Like many parents, T.J. West plans to spend Christmas with his family.
He and his children, 12-year-old Riley and 11-year-old Jada, and his mother, Carolyn, plan to keep it simple. The highlights of the day will include seeing a movie together and sharing a meal of homemade burgers.
Those plans make this a very different Christmas for West and his family, because it will be the first one in 10 years that he hasn't spent behind bars.
"It was like pulling muscle from bone," West, 32, said of the time he spent away from his family. "And it hurt."
West is a graduate of the Pathway to Freedom program, a voluntary Christian-based rehabilitation program based at the Hawkins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction in Wrightsville.
Inmates in Arkansas apply to Pathway to Freedom and join other participants in the privately funded nonprofit organization, where they focus on spiritual and personal development through classes, work and mentoring from fellow inmates, volunteers and staff before being released into a transitional program backed by additional support supplied by volunteers and area churches.
Although the program doesn't have exact numbers on recidivism rates for those in the program, Pathway to Freedom -- which currently has more than 200 inmates -- has seen fewer graduates return to prison than the state's overall recidivism rate of 53 percent, according to Scott McLean, the program's director.
An inmate's time in the program typically lasts for the remaining 18 to 24 months of an inmate's sentence, but West was part of the program while serving the last four years of a 10-year sentence for robbery.
West -- who is now a re-entry liaison intern for Pathway to Freedom -- served in several capacities Dec. 8 at the program's annual Family Christmas banquet. Unlike events at other times of the year, this is one where inmates in Pathway to Freedom can gather with loved ones, a crucial link to the outside world from which they've been set apart.
McLean said the holidays are a time of year that find people -- incarcerated or part of the general population -- lonely, depressed or suicidal.
"This is a precious time because you're missing out on your kids, your family, being with your loved ones," McLean said. "We try to make it family oriented and friendly here to where the guys get to know each other, understand the meaning behind all of this and what Christmas means, what Jesus came to do [as] the savior of the world."
Inmates -- not just those in the program but throughout Arkansas -- receive items like T-shirts and toiletries around this time of year from churches or organizations that support Pathway to Freedom, McLean said. Inmates also will be able to sit back and watch a movie and relax during what is part of a two-week break this time of the year.
"At first, [being in prison] was surreal," said West, who said what made his time easier was the sense of community and the relationships he "built and fostered" as a result of being part of Pathway to Freedom.
Christmas fell on a Saturday or Sunday -- visiting days at the prison -- three times during West's sentence.
"A lot of the time, [even] if it did, you were still looking out of a small window hoping that your family might show up," West said. "A lot of times guys are alone, and nobody should be alone at Christmas."
Vince Mathes, 45, who is serving a 13-year sentence for first-degree battery without a chance for parole, said he believed prison didn't mean anything about how his lifestyle needed to change.
"Gangs, hustling, selling drugs -- it was just the same lifestyle I had [on the outside]," said Mathes, a father of five. "I had the mentality that I got 100 percent. I'm going to go home the same day whether I'm a good inmate or a bad one, and that's how I lived."
All of that changed when his 25-year-old daughter -- married with a family and attending college, according to Mathes -- died unexpectedly of an aneurysm in October of last year.
"That was what pushed me to say, 'I've got to do something,'" Mathes said.
His application to Pathway to Freedom was initially rejected. Inmates must meet certain criteria, and Mathes' history of selling drugs initially precluded him from joining. Nevertheless, Mathes -- whose father was a minister and his mother a missionary and evangelist -- was eventually admitted to the program.
"Growing up in a church home, I knew it was God," he said.
A part of Pathway to Freedom since March, Mathes now provides support to other inmates as the organization's community leader for restorative counseling.
Mathes' eyes scanned the room every so often at the program's Christmas banquet, looking for glimpses of his mother and youngest grandson, who had arranged to spend time with him but had yet to arrive.
McLean said the most difficult thing to witness is when families sign up but don't show up for one reason or another, disappointing inmates who in some cases wait months to see their loved ones.
"It's broken promises," McLean said. "And you see the tears from many of the guys that don't have family show up and [are] expecting them.
"We try to be there to be a support to them and let them know, 'Hey, we're with you and you're going to get through this ... you're not alone even though you didn't have your family show up. We want you to know that we're there for you.'"
Ryan Oyen, 30, spent time during the banquet with his mother, Tracey Oyen, and sister, Shannon Sherwin. They had driven in from Iowa -- one of two trips they make per year, they said -- and Oyen counts himself lucky for those visits.
"There are families right nearby that don't come to see their relatives," Ryan Oyen said.
In prison since 2013, Oyen transferred to the Hawkins Unit to join Pathway to Freedom after hearing about the program while at the Varner Unit in Gould, where he was serving a 60-year sentence for underage pornography.
Eligible for parole in 2023, Oyen separated from his wife earlier this year, with whom he has a 7-year-old son. He hasn't seen his son in two years but remains upbeat.
"It's a start, not an end," Oyen said of the program, where he now works as an assistant in McLean's office. "No one grows up wanting to be a bad father, or to be a not-good son."
Sherwin noted Pathway to Freedom's ability not just to provide and foster support among inmates, but to bring families into the process.
"[Pathway to Freedom] brought us all closer to God," said Sherwin, who noted that the program had changed everything about her brother, right down to the books he reads and the music he listens to.
"Here [in prison] the first thing you could get was a Bible," she said.
INMATES GET LONELY
West spent part of his time during the banquet behind a camera, taking photos of inmates with their families against a colorful wall mural and a Christmas tree. Those without family attending were able to have volunteers stand with them if they wished, and McLean and Sid Turner, Pathway to Freedom's program counselor, stood with inmates for photos as well.
On Christmas Day, West said he will be up long before his children are.
"I was talking to somebody [recently] and I said 'You know what? This is going to be my first Christmas where my kids are of age to get up and then [you] hear that screech and just holler of joy -- It's Christmas! -- and I almost started crying just thinking about that," West said. "I haven't had that. So I'll be up in my chair waiting to hear those first little rustles of them moving around."
McLean emphasized that while there are inmates who have no desire to change, it's important to give those who are trying to turn their lives around the chance to do so and rejoin their families and society.
"This is a critical time of the year for these guys, when people are able to give of themselves, and yet they're missing out on that now based on their crime," McLean said. "Yes, they have to pay for that. But, at the same time, they're human ... and they have kids and families just like we all do.
"So yes, we've got inmates in prison who are paying for their crime, but at the same time they're all different. Giving them an opportunity at life, what better gift can we give anybody?"
T.J. West (left), re-entry liaison intern for Pathway to Freedom and a graduate of the program, gives a grin and the thumbs-up sign to an inmate after taking his photograph at the program’s Christmas banquet, an annual event held for the program’s members and their families at the Hawkins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction in Wrightsville.
Religion on 12/23/2017
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