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Inmate ministry helps to cut recidivism at Coffee jail
From left, Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell, Marilyn Howard and Charlie Graham address members of the Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday.

The paint was barely dry on Coffee County’s new 400-bed jail last year when government officials discovered a big problem: they would soon need to build even more incarceration space at a cost of millions.
Vindicating the theory that says “if you build it they will come,” the inmate population exploded, pushing hard against the designed capacity of the facility. On the heels of spending $22 million for the main jail complex, county taxpayers were looking at paying another $8 to $10 million to build another 200 beds.
“This was unacceptable,” Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell told The Rotary Club of McMinnville at its weekly luncheon Thursday.
So instead of hiring architects and construction crews, government leaders teamed with churches and devout Christians in “praying through” to an alternative.  The result was a prayer-energized gospel outreach to inmates with the aim of slowing the revolving door of recidivism, the dismal pattern of confinement, release, and return to jail.
Citing a local recidivism rate of 81 percent, Cordell asked, “What better way to reduce it than to expose them to the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
But after they have served their time, “They get out and where are they going to go?” Cordell asked. “If they go back to the same companions and the same culture,” he lamented, they are very likely to be heading back to jail as part of that 4-out-of-5 cohort of repeat offenders.
Coffee County went to the core of the serial offender problem, the set of habits and attitudes that landed them behind bars for the first time. After several non-denominational prayer meetings, sheriff’s deputy and volunteer jail chaplain Charlie Graham accepted the challenge of revitalizing the inmate ministry last September. Since then, 128 incarcerated men and women have made their public profession of faith in Jesus and have been baptized.
“It’s nothing I’ve done. It’s the power of the gospel,” Graham said.  “I view myself as a little vessel. I started by taking religion out of the equation,” Graham continued. Holding up a well-worn Bible, he declared, “This is our only authority.”  He went on to surmise, “I’m pretty sure there is no sign on the gates of heaven with a denominational name.”
Marilyn Howard, the Coffee County leader in the Tennessee Governmental Prayer Alliance, was one of the original activists in driving the jail ministry forward.
“I am a converted addict, saved by the grace of God,” Howard began. Putting her faith into practice, she joined other area Christians in weekly prayer vigils on the steps of the Coffee County Courthouse in Manchester. She relies, she assured the Rotarians, on the Holy Spirit to enable her prayers as she implores God for grace and strength.
“God has not turned His back on America,” Howard affirmed. But America must get back to faith, humility, obedience and prayer, she insisted.
Graham outlined an ambitious program calling on volunteer mentors to commit to one year in counseling and guiding newly released inmates as they make their way back into society as responsible, productive citizens and family members. “These people who are in and out of prison aren’t stupid. They just haven’t been taught,” he said.
Howard, Cordell and Graham discuss these and other issues in more detail in WCPI’s “FOCUS” interview program this week. The half-hour conversation will be broadcast on the local public radio station, 91.3 FM, Tuesday at 5 p.m.; Wednesday at 5:05 a.m.; Thursday at 1 p.m.; and Friday at 1:05 a.m.