, John and his wife had been in a fight. Bad enough that the police got involved. Diane thought maybe another argument had escalated.

DIANE: I said, “It'll work out,” you know. “What happened?” He said, “No, they arrested me for rape.”

Police had taken a DNA sample during the domestic dispute investigation. Routine for such incidents. Turns out, that DNA sample matched evidence collected from a string of rapes that occurred years earlier.

DIANE: I, I didn't believe, I had just, I was flabbergasted.

John is now at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. It’s a maximum-security prison. He’s served 12 years so far, with 37 left to go.

As a boy, John had been sexually assaulted. The innocent victim later became the aggressor. It’s a pattern experienced by an overwhelming majority of prisoners. A stint behind bars might put that cycle of abuse on hold. But most inmates eventually get out. The only way to break the cycle completely is to heal the trauma at its source.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion. I’m Jenny Rough.

UNDERWRITER SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

Nine years into his prison term, John Thomas met a prison chaplain who would change his life. Her name is Joy Stevens.

Stevens has worked with Good News Jail since the early 2000s. For years, she focused her work on Bible studies and life skills classes. She helped inmates find purpose and sharpened their ability to cope with difficulty. One goal of all that: keep offenders from returning to prison once released. But they kept returning anyway.

JOY STEVENS: I had great volunteers, I had great, you know, Bible studies. I had some of the best Bible teachers in the city coming in. I had cognitive classes. I had all this wonderful stuff. Yet I kept seeing the same woman come back.

Stevens noticed that almost all the repeat offenders had one thing in common.

STEVENS: And it just became so apparent to me that the resounding theme of what I heard was woman after woman, after woman, after woman, high levels of trauma.

Trauma. One of those overused words people casually toss out in conversation. Psychologist Phil Monroe is the director of the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute. He says people tend to think of trauma as an event. Like a car accident. But listen to the defintion.

PHIL MONROE: Trauma is anything that creates this ongoing, it’s an experience. So let me back up and say something. Sometimes we think about trauma as an event. Other times we think of it as an experience. It really is an experience. Yes, events create experience. But that’s why three people can go through the same event and only one person may have trauma as a result.

In other words, trauma is a chronic reaction to the event, like a car accident, that disrupts a person’s life. Symptoms of trauma include flashbacks; the bodily experience of reliving it; hypervigilance or being on high alert; and cognitive and emotional dysfunction.

MONROE: Anything that overwhelms your ability to cope with that.

Monroe says a lot of people who are incarcerated have experienced trauma.

MONROE: Here’s the interesting thing about people who have committed a crime and are incarcerated. … When we start to look at adverse childhood experiences, the numbers are skyrocketing. The folks who are in prison and jail settings tend to have a fair amount of trauma in their lives from an early age.

Exactly what Joy Stevens observed.

STEVENS: Stop and think about it. A child has been sexually abused, physically abused, abandoned, has a house of chaos, lives in a war zone. How can they develop mentally, healthy ways of looking at life when you live in that? That kind of abuse absolutely causes mental illness.

To clarify, trauma and incarceration don’t necessarily have a cause-and-effect relationship. Here’s Monroe again:

MONROE: If you look at everyone who had adverse childhood experiences and people who experienced trauma, a miniscule amount of those end up in prison settings, committing crimes and in prison settings. So you can’t go in the reverse. We know that most people who end up there probably had that. But it’s correlation, not causation.

Even so, one thing’s clear: Inmates need help dealing with trauma. Chaplain Joy Stevens:

STEVENS: And that’s what our ministry as chaplains, the desire of our ministry is to meet the needs of inmates. And we weren’t in that area. We were in the gospel and Bible studies and church services and everything. Mentoring. But not in the area of trauma.

That is now changing. To explain how, let’s return to the Thomas family.

John Thomas

John Thomas Photo courtesy of the Thomas family

Diane Thomas says she noticed something seemed wrong with her son John in high school. But neither she nor her husband hadany idea it was because John was experiencing trauma.

John had been a happy boy.

DIANE: John, he was a neat little kid. He was diagnosed, when he was around 4 years old, with ADHD.

The Thomas’ enrolled their son in a therapeutic school for students with learning difficulties.

DIANE: Six children to one teacher. And he did very well there. He blossomed.

John’s dad Tommy describes one of his son’s favorite hobbies:

TOMMY THOMAS: He liked to fish.

In the spring, Tommy and John would help put trout in the streams to stock the river for opening day. In summer and fall, they fished together from a boat.

But when John got to high school, Diane noticed her son seemed troubled. She and Tommy had raised all three kids to come to them with a problem. But John didn’t do that, even when Diane tried her best to find out. One time she noticed John wore jeans instead of shorts on a warm day.

DIANE: He had bruises on his legs and everything. … [33:33] I said, “What happened to you?” And he said, “Oh, it was nothing. We were wrestling around.”

It wasn’t nothing. Then John began to act out.

TOMMY: Right after this happened he went like three doors up from us and he put one of those stocking hats on that, you know, all you could see is the eyes. [Yeah.] And he banged on the door. And the woman answered, and he forced his way in. And then he said it was a joke.

The incident stopped there. John was a juvenile. The matter was resolved. But that’s when the Thomas’ finally found out the truth. Students at school had sexually assaulted John.

TOMMY: He got hazed. It got out of hand.

DIANE: He got severely hazed. And for two years nobody told us.

TOMMY: He was sexually assaulted. And we didn’t know anything. … [34:28] His arm and legs were taped. And then he was stripped down and … then they, you know, they did whatever.

Diane says, after that, her son’s spirit broke.

DIANE: His spirit just left. I mean, he was like a shell. … That was the start.

After graduation, John joined the military. He left for Afghanistan three weeks after training. Spent 16 months there. Then 17 months in Iraq.

DIANE: The military did not help him. It just pushed him over the edge. And then when he came home, he just wasn’t the same person.

This past November, I had plans to meet John Thomas in person at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. I submitted paperwork for a background check. A prison administrator confirmed in writing I’d been cleared for a visit. I booked a plane ticket to Baton Rouge. Right before I left, prison officials canceled my visit. COVID, I was told, had stopped in-person visits. So I met John over Zoom instead. The corrections program manager introduced us.

LAWTON SEARCY: Let me introduce John Thomas. …

JOHN THOMAS: How you doing, ma’am?

ROUGH: Good. I’m Jenny.

THOMAS: Nice to meet you.

ROUGH: You, too.

When John was deployed to Afghanistan, he was 18.

THOMAS: Just finished high school, you know? So I was still developing.

He was supposed to work as a fueler. Manage petroleum for military vehicles.

But the military had enough fuelers. His new assignment? Chinook door gunner. He went on quick reaction force missions. Witnessed explosions. Death. A lot of violence.

THOMAS: Afghanistan, I was scared. Iraq, I was angry. So I did some horrible things, seen a lot of horrible things. … [9:19] Other missions we had to take detainees to, suspected terrorists to prisons. And you know, I’m sure the movies are out now, but there’s no holds bar in the prisons.

He started drinking heavily in the military.

THOMAS: Me and a friend of mine that I was close to in combat, we began to drink. And it began socially. You know we would go out, young men go out on base because you didn’t have to be 21. You could be 18 and drink. And it started socially. And then as we began to have the nightmares and the flashbacks, we began to stay in the barracks and drink more and more until it became a dependency on it. And that’s all we did. We’d wake up in the morning drinking vodka and go to sleep drinking vodka. To just, to live.

He was honorably discharged in 2005. The government didn’t put him through any transition program. Years later, he would be diagnosed with the psychiatric condition Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, C-P-T-S-D. But back then, like so many vets—and victims of childhood sexual abuse—he felt abandoned. He remembers one night, walking around town with friends.

THOMAS: I’ll never forget. It was the first week I was back. And I stopped. And I was just in a—I was frozen. And I said to myself these people will never understand me. And the things I went through. … The tragedy in it is that I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody.

Four years later, he landed in prison.

Karl Benzio has been a psychiatrist for 32 years. Although he no longer works in the prison system, he used to. All sides of it. He treated people who were going into prison, serving time, and after release.

And? His experience gets even more personal than that!

BENZIO: I was a person who was an alcoholic, and I got thrown in jail for six counts of aggravated assault.

He spent only a few days in a Newark, New Jersey, jail. But he says as a hot-headed, impulsive guy, he needed the consequence to protect him from hurting others or self-destructing.

BENZIO: I was bloodied and battered and cut up and everything. … It was in the middle of wintertime. There was this cold cell, there was a broken window. It was freezing cold. All I had was this one really thin sheet. … But you’re just alone and you can’t blame anybody else. … How did I get here? Oh my gosh, it’s all me. So it was just alone time with God.

In that cold cell, Benzio realized a profound truth.

BENZIO: Jesus said, Karl, you made me your savior when you were a little kid, but you’ve never made me the Lord of your life.

Benzio decided right then, he would.

BENZIO: And when I heard Lord, I heard authority. When I heard authority, I heard author. And when I heard author, I realized that I’d been writing my own instruction manual as to how to get through life. … [23:01] Instead of me writing the instruction manual, I realized, wow, He is the creator. He designed us. He designed my mind. And he wrote the instruction manual as to get how the most out of my mind, out of my brain, and out of my decision making. … Okay, I need to read the Bible more and start applying Jesus’ decision-making process and so I read the gospels and looked at Jesus’ decisions and started using that as my reference guide.

Benzio’s faith took root. Slowly but surely, his life turned around. Going forward, he wanted to do what God had given him the skills and desire to do: help other people with decision making. So he became a psychiatrist.

Benzio did not treat John Thomas. But Benzio explains why victims of abuse, like John, can sometimes later become the victimizers. Benzio says kids who are sexually abused experience a glaring, amplified type of violence. They grow up and want to recreate the situation with a different outcome.

BENZIO: Because that situation reverberated so long and so hard in our life, and we don’t even want to come close to that … you know our radar is so sensitized to anything that comes close to that, it cues us in, wait. We might be in potential danger. … I don’t want to experience anything like that again.

Another element that might come into play:

BENZIO: Whenever we’re young, when other people have power, I get hurt a lot. When I have power, I get hurt a lot less. Wow. Maybe I should have power a lot more often. … you know in positive ways, I’m going to try to gain control or power in the way that society has allowed me to gain control or power. Or, I’m going to join the Army where they give me a gun to show that I’m tough. … I’m given the rights and authority by our government, you know, to go in and be the aggressor in a situation.

That reminded me of something John Thomas said:

THOMAS: Before I went into the military … I was a law-abiding citizen. It was after the military when I began to commit crimes.

He doesn’t blame the military. He takes full responsibility for his choices.

THOMAS: I did some horrible things. … Even with my incarceration, I’ve never blamed anything but myself. It’s my fault.

But this all raises another complicated question. What Benzio calls the zillion dollar question. A person can have a mental illness—depression, anxiety, a trauma disorder—in the same way a person can have a physical illness. Fair enough. But how does sin, or disconnection from God, play into that? I asked Benzio the question this way:

ROUGH: I don’t want to be dismissive of genuine mental health issues, but how do you know if it’s a spiritual sickness or an actual brain chemistry thing?

Benzio has worked as a doctor in both secular and Christian treatment programs. He says some of his medical colleagues see mental illness as all biochemical, brain circuitry, genetic—how you’re hardwired. On the other hand, some of his spiritual colleagues lean toward viewing mental illness as only a spiritual issue that needs only spiritual solutions. ray harder and have more faith.

Benzio says when a person embarks on a healing process, it’s important to integrate spiritual truth into the psychological process.

He starts with the biblical understanding that all people are made in the image of God. And God designed us with mind, body, and spirit.

BENZIO: And all those three interact and are integrated so amazingly. Even the Trinity itself, we have sort of a picture. God the father. He’s sort of the mind, the brains of the operation. We have Jesus the son. He’s sort of the physical sphere of that trinity. And then the Holy Spirit is sort of the spiritual. … We’re designed in His image. We’re designed in this sort of tripartite kind of image as far as functioning.

But our world is now broken by sin, manifested in separating us from God and His truth.

BENZIO: We all have I’m spiritual PTSD in that we’re all spiritually born separated from God. So that’s the biggest trauma anybody could ever experience. Being just spiritually separated from Him.

We all struggle one way or another.

KARL BENZIO: Now in this world, we have trial and tribulation. So everybody experiences some trauma, some hurt, some let down.

We all have unhealthy ways to cope.

BENZIO: We all have addictions, something we go to instead of God, in a repetitive, habitual, or patterned way to get our needs met, whether it be a substance. For most people, it’s a behavior, a mode of thinking, an emotional state.

So a certain amount of trauma is common to mankind. To conceptualize how our reaction to it can turn into a mental disorder, Benzio says think of adult-onset diabetes. That most often occurs because of overeating.

BENZIO: It starts out as a spiritual issue to get their peace, to get their joy, to get their contentment, to get escape. Using food as the thing they glorify or they worship.

A decision-making dysfunction. As it continues for 5, 10, 20 years, a person then develops adult-onset diabetes.

BENZIO: Even though it started as a spiritual issue, it now has progressed to diabetes, we don’t say, hey, this is a spiritual issue, you need to pray and trust God for it to go away. No we say, hey, look, you need this insulin because now what you’ve done, spiritually and psychologically, has affected you biologically. So you need this insulin.

Like insulin meds for diabetes, psychiatric medications can facilitate the healing process for mental illness. Allow people to think more clearly so they can implement spiritual and psychological skills. But a person must also work on those skills.

Think of high blood pressure.

BENZIO: We don’t just say, hey take this blood pressure medication and continue to eat all the fatty foods you want. Don’t exercise. Don’t sleep. Smoke as much as you want, drink as much alcohol as you want. … We say, here, take this medication because we don’t want you to have a heart attack. But you really need to do these other psychological and spiritual skills in order to really heal physically, psychologically, and spiritually to have a much better quality of life.

A mental illness can work in a similar manner. Just as our heart changes because of our choices, so does our brain. It’s an organ tooThanks , but even more sensitive and complex

BENZIO: Our brain chemistry is being affected by the decisions we make. So there’s this principle called neuroplasticity, which means our brain can change. … When we make wrong decisions, our brain chemistry gets weaker.

Injured. Chemically imbalanced. Short circuited. But the rewiring can also improve.

BENZIO: The more truths we’re implementing into our decision making, the more our brain chemistry gets better, stronger. The Bible says renewed, right?

Benzio says the Bible is better than any psychiatric textbook. Full of the best life management principles because it speaks truth all the time.

BENZIO: Our designer designed our mind, and He also designed the whole natural world and the natural system and knows exactly what we need to do in order to function within this system maximally to attain that abundant life that’s promised to us in heaven, but also here on earth. Right? And so And so he says, hey look, there are the things you need to do to access that abundant life. Do them. And these are the things that are going to lead to destruction, not the promised land. Don’t do these.

People who have been traumatized don’t want to be hurt or betrayed that way again. One defense mechanism is to build up walls. Benzio says think of a medieval castle.

BENZIO: You’ve got these big walls and moats. And what you realize is these castles are a great defense. They have great walls of defense. They keep the bad out. But they also don’t let the good in either. … And as we protect ourselves against the good, and don’t allow the good to come into our life, well, then, we become more isolated. We become more barren. More bereft. More desperate.

After John Thomas’ arrest, he awaited arraignment in a Louisiana parish jail. That’s when his walls finally began to come down, allowing goodness and light in. He started thinking about God—a lot.

THOMAS: When I came to jail, they have a reception dormitory that you go in. There’s three stacked bunk beds. And there’s probably 1,000 people in there. … The first night, I couldn’t sleep. … And so, I just had this burning desire that I couldn’t kick. … And it was to find a Bible.

Every day he sat at the door.

THOMAS: Now mind you, I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Old and New Testament. … I only knew John 3:16 because WWF wrestlers wore it on their shirt.

And every time a person opened the door, he asked for a Bible.

THOMAS: And every person told me no, they don’t have one. And I just knew that I had to find this. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had to find it.

One Saturday morning a pastor walked in.

THOMAS: I was sitting up by myself, just staring at the wall.

The pastor said he’d held a service at the jail every Saturday morning for 10 years. Always full. But that morning, no one showed up. So a guard brought him to the dorm instead.

THOMAS: He said, “Son, God sent me to you today.” So he gave me his Bible.

The pastor told him to read the book of John.

THOMAS: I said, “Where is the book of John?”

A few days later, another inmate noticed John reading and rereading the Bible.

THOMAS: He said, “You aren’t supposed to read the Bible like that.” And I said, “Man, what’s it to you? Leave me alone.”

The two got into a fight.

THOMAS: And I get sent to the hole. And I spent 25 days in the hole.

Isolation. For the first 48 hours, he lost it.

THOMAS: Rattling the bars. Every person that comes, telling them I’ve got to get out of this.

When nobody let him out, he began reading the Bible again. John says, that’s when God changed him.

THOMAS: I got saved, received Christ. And everything began to change. … And so that began my faith journey.

After his sentencing, he came to Elayn Hunt. There, John’s faith journey continued. And he completed numerous programs. A sex offender and treatment program. Anger management. Mental health counseling. Substance abuse. He got a college degree. But he says the program that’s helped him the most: Healing the Wounded Heart.

Earlier, you met Phil Monroe, the director of American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute. It originally began as a program for pastors in Africa.

MONROE: The program started as a book about 20 years ago: Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church can Help.

A tool designed to help people in East and Central Africa with the trauma from genocide, civil wars, and upheavals.

MONROE: It was trauma focused and Bible focused.

A set of lessons on heart wounds, grief, loss, recovery.

MONROE: So the core DNA of it is very simple conversations about trauma, loss, and recovery embedded with the scriptures. So it had a mental health bent and it had a scriptural bent to help church communities grapple with if God loves us, why are we suffering? How do the wounds of our hearts become healed?

Men participating in the trauma healing program at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility.

Men participating in the trauma healing program at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of Lawton Searcy

The program grew. It’s been translated into 140 languages. And contextualized for different groups around the world. One of those groups: the American prison community. For that, the Institute turned to Joy Stevens. She’s the Good News Jail chaplain who noticed so many female inmates had experienced trauma.

MONROE: Joy Stevens was instrumental in saying look, I’m an expert in this context, you’re an expert in the materials, how do we build something that is workable and makes sense?

Stevens saw such positive results with the female inmates, she knew the program needed to be brought to other prisons. So far, she’s trained over 130 chaplains and volunteers in Good News Jail. And in 2019, she brought the program to Elayn Hunt to work with inmates there, including John Thomas.

She admits she wasn’t sure the trauma material would work for men.

STEVENS: I thought it’s not going to, it won’t go well. They won’t talk about their feelings. Oh my gosh. We had to extend a day because they were talking about their feelings so much. And the Kleenex box was shooting around the room. And it’s like these are guys who are incarcerated. This does not happen!

The program is simple. Five classes, two hours per class. Stevens says God’s hand is in the lessons.

Lawton Searcy

Lawton Searcy Photo courtesy of the Thomas family

Lawton Searcy is a retired pastor in Louisiana. He got involved in prison ministry about eight years ago and now serves as the director of faith programs at Elayn Hunt. He reflects on the way the trauma healing program has helped inmates open up:

LAWTON SEARCY: For the first time in their lives, they had come to grips with a murder they had witnessed, an abusive parent, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse.

That gives them insight into why they think the way they think and therefore act the way they act.

Searcy says from the start, the program made a positive difference in inmate behavior.

SEARCY: We statistically tracked it, and about I guess probably six months into it, of those men who had gone through our program and in their sphere of influence, we reached a point of having a 37 percent decrease in violence in, you know, acts of violence against other, you know, inmates, infractions. We saw a huge difference.

One unique aspect to this class? It's not only prison chaplains or outside pastors who teach it. Inmates themselves can be trained as trauma healers to lead fellow inmates through the class. Searcy says that approach makes for a more successful program.

SEARCY: We basically embed inmates in the dorms. In other words, we want peer ministers and these trained trauma healers scattered throughout our dorms. Because if an institution is relying just on classes, just to get the guys in a class where they can deal with conflict management or you know, Cage the Rage, or Malachi Dads, you’re not going to be nearly as successful as if you have guys that are out there, who are in those dorms, with the guys on the yard 24/7, that are able to counsel with them, pray with them, to recognize when someone is going through this cycle of grief.

Ardic Fields is one of the peer ministers and trauma healers at Elayn Hunt.

ARDIC FIELDS: I grew up in Shreveport in northern Louisiana. … [2:18] I was 34 years old and went to Angola.

For attempted second degree murder. Behind bars, he also began to think about God.

FIELDS: I prayed a prayer and asked God to put somebody around me. … Put me around somebody that could teach me about the Bible. And that day, it happened.

Angola Prison has a seminary for inmates. Fields graduated with a degree in Christian ministry. Then … he became a missionary.

FIELDS: What I did was after I graduated, I went on a missionary journey. The Bible College sends missionaries out to other prisons. … I went to another prison for about a little over a year, I was there.

Now at Elayn Hunt, he coordinates the trauma healing program.

FIELDS: The very first lesson is if God loves us, why do we suffer?

Where was God when the traumatic experience was happening to me?

Fields says many inmates suffer from similar circumstances.

FIELDS: Probably maybe the number one thing that I would say is fatherlessness, is guys not having fathers and having those relationships, or having fractured relationships with their fathers. … Then the second thing that we see a lot of is abuse in the home, sexual abuse, physical abuse.

The class discusses the cultural approach to such trauma. Like burying emotions. If left unresolved, that can lead to a hardened heart. Something Fields said happened to him.

FIELDS: Culturally, especially in my culture being African American, it’s really not acceptable like at all for men to cry.

ROUGH: Even when you’re a little boy?

FIELDS: Yeah, it’s kind of contradictory. Even when you’re getting a whooping, you better not cry! … Whatever you do, don’t cry. … I’m from down south, too. So it’s even more manhood. We hunt. We fish. … But what I found out was that there was still a lot of emotions that I was really, that I was stuffing.

The focus then turns from what the culture says to the Bible.

FIELDS: So then what we’ll do is we’ll go through and see what the Bible says. … And many times what we’ve learned, even people that grew up in biblical families, is contrary to what the Bible actually teaches us.

For example:

FIELDS: One thing that you don’t do, is you don’t question God. Anything happens, don’t question God. You’re never supposed to question Him. But if we look biblically, David and most of the patriarchs and everybody always questioned God. I’m going to ask God these questions. David was very, very good at it.

Finally, the discussion ends with practical things the inmates can do to deal with the hurt and heal. Suffering is one of five topics. In another class, inmates learn what a lament is. But Fields says the most powerful lesson comes toward the end.

FIELDS: And then we have, which is the highlight, which is day number four, is taking your pain to the cross. … We have guys that’ll sit down and write all their traumatic experiences and things that are bothering them. Things that they’ve done to other people, things that people have done to them. … We we do is we have very nice soothing music. We draw a cross. … Normally, we try to have it here in the chapel. … I can’t think of any words really to explain to say the type of breakthroughs that we’ve really seen going through this. It is really amazing how the guys shared things that they’ve never ever shared. We’ve had guys that have been down over 30 years that would never talk to anybody about anything, that have been holding these things since they were children. Guys done horrendous things, but in these classes, they break down and they cried.

That piece, confession, is an important part of the program. Here’s chaplain Joy Stevens:

STEVENS: That’s part of the training is what are some things that you have done to other people? … Oftentimes, and this sounds so odd, oftentimes they are traumatized by the stuff that they have done.

And with that confession comes forgiveness.

STEVENS: There is a time of forgiveness as well. … We don’t talk about forgiving yourself. We talk about walking in God’s forgiveness for things we have done.

The day I talked with John Thomas’s parents, his dad had a portfolio of documents he’s gathered about his son over the years.

TOMMY: I have pictures. You know, John graduated from college in prison. … He helps, he buries prisoners. I mean because there are prisoners that die that nobody comes to, you know…


John Thomas with his parents, Tommy and Diane, on his graduation day.

John Thomas with his parents, Tommy and Diane, on his graduation day. Photo courtesy of the Thomas family

One document stood out. A letter on forgiveness. John wrote:“Christ, through various ministers, lavished His love and forgiveness upon me, and He began to transform me from the inside out. As I began to heal from my invisible trauma wounds, I could see and understand the hurt I had caused in others. In fact, I still get nauseous thinking that my actions possibly caused someone to resent God. All I can think is that I never want to be that man again. A burning desire to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem has arisen in my heart.”

The entrance to the Veteran's Program dormitory at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility.

The entrance to the Veteran's Program dormitory at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of the Thomas family

John says he’s been through dozens of classes at Elayn Hunt. But trauma healing is the one he found the most helpful. Today, he has advanced training in the program. Like Ardic Fields, he leads other inmates through the trauma healing class. Except he works with vets. His work doesn’t stop with teaching the class though. John is one of the few inmates who has his own work space at the prison. He sought permission from prison officials to dedicate one of the dorms for vets. And implemented a veterans mentorship program. He does this work full time.

THOMAS: At Hunt, we have 136 in our program. And every person is encouraged to take it. And we haven’t had one say no.

Nationwide, over 100,00 veterans are in state or federal prison. Seventy-seven percent of those in federal prison have been honorably discharged. About 300 vets are on death row.

THOMAS: Those statistics are profound in my eyes because these men, … like myself, before I went into the military, I didn’t commit any crimes. … So there’s a real problem here because these men are eventually going to be released. So while we have them in prison, we need to help them heal.

Pastor Lawton Searcy says that the healing process is important for the community, as well as the individual prisoners.

​​SEARCY: And the realization that between 85 to 90 percent of these men are going back on the street. Oftentimes when I speak in churches or with groups, I tell them, you know, in all candor, if we have an inmate that reaches his release date, he’s sitting back in the cell blocks, he can be released from a maximum security cell block, and 2 to 3 hours later be standing beside you and your child at a Walmart at the checkout line.

Searcy says locking people up and throwing away the key … doesn’t work.

SEARCY: Warehousing these men and women in prisons, it’s got to stop. It’s got to stop. … We need a generation of young men and young women really coming out of our seminaries and churches that … look at this as a vocational ministry, and prison officials that look around them and realize the best way to control the violence and the drugs in your prison is programming. Letting these men sit for years in dorms with no effective programming, no access to religious services, or very limited, doesn’t work.​


The veteran's dormitory at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility.

The veteran's dormitory at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of the Thomas family

What does work? Healing the trauma. John Thomas recalls one inmate who recently transferred from another state prison into the Veterans Dormitory at Elayn Hunt.

THOMAS: He’s been in prison over 25 years. … And when he got in the dorm, I let them settle in for a couple of days. … I always go greet them and shake everybody’s hand and let them know where I sleep because I’m the coordinator of the program.

After some time had passed, John asked the inmate what he thought.

THOMAS: He said, this is the most amazing place I’ve ever been. And I said, well, why do you say that? He said it’s the spirit in here. … of peace and love. And when you begin to show everybody around you love, they like how it feels and they begin to show other people love. And they feel wanted. … And that’s what’s doing it in the dorm. That’s what’s causing the chain effect. And that’s where trauma healing is more than just a class.

Before that dorm was converted to a veterans dorm, it averaged 30 disciplinary writes-ups per month. A year after John transformed it into a veterans dorm, it went to zero disciplinary write-ups a month.

Having a son in prison is hard. Diane says it took years to get her head around what happened. Over the years, she’s learned the importance of giving others hope.

DIANE: ​​I believe if you give a person hope that wants it, there's change. … [59:59] There's people, maybe, who don't want hope. I don't know. But the person that really wants hope and wants change? That's there.

Tommy agrees. He’s seen that change in his son with his own eyes.

TOMMY: When this happened … I was one of those people that said that, you know, somebody that would do this kind of thing … should be put in jail and you throw the key away. John, John is rehabilitated. John's changed.

And not just John. Of the 150 inmates who have gone through the veterans trauma healing program at Elayn Hunt, 22 have been released back into society. Not one has returned to prison.

TOMMY: ​​People, people are changing now. People are seeing that these prisoners can be rehabilitated and they can get out and they can lead good lives. … That’s what I see.

Thanks to its success, Healing the Wounded Heart: Inmate Version has expanded from Elayn Hunt to two other Louisiana prisons. COVID has slowed down its development, but pastor Lawton Searcy foresees the program moving to other states, too.

The concept of prison ministry has expanded to include far more than just evangelism. But sharing the good news of saving faith in Jesus is still the foundation of Christians’ work behind bars. True transformation—life-long reform—only comes through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Next week, we’ll travel to Texas to meet men and women sharing the gospel in prison.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Jenny Rough. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.

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WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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