Prison Ministry

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 6, 2010



LAPLACE – Since 2007, LaPlace resident Harold Keller has spent his Wednesday evenings in jail, but not for the reasons you might think.

Keller, 72, makes these weekly visits to the Sherman Walker Correctional Facility in LaPlace as part of a ministry program for inmates at the St. John the Baptist Parish jail. The inmates sing songs, read Bible passages and listen to straight talk from Keller and other invited guests.

“I’m excited to be out here,” Keller said. “There are nights where I can’t wait to get over here. I can really see the difference it is making in some of these guys.”

Keller said the weekly program averages about 40 inmates a night, but there are another 30 on the waiting list to get in. He said the men in the program often return to their cells and talk about what goes on.

“Word of mouth definitely spreads,” Keller said. “These guys only usually get an hour of free time a day and they want to spend it doing something worthwhile. I’m glad they spend it with me.”

Keller said the program began with a visit from the warden and St. John Sheriff Wayne Jones. Keller said the men approached him about the possibility of doing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with some of the inmates, but he was reluctant at first.

“I said I don’t want to do an AA meeting,” Keller said. “There’s no reason to because these guys can’t get alcohol where they are anyway. I said I’d rather do a ‘Get High on Life’ meeting. I felt that they would benefit more from something more spiritual.”

Keller also said at first that he would not commit to weekly meetings with the inmates, but since the program began, Keller hasn’t missed a Wednesday.

“I’ve talked about adding a second night to the program to get more inmates involved because they really do enjoy it,” Keller said. “It’s just too much right now, but this is a good start.”

On a recent visit, Keller brought in a man identified as “Andre.” Keller explained that “Andre,” a former member of the ministry group, had been in and out of the jail on 16 different occasions for an assortment of crimes. He’s been out more than a year and has now turned his life around for the better.

“He’s got a good job and is working on getting his GED,” Keller said. “He’s also got a great singing voice, which we will hear tonight.”

After singing a “call and response” hymn to inmates, “Andre” talked about leaving the prison system and what it takes to stay out for good.

“You’ve got to stay in contact with this stuff,” he said. “People get out and get sucked back up into their old life. They forget these teachings. You can’t let that happen.”

Jones said he has sat in with the group on several occasions and has always been impressed by the content of the program, as well as the attention the inmates pay to it.

“He does a fantastic job engaging with these guys,” Jones said of Keller. “He gives them a lot of straight talk about family, responsibilities and what they need to do to stay out of here for good. He is always sincere and genuinely excited.”

Jones said the program is really only reserved for model inmates charged with lesser crimes, like property damage, theft or drug possession, who are looking for a way out. He said some of the more serious criminals have been able to work their way into consideration for the group.

“If they have been a model inmate, they will be put on the list,” Jones said. “It has really been beneficial to the morale of the inmates. We try to do as much as we can to bring some positive programs into the jail.”

Jones said he, too, has seen a positive impact on some of the inmates involved. He said corrections officers tell him the inmates are more respectful and are better behaved.

“These are good men who slipped up and made mistakes,” Jones said. “When I would come through sometimes, many of them would be very standoffish and suspect, but now they all come up and talk to me.”

Keller said he is hoping the program will evolve into a work release program for some of the inmates. He said he is working with the sheriff and District Attorney Tom Daley to make that happen.

“These guys need a way out of here,” he said. “I hope I can give that to them.”