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Religious program for inmates offers jailhouse salvation


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - This time around, Tammy Walsh vows jail time will be different.

Yes, she used to be hard-headed. She used to be mean. She used to be a drug addict, injecting heroin into her thin arms from the time she was 11 years old.

She never used to laugh or tell the truth or pray.

But then she got arrested for possesion. Behind the cream-colored bars in the Virginia Beach Jail, she finally found a form of freedom and a sense of humor.

Because, she says, she found God.

"In my street life, I was like a top, spinning around and going nowhere," Walsh said. "When I got here, I realized I can't make it without the Lord."

Discovering Jesus in jail isn't new. For some inmates, jailhouse salvation sounds like the shortest route to early release.

But for others, the ones who say their belief in God is stronger than the steel bars that lock them away, the Life Learning Program at the Virginia Beach Jail is the first footstep on a path to spiritual freedom.

Unusual program

Virginia Beach is one of 16 jails in the country - the only facility in Hampton Roads - that house Life Learning Programs. There are other forms of worship inside the jail walls, but none like the Life Learning Program. Nondenominational church services are recorded on Sundays for inmates who request them. Non-Christian inmates can also request visits from their religious leaders.

Senior chaplain Richard Sherrill describes Life Learning as Bible-based education ministry. Inmates say it's a kind of spiritual boot camp, a hard-core program for hard-core offenders.

There are no card games, a jailhouse staple. That could lead to gambling.

There's no television except for news broadcasts and Christian videos. Anything else is considered a distraction.

Inmates must attend at least 25 hours of class a week. If any of the women skip just one class it results in cell arrest - no phone privileges, no videos, no leaving the cell for an entire day.

There's no cursing; four-letter words are replaced with four-line prayers.

And for at least one hour a day, inmates can't speak.

But the 16 men and 12 women currently enrolled in Life Learning volunteered to be on this block. They made up most of the rules themselves.

Maj. William T. Mann, commanding officer of corrections, said inmates in the Life Learning block are generally less problematic than other inmates, which could be the result of the strict rules of the program.

"It's a great opportunity for these inmates to live in a highly structured and therapeutic environment," he said.

Sherrill, a sheriff's deputy, say between five and seven inmates a day request Life Learning. Each must go through an interview before moving to the blocks.

On the second floor of the jail, the Life Learning women form a circle and begin to pray. Their cries of "Amen, Jesus" and "Oh thank you, Lord" echo across the cell block as some of the inmates sway back and forth in their orange jumpsuits.

The women do their morning prayer before settling down for their classes.

Along with Bible study and morning devotions, inmates are taught skills that will help them when their time in jail is behind them. Drug addicts, robbers and embezzlers learn how to manage money, handle a relationship and overcome addictions through religious readings.

They have homework. They're tested on their faith every few weeks. After 90 days, they graduate, most heading back to other cell blocks to finish sentences, while others are released.

Since the program began, 250 men and 68 women have graduated, according to Sherrill.

Jesus rubs off

He said most have gone back to other blocks to share their faith.

Good News Jail and Prison Ministry began the Life Learning Program in 1988. Its goal was to provide inmates with the necessary skills to live a renewed life.

The ministry and the inmates say the program works only when the criminals want to change.

Inmates say they don't care that other inmates make fun of them for being emotional or appearing wimpy.

"They can think we're weak, but we all made a decision to come into this block," said Russell VanWroten, who's serving time for a probation violation. "No matter how bad or tough you are, you can't be in here with this bunch of guys and not have a little bit of Jesus rub off on you."

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