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The Rhode Island Spotlight Weekly Feature

Learning to Live

This month Jim Hummel goes inside the Adult Correctional Institutions to see first-hand a program where volunteers lead faith-based life skills classes for inmates. From overcoming addiction, to anger management, coping with loss, resolving conflict and developing personal integrity. It's a program that has reached hundreds of men and women.


On a Tuesday morning in late November, a dozen inmates are gathered around a table inside Minimum Security at the Adult Correctional Institutions. They open with prayer then dive into a 12-week course they've been taking called Overcoming Addictions.

Leading the class is Tony Mancuso, who coordinates two dozen volunteers that run similar sessions at virtually every building on the prison grounds. It is a program that has blossomed over the past several years and Mancuso has seen it first-hand.

Macuso: ``Men who have lived violent lives, have lived lives of destruction, just break down and just want a new start, want forgiveness, in tears coming from their eyes, just knowing that there's hope and there's change. It begins with them.''

Mancuso, an ordained minister who moved to Rhode Island from Florida in the late 1990s, works for the Providence Rescue Mission, which saw a need in the prison population after Mancuso's years of volunteering his time there. That evolved into a full-fledged curriculum called Learning to Live  that spans the ACI - from Minimum and Medium Security, to Maximum and the Women's facility. It's designed so that if a prisoner moves from one building to another he can pick up on the same class because they're being taught in all of the facilities.

The program costs the state nothing.

Carew: ``Missions have historically had a line toward the prison systems in their community.''
Sean Carew has headed the Providence Rescue Mission since 1999. The Mission funds Mancuso's time and the workbooks for the courses - first used in the prison system in Florida. It features topics such as Overcoming Addictions,  Resolving Conflict, Godly Parenting, dealing with loss and grief and personal integrity.

Carew: ``I've never met anybody I had to tell they're an alcoholic. They already know they're an alcoholic. People already know they have problems. The question is: Do you have a different answer for me? So I like the curriculum. It made sense to me. Practical things that could help an inmate maybe not commit another crime when they got out. Maybe be able to do their time with less incidents of violations because of frustration, violence or whatever.''

They are faith-based programs that clearly come from a Christian perspective - but in a subtle way.

Carew: ``We're teaching classes. We're not doing a `Bible study'. We're taking practical application of the Word of God and saying how does that apply to your finances? How does that apply to parenting skills? How does that apply to your emotional state of mind? How does that apply with addiction? Can you find  things in the Word of God that will strengthen you or help you? Here, look at this, let's take a look at this, let's see what this does for you, then we let that person make his own decision.''

Findlay: ``It's not so much that it's preaching or that you have to be a Christian to go in, but it gives inmates in any denomination, any faith the opportunity to kind of learn a different perspective on issues that they're dealing with.''

Ken Findlay, director of institutional programs and services, oversees the program for the ACI. The volunteers have to go through close to 30 hours of training from Mancuso and the ACI before they are allowed to help with, or teach, the courses. And the prison keeps a close eye on the message.

Findlay: ``We're trying to change their values and we're trying to show them that they're alternatives. And if they catch on and go on to change, great. But there is no way that we would allow anybody to come in and try to change anybody's faith.''

Macuso: ``I think as long as they figure we're trying to untie knots and we're not trying to tie people up spiritually, get them miscombobled about things, that they're very open. I know they're very watchful, that's why we have the training, that's why we've been able to move forward because our volunteers really respect the job the ACI has to do on a professional level each and every day.''

The inmates in the class we saw at Minimum and another class at the Women's facility have homework to do every week and are expected to come prepared for the 90-minute class. The discussions are frank, and honest.

Hummel: ``What do you see from week #1 to week #12 - when you're sitting there with the guys?''
Mancuso: ``I see a light come on with a lot of them. It's just astonishing to see their views change and their lives change. We just want to give them hope that they can make a difference.

But we're truthful, we're very truthful, in the sense that it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be easy for them to reestablish their lives after such devastation. It's going to take hard work and perseverance to do that.''

Carew: ``If we can offer different viable alternatives, where you can think about  and say wait a second, before I get angry at my wife, I'm going to pray. And I'm going to understand that she's raising the children by herself because I'm incarcerated she's fragile and I'm going to treat that differently than I did before. Well, that's a win. Now we're getting you to think about different ways to respond to life issues.''

Mancuso says part of the training is to make sure the volunteers keep some boundaries.
Mancuso: ``We're  dealing with a very needy population - and sometimes a volunteer can get caught up and we just want to train them on how to deal with these situations.''

Hummel: ``And what balance do you want to strike?''

Mancuso: ``I think between friendship and friendly. That to have a friendship with someone inside, the ACI really tries not to have because you can be drawn into it and into the circumstances.''

All three men agree that trying to provide a support network once the inmates leave prison is a key to building on the success of the program.
Findlay: ``One of our biggest problems that we see on the inside is we do have the inmates, they're a captive audience, they're off the drugs, they're in a safe secure location and they may be thinking and contemplating about change. And they go through all of these programs, great programs, all evidence based, but then when we release they're going back to the same exact environment that brought them here. So I think the faith-based community has stepped up and identified that they need to be a partner, and they need to understand that they're part of the solution.''

Hummel: ``When they get out.''

Findlay: ``When they get out.''

Hummel: ``To provide that support network on the outside.''

Findlay: ``Correct.''

Hummel: ``Is it fair to say that if you didn't have the volunteers doing this, these programs would not exist?''

Findlay: ``They would not exist.''

Hummel: ``You don't have the resources.''

Findlay: ``We don't, no.''

At the ACI, Jim Hummel for the Rhode Island Spotlight.


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