Solid Rock Ministries comes to our county prisoners' aid
By Jerry Rogovin.
The withdrawal last February from the Barnstable County correctional facility of a nationwide prison ministry could have jeopardized a program considered quite successful by County Sheriff James M. Cummings.
That it didn't reflects the efforts of Chaplain Dave Robbins and the directors of the Solid Rock Ministries, which Robbins heads. They recognized that they needed to establish a fund-raising vehicle and retain community support for the program to survive. And they had about a month to do it.
Solid Rock emerged as the facility's new ministry. The first step to restore the program as retaining Robbins, which was done by Sheriff Cummings. Next, a nonprofit charitable organization was created, and the Cape Cod community was alerted to the change.
"Several of our directors had to work hard and work fast to accomplish this. But we did it," said Dennis Clough, who chairs the Solid Rock board of directors. "Thanks to Dave, who led our effort, we have in place an effective program that few will realize differs from the national group."
Insiders will realize because the national firm employs 300 chaplains in 24 states and several countries, and had a larger staff at the facility. Robbins had been one of several persons serving the needs of the more than 430 inmates. He is now working with two others at the facility and a network of churches and volunteers.
The correctional facility is located at the Military Reservation in Buzzards Bay. Until 2004, it was in Barnstable Village, housed in a building in use since the 1930s. State-of-the-art, the new facility is almost totally electronic, according to Robbins. "There are no bars," he said. He has been a chaplain in Barnstable for six years, following a four-year stint at the Plymouth County corrfectional facility.
Robbins, who grew up in Weymouth with 10 brothers and sisters, quit school in the 10th grade, when his father died. "It hit me awfully hard, and I rebelled. I started drinking and using drugs," he recalled. Arrests, a suspended sentence and probation before he was 15 worsened his situation.
His social decline continued in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was arrested for armed robbery, and was given a five-year term in the Florida prison system. While there, he did earn a high school diploma, the first sign, he thinks, that he could recover.
"Then I met a chaplain, who told me that God loves me. That was an entirely new concept," Robbins remembered. "Here I was, 1,500 miles from home. I knew no one. I didn't want to continue this way. But I didn't know how to get out of it. Until this man. He persuaded me to read the Bible, and for the next six months I did. And it saved me!"
From there, Robbins moved to Miami to work as a youth pastor in a rescue mission serving homeless people on drugs. Simultaneously, he studied for bachelor's and master's degrees in bible studies and theology over a five-year period.
After graduation and yearning to return to Massachusetts with his wife, who he had met in bible college, Robbins found opportunities to serve as a youth pastor in churches just north of the Cape. For about three years, as his family grew(there are four children), he helped three of his brothers frame houses. In 2001, he joined the Plymouth facility as an ordained minister.
"We're just like a church," Robbins said of his prison ministry. "We do everything a church pastor does, except pass the plate. We know we'll never get it back. In his Plymouth
assignment, he served 1,600 inmates, all men. His Barnstable parish consists of about 438 men and women.
The role of prison ministries has grown in recent years. About seven of 10 inmates released from prison are back within three years, according to a national study. Prison officials and police, to whom the word "recidivism" is quite familiar -- it refers to former prisoners who have been rearrested -- are turning more often to prison ministries to help exinmates make a successul return to their communities.
More than 2.4 million Americans are prison inmates. Of those, 300,000 are women. In the 1970s, this country's entire prison population was about 250,000.
Put another way, one of 32 adult Americans are in prison, on parole or probation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Prison ministries take two separate directions, Robbins said. In prison settings, they try to meet the spiritual needs of inmates and staff with Bible lessons, preaching, counseling and visits inside the facility.
The second, and perhaps more influential, is their effort after release, when returning to a normal life is most at risk. A ministry, Robbins said, at that time in their lives can help an individual most by communicating how those attitudes, thoughts and actions that caused difficulty in the past can be changed.
"This will bring about effective and measurable changes that allow individuals to return to society prepared and willing to be productive citizens," he said. "In society, we talk about reforming people. I like to call it regenerating them. One's heart has to change for this to happen," Robbins observed.
Today, just a little more than eight months after establishing Solid Rock Ministries, Robbins has seen his program expand. A fund-raising banquet in Falmouth last month drew 250 people, including 25 former inmates. "That was gratifying, on both counts," he acknowledged. "I had my life turned around. Now I can be a part of turning around the lives of others."
Programs at the Barnstable facility include four church services and eight bible study classes each week. All are voluntary. but Robbins reported that more inmates are showing up, particularly younger ones.
The ministry's outreach program has been stepped up. Robbins preaches at area churches and conducts Sunday school classes. Churches in turn provide volunteers to offer bible study courses at the correctional facility. The cooperative effort is extended to finding jobs, housing and stable environments for inmates when released.
"It's tough in those first days when an inmate is released. Someone helped me when I was in the same position. I looked for help from a church," Robbins said. "Most out for a short time don't know how to do that. We can help them learn before they make a mistake, and lose their freedom."
Robbins works closely with Bridge to Hope Cape Cod, a mentoring program that trains people to help incarcerated women after their release. The Hyannis organization, which is sponsored by the Cape Cod Council of Churches, has built and operates a home in which women can live up to three months, according to Linda Bradstreet, founder and
BTH has been so successful in helping female inmates adjust to normal life after release, it has been asked by a California correctional facility to establish a similar program.