6/18/2010 - Prison Chaplain speaks to Criminal Justice students
Prison Chaplain Encourages Students to Trust God with Their Lives,
Consider Working in Prison Ministry
"You may not know where you're going in life, but God does and he's in control," former prison chaplain Eddie Smith told Judson College criminal justice students on June 18.
Smith, who lives in Tuscaloosa, retired last year as chaplain at the Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent. He previously served as both a correctional officer and a drug treatment counselor in the Alabama prison system.
Judson criminal justice professor John Weber invited Smith to visit his summer class and talk about his work. Weber is also a Tuscaloosa attorney.
"I never prayed to be a prison chaplain," Smith said, "but I see how the hand of God worked in my life now more clearly as I look back. God will use all the experiences you've had in the past and are having now in college to prepare you for your life's work."
Smith told the class that a friend became a correctional officer and then encouraged him to consider this vocation. Smith served as an officer in the Birmingham area for eight years, and then worked in drug treatment for two years before interviewing for the chaplain's position at the newly-constructed facility in Brent. He began work at BCCF in the fall of 1998.
"You must be careful in the system because some inmates will try to take advantage of your friendship," he said. "There are strict rules about what we can or cannot do, and I tried to keep the warden apprised of any unusual things going on."
Smith explained that prison chaplaincy has many dimensions; for example, chaplains are often asked to convey news about the deaths of relatives.
"One of the hardest times was when I called in an inmate to tell him his 16-year-old grandson had been killed in an accident," he said.
Smith said one day he conducted six funerals for inmates or their families. Another day he took a call from a 16-year-old girl who believed her father, whom she'd never met, was in the Bibb facility. She asked Smith to find the man and arrange a meeting.
Smith also oversaw a large group of ministry volunteers at the prison.
"We had a lot of Bible studies and self-help courses at Bibb," he said. "When people called me and expressed interest, I asked them how God had burdened them and we went from there."
Smith said his best guess is that 90 percent of inmates are in prison due to alcohol or drug-related offenses.
Smith and Weber noted that the prison population in the state is disproportionately black.
But Smith added, "The prison population is becoming younger and whiter due to crack cocaine addiction."
Smith told of one acquaintance who made $100,000 one year in his illegal drug business, but who became an addict himself.
"He became his own best customer and lost everything he had," Smith said.
In response to a question about recidivism, or the number of inmates who return to prison, Weber said a felony conviction makes a job in the outside world hard to find.
Smith agreed, but added he met men in the area whom he'd known at BCCF who were working productively and raising families. He mentioned one Tuscaloosa business that gave former inmates a chance to work and said he wished other businesses would do this, too.
Smith said that he spent countless hours as a chaplain encouraging men who'd lost everything that they could still have productive lives after they served their sentences.
"My experience convinces me that a man must decide he wants his life to change before any kind of spiritual counseling or rehabilitation can be effective," he said.
"I know a man who was sentenced to life without parole, and then his sentence was changed to life," Smith said. "He was paroled and has been pastor of a Baptist church for some time. God is still in the miracle business."
* Photo Caption: pictured left to right: student Allison Anderson, professor John Weber, student Brooklyn Williams, Janice Washington, Hardy Ernest and speaker Eddie Smith.
* Article courtesy of the Judson College Public Relations Department.