YAKIMA, WA — Nina Vickers was in the Yakima County jail in 2004 on a probation violation and other offenses.
“I couldn’t pass a drug test to save my life,” Vickers recalled.
But this time, she decided to get into one of the jail’s faith-based housing units — “God Pods” as they’re called by inmates and guards — in order to score a few extra privileges, such as television and coffee.
What she learned in the religion and life-skills classes taught by volunteers helped her eventually break the cycle of substance abuse and incarceration that had dominated her life, she now says. And she’s working with the program to help other inmates succeed on the outside.
“I know the God Pod impacted my life,” Vickers said recently in her office at Together Church in Yakima. “Here I am, working in a church, an outreach director for a church.”
For more than 20 years, the jail has set aside housing units where volunteers come in and provide Bible study and lessons on being better parents and role models in hopes of helping inmates be productive, law-abiding people when they return to society.
While they don’t keep statistics on the program’s effectiveness, corrections officials and the program’s staff believe it can help some people get out of a life of crime.
“It is a sought-after program,” said corrections officer Lt. Jeremy Welch.
The Yakima County jail established its first faith-based unit in 1996 in the men’s section, with the women’s unit opening in 1997, Welch said. Today, there are 24 beds in the women’s God Pod, while the men’s unit is capped at 60 inmates.
Phyllis Anderson, the current chaplain for the women’s unit, started as a volunteer when the pod opened, a job she felt she had to take.
“I had never been in jail, but I felt God was calling me to a jail ministry,” Anderson said.
When a fellow member of Stone Church said they were looking for volunteers to help in the faith-based housing unit, she agreed to sign up as a volunteer teacher.
Anderson said both her parents were alcoholics and she had a brother who dealt drugs and was an alcoholic. While she did not follow them into that lifestyle, she said it gave her compassion for those who struggle with addiction.
Fifteen years ago, she became one of the jail’s lay chaplains and was put in charge of the women’s faith-based housing program.
In 2016, the women’s program averaged about 19 participants at any given time, and almost 300 went through the program, Welch said. The men’s unit averaged 47 inmates a day, with nearly 600 going through in that year.
Most of the participants are low- to medium-security inmates, with some high-security inmates whose behavior has allowed them to enter the program. Applicants are vetted by the corrections staff and the chaplains.
ABIDING BY THE RULES
Anderson admits that there are inmates who sign up for the program because they see it as a way to get privileges that inmates in the general population don’t have. The God Pod inmates have access to microwave ovens and a cup of coffee or tea each day.
But Anderson quickly points out that those privileges come with a price — one that some inmates may consider a bit steep just for a cup of instant coffee.
“They have to abide by the rules,” she said.
And the rules are in some ways stricter than those in the general population.
Unlike the rest of the jail, inmates in the God Pods have to be up and out of bed at 6 a.m., cleaning the unit before breakfast and morning Bible study. Then there’s class time from 9 to 11 a.m., with lunch and free time between 11 and noon, followed by an hour of quiet time and two more hours of class time before dinner and additional study time.
Lights out is at 9:30 p.m.
Classes range from Bible studies to life skills and how to be a better parent and role model.
That regimented lifestyle helps weed out those who are signing up just because of the perks. There are also some who get removed for not abiding by the rules, Anderson said.
Welch said the unit has fewer disciplinary problems, mainly because inmates know they have to follow the rules if they want to stay there. And there’s a waiting list, he said.
While the teaching and teachers come from the Christian tradition, Anderson said only general religious principles are taught, avoiding doctrinal issues that can lead to arguments.
She said there have been non-Christians who asked to be in the units, and there were no problems. She points out that nobody is forced into the unit, nor do they have to stay if they don’t like what’s taught.
“We respect one another’s position. We give them respect, and we ask them to be respectful,” Anderson said. “It is a choice to be in here.”
Another rule is not to talk about past problems, such as the participant’s legal problems or convictions. Instead, the focus is on the future and what they need to do for a better life.
For some inmates, the parenting classes are the first time they have seen what a parent’s proper role should be in a family, Anderson said.
And some of the women say the program is helping them make changes.
Erica Godinez, who has been there for a year, said she was not a morning person when she first came there, but that has changed as she has had to get up every day and do chores.
“I want to change. I want to be different,” said Godinez, who is in the jail on a U.S. Marshal’s hold.
LIFE BACK ON TRACK
Vickers said that when she came into the unit, she had no religious background. The strict schedule in the pod gave Vickers structure during her time in jail, as well as in her life. And while there, she experienced a religious conversion.
However, it took a while for her to truly put her life in order after she got out, which she said was her fault. She had three other scrapes with the law before becoming completely sober.
Part of her initial problem coming out was not thinking she could be forgiven for her past. She went to a service at Anderson’s church when she got out, but felt she had to leave when she couldn’t see Anderson there and was afraid people were judging her.
But she said it was the classes in the pod that helped her eventually get her life back on track and connected with Together Church.
And she goes back and teaches in the pod, seeing women who are in the place where she was 13 years ago. She wants to help them as Anderson and others helped her.
One of the things she and other teachers stress is the need for program participants to connect with a church either before or as soon as they get out of jail, so they have a support network to build on the success they had in jail. She said she and the other volunteers will help them find churches in the areas where they are going after jail so they have a welcoming place to go.
In the God Pod, “you are in this little bubble. You are safe,” Vickers said. “When you get out, you’re thrown back into the same situations you were in before.”
Welch said she’s seen a few participants come back into the jail as inmates, but he said those who stick with the program are more likely to stay out of jail.
Anderson said she has seen many women like Vickers turn their lives around — getting jobs and helping in the community, such as at the Union Gospel Mission.
But she also notes there have been failures — including participants who died after falling back into their old lifestyles. She keeps copies of their obituaries and will ask herself if she could have done anything more to have saved their lives.
“Anybody who is in the ministry has a tendency to do that,” Anderson said.
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic http://www.yakimaherald.com