The View From the Inside

A former Marion inmate recalls coercion and conversion.

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Lawyer William Hamann Jr. pleaded guilty in 1991 to stealing more than $2 million from estates and trusts that he oversaw. He spent more than a decade in prison, but was recently paroled. Scene asked him to describe the changes he saw at Marion Correctional Institution during his two stays there.

I had two tours through Marion, 1991-1994 and 2000-2003, separated by transfers to two other Ohio prisons. My two Marion experiences, under different wardens, couldn't have been more different. The difference was clearly attributed to Warden [Christine] Money's faith-based programming initiatives. During my first three years at MCI, the Chapel -- and its small religious services program -- was simply one small sphere of activity, influence, and sanctuary in a prison that was heavily polarized in about ten different directions. It was the old-school prison environment of competing camps. To survive in "pre-Money" Marion, one had to "belong" to one or more of the "camps" -- Aryans, Black Panthers, Latinos, Homosexuals, Super-Clerks, Chapel, School, Jailhouse Lawyers, Weightlifters etc.

By the time I arrived back at MCI in 2000, ALL of these former "camps" had become extinct, neutralized, or marginalized -- including the old, traditional Chapel program. What took their place, primarily on the site of the Chapel, was the new faith-based juggernaut called Kairos [Prison Ministry]. Though I considered myself "spiritual," I was not particularly "religious" and tried to avoid the practical entanglements of the Kairos movement. It soon became clear to me, however, that there was enormous and unrelenting pressure from staff and inmates alike to "jump on the bandwagon." Clearly, if an inmate was to succeed in any other experiential area of the institution, he would have to become a member of the Kairos faith brotherhood. That brotherhood includes Kairos, Promise Keepers, Horizon Interfaith, and all the myriad activities that spring from them. For those inmates who wear the little green Kairos "fish badges," there is great inclusion in all the "goodies" the prison has to offer. Those outside the group are largely disenfranchised, marginalized, and ignored . . . until the next recruiting campaign.

For reasons "less than pure" I succumbed to the pressure to join Kairos. Once inside, though, I must admit to an epiphany that heightened both my personal spirituality and the practice of my religion -- which became more orthodox and sacramental by the day. I think it was the routine of having to attend so many Kairos functions -- at least three times each week -- that gave me a greater awareness of the value of faith in my life. A year of those experiences led me to the Kairos Horizon Interfaith Dorm, where I spent one year as a resident participant, and one year as a family encourager and program aide. I experienced tremendous spiritual and religious growth in that particular program. Again, the key was routine, discipline, demands, and accountability.

Let's face it . . . prison always has been, and always will be, a place that is driven by reward and punishment. It is a society that also depends heavily upon organized "subcultures." In the old prison environment of Marion, until the mid-90's, that subculture consisted basically of gangs who met their members' needs by coercion, intimidation, violence, and sleazy tricks. They were heavily dependent upon drugs, gambling, prostitution and violence. Men often joined one or more of those groups out of necessity rather than burning desire.

Kairos has become the dominant "subculture" at Marion in the new millennium. In many ways, that movement relies upon promised (or perceived) rewards, intimidation, brain-washing, and threat of social exclusion to gain its members. Far too many men, I think, join the Kairos movement (as I did) for the wrong reasons: staff and parole-board favor, program access, extra food and goodies, and access to outside volunteers -- especially women. Far too many of the community are clearly "faking it" for some ulterior motive. Yet I have seen many others join out of a true desire to find a deeper faith -- or to find God for the first time. I have also seen dozens of the "fakers" have a true conversion experience in the midst of the faith community. I came to understand that "faking it until one can make it" is a far better alternative than not trying at all. Faking it in the Kairos community is much more productive for the larger prison society than either faking it or making it in one of the more sinister prison subcultures. Jesus said, "Bring to me those who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give them rest." Sometimes, all one has to do is show up -- whatever the motivation -- and he will be healed.

For those, like me, who have a real faith experience, the results are profound and empowering. I found a psychological release from my imprisonment that I had not felt in ten prior years. Suddenly, I was able to find a functional/spiritual life from God within me, rather than constantly seeking my gratification outside the walls. Kairos, and especially the Horizon Interfaith program element, gave me a "peace that passes understanding." That resignation and peace, I believe, finally led me to an unexpected release.

Whatever may be its faults and "strong-arm" methods, the Kairos Prison Ministry and the other faith initiatives inspired and put into place by Warden Money and her staff have dramatically changed the tenor of the entire prison for inmates and staff alike. Hope now "springs eternal" in a place where, upon my arrival in 1991, hopelessness was the daily fare.

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