Atlanta Ministry Helps Ex-Offenders 95% Stay Out of Jail

Mark Drayton was up way too early this morning, and he will go to bed way too late. He has too much studying to do already for classes, and has been working too many days in a row for his new job.

Yet sitting in the cafeteria of Georgia State University sipping a big grape soda, Drayton, 45 smiled wide.

A perennial drug offender who has spent most of the past two decades in prison, Drayton is out for good, he says.

“In order to give up something, you got to have it in your heart,” he said. “And the only way to accept it in your heart is through God.”

Drayton has found work. Drayton has found Jesus Christ. But first, Drayton found The Saints Prison Ministry. The Atlanta based, nondenominational Saints Prison Ministry has sent sports teams into prisons since 1987 to play ball and preach the gospel.

Two years ago, in response to statistics showing more than one-third of released Georgia prisoners end up incarcerated again within a year, the ministry began a transitional services program for newly released prisoners.

More than 100 former prisoners such as Drayton take part in the program. The ministry links them to churches for Bible studies, social services groups for food and clothing, and employers for work. So far, according to the ministry’s numbers, more than 95 percent of its clients have stayed out of jail – an impressive rate by any measure. That demon is waiting to say, ‘Come here!’ right when they get out,” said minister Keith McCrea, an ex-offender and head of the ministry’s Transitional Services program. “That’s why we’re at the door. If Satan can be at the door, we’ll be there too.”

On a recent morning, McCrea waited at the door of a potential employer for Gary Robinson of Atlanta, who has been in and out of prison for drug offenses since 1976. Robinson walked inside with McCrea’s business card as a reference. McCrea stayed outside with the classifieds clutched in his hand. Robinson is not only asking for jobs in tough economic times, but he is also wondering: Will they take an ex-convict?

It is increasingly difficult for prisoners to get work once they are released, according to Wanda Foglia, a professor of law and justice studies at Georgia Tech. The strict prison sentences of the 1970’s and 80’s sent so many people away for long terms that there are now hundreds of thousands of prisoner released each year. This is part of the reason why two out of three get rearrested within three years, she said.

Since job applicants are asked about past felony convictions during job interviews, McCrea is building a network of Christian businesses willing to hire his men. Robinson, 43, has been living with his family and working part-time at a friend’s moving business since he got out of prison.

Since he doesn’t have the money to pay off traffic fines and license surcharges, he can’t drive. Therefore, McCrea drives him to all potential employers. On one recent morning, Robinson came in and out of a potential employer’s office within seconds.

“The jobs have been filled.” he said dejectedly. “They don’t even have any more applications.” “We’ll go out again tomorrow,” McCrea assured him, leading him back to the car. The car radio was tuned to a Christian preacher, then to contemporary gospel music. God is an important element of McCrea’s contact with his men. Robinson, for example, goes to Bible study almost every week

Foglia, the Rowan professor, said churches have worked with prisoners since the first American entered a jail. Today, there are Buddhist and Muslim spiritual advisers in prisons alongside Christian groups, she said. Studies suggest that spirituality can reduce recidivism rates, Foglia said. She said one study showed one-third of prisoners participate in religious programs. Some do it, she said, just to pass the time or to improve their image before the parole board.

Still, “there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that individual prisoners say it changed (their) lives,” she said.

For Drayton, the former inmate now at Camden County College, spirituality is at the core of his transition. He said he remembers McCrea, who now lives in Sicklerville, from when he ran in drug circles on the streets of Camden.

“Some of the folks in Camden who knew me from the streets, when they see me, it’s like a seed planted in their hearts,” McCrea said. “I say, ‘C’mon in, the water’s fine.'” And that’s what he told Drayton.

“I knew it was God who brought (McCrea) back into my life,” Drayton said. “Ever since then, he has been my spiritual adviser.”

Drayton, who said he used to run with gangs, has a 3.5 GPA and made the dean’s list last semester. The soft-spoken man with a prominent gold cross chain hanging off his neck is majoring in drug and alcohol counseling. Using computers at college, he has already developed a program to go into schools to warn of the dangers of the streets.

“The hardest thing to do for a kid these days is reach the age of 25,” he said. “A guy like me can show them how it’s gonna be.”

Drayton works for $9 an hour as many as seven days a week. He does homework during his lunch hour, and after work he rushes to class.

He has a bank account, a $400-a-month apartment in Midtown Atlanta and two cars. And he is rebuilding his relationship not only with God, but with his two children. “I promised my kids I’m gonna graduate, so that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said.

But Drayton knows he’s not out of the water yet. “I’m still finding me,” he said. “That may take a lifetime, but if it does, I gotta continue to follow that road.”