Volunteers are helping people open up in Tennessee prisons
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Note: For the purpose of this story, the Tennessee Department of Corrections has asked News 2 not to use the inmate’s real name. He will be referred like “Ron” everywhere.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Ron is a prisoner and will be for a long time.
“It has been a long and continuous journey. But it’s still beautiful. I wish I had that there,” he said, touching the Bible beside him. “I had the opportunity to have her there, to trust God, to serve God. But sometimes God has to take you out of all the fun.”
At Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, many men are changing — in part because of the volunteers.
“They are condemned. You can’t convict a convict,” volunteer Rudy Kalis said. “They could read your heart, they could read your mind, they could tell if you’re fake. So you’d better be honest about what you believe.”
Kalis has volunteered at the prison for about half a decade. He was a sports reporter before retiring and finding what he says he was put here to do.
An old intern of his was with Men of Valor, a prison ministry organization in Nashville. After speaking with the former intern, Kalis felt compelled to visit Riverbend with them.
“The minute I walked in, I was like, ‘This is my world.’ It started one day, then two days, then they asked to go into the tougher units,” Kalis said. “I ended up on Death Row. Now, it’s four days a week and it’s my whole life.”
“Rudy allows us to open up, be a man, talk about our mistakes,” Ron said. “He sets the stage every week by talking about his week.”
“I think they help me more than I help them,” Kalis said with a smile.
“He’ll talk about watering the garden, he’ll talk about what’s going on in his life with his family, the good things and the bad things,” Ron said. “He relates it to the Bible and what it does is it breaks down our walls.”
Sometimes you don’t have to be a faith leader or even a therapist. Simply being present makes a difference.
“Just being a friend, being a confidant, someone I can talk to and share with and someone I can learn from,” said David Dodson, TDOC director of Faith and Volunteer Services. “These volunteers are great role models, good role models, and that’s what these people need.”
Men, statistically, already struggle to open up emotionally. In prison, it can be even more difficult given the circumstances. Volunteers can help unlock some of these emotions.
“To hear so many men not just crying, not just expressing their deep feelings, it’s just beautiful,” said Ron. “There’s so much healing with Rudy and I feel like he’s made for what he’s doing.”
“They are not defined by the blue they wear,” Kalis said.
Reciprocity means a lot, especially to the men of Riverbend who are incarcerated. Volunteers bring one key thing – hope.
“Hopelessly, we’ll be like wild animals here, just here, killing each other,” said Ron. “But a volunteer who comes, cultivates us, raises us, teaches us… gives us hope.”
When the cell door closes each night, it’s people like Kalis who push it open.
“It gives me the strength to go back to my cell every night and say, ‘You know what, I can go another day,’ because I have a lot of time,” Ron said.
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The recidivism rate in Tennessee is about 46%. For men who complete Men of Valor’s six-month program in prison and the 12-month program once released, the rate is less than 15 percent.
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