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Horizon uses interfaith dorm to transform prison inmates

Sept. 27, 2006

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Photo courtesy of Marion Correctional Institute

About 1,800 men are serving time at the Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institute.

By Linda Bloom*

MARION, Ohio (UMNS)— John Burroughs admits he was a "punk" when he started an 11-year prison term at Marion Correctional Institute.

But a faith-based program that "made me feel like a human again" and strengthened his belief in God allowed him to change his life when he was released in 2004. Today, he has a wife, a job, a congregation, and soon, a bachelor’s degree in English.

Burroughs is so convinced of the worth of the Horizon program that he has returned as a volunteer, despite the two-hour drive from his home in Elyria, Ohio.

Members of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns traveled to Marion Correctional Institute on Sept. 22 to meet with Horizon staff, volunteers and participants.

Horizon is "a unique collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the faith community," according to Jeff Hunsaker, a United Methodist who serves as the Horizon program coordinator at Marion.

Now in its seventh year, Horizon works by infecting a negative environment with positive elements. Core values are spirituality, accountability and mutual respect. And while a variety of people are involved, it is the volunteers who come in from the outside who make the program significant by bringing God’s love and hope to the prison, he said.

In particular, the "Outside Brothers" aspect of Horizon provides its residents with a weekly one-on-one encounter with an assigned volunteer. The paired men "share their lives and pray for guidance," according to Horizon.

The strengthening of family ties also is encouraged. "The men are given two stamps every week to reconnect with family they’ve been alienated from," Hunsaker said.

Each year, 48 of the 2,000 men serving time at medium-security institution are selected for the 10-month program. The applicants must practice a recognized faith — currently including Wiccan and Native American religions as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim — and have a spiritual adviser.

Participants are balanced by race — as required by the state — and by faith, according to Hunsaker. Grouped in interfaith families of six each, their beds are divided into dormitory-style cubicles in a large room. Through these families, the men not only learn to share, trust and hold one another accountable, but also learn respect and tolerance for other cultural and religious backgrounds.

A vision and tenacity

A United Methodist laywoman, Christine Money, is largely credited with changing the atmosphere at Marion Correctional Institute during her tenure as warden there.

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Photo courtesy of Marion Correctional Institute

Bishop Joseph Sprague joins members of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns on a visit to the Marion Correctional Institute.
Retired United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, who served as pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in the town of Marion during the 1980s, remembers the prison as a depressing, hurtful, despairing place.

But Money, he recalled, had the vision, courage and tenacity to bring about a transformation at the prison. "Instead of dreary, dank darkness, you began to see green everywhere," he said.

Money also asked leaders of the Kairos Prison Ministry for help, according to the Rev. Ike Griffin, president of Horizon Communities in Prison. Instead of starting a strictly Christian rehabilitation program, "she decided she wanted to make it interfaith," he noted.

What developed into Horizon Communities is an independent ministry now operating in five prisons around the country. Griffin said he would like to collaborate with the mainline churches for further expansion.

Sprague believes Horizon is on the cutting edge, a program "for what God needs to do and is doing in this world."

'I almost ended my life'

One of the Horizon success stories at Marion Correctional Institute is Karl Klett, who has been imprisoned for 20 years but is expected to be released soon.

Klett told the visiting commission members that he was a model high school student, active in sports and music, when he was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman who was a friend of his parents and sentenced to 15-50 years in prison.

During his first year of incarceration, at the Ohio State Reformatory, Klett said he was raped himself. "I was faced, right in the mirror, with what I had done to that woman," he recalled. "I almost ended my life."

Instead, he got help. He devoted himself to the Christian faith, learned to stand up to prison gang members and underwent extensive psychotherapy to understand "what caused me to do what I did."

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Photo courtesy of Marion Correctional Institute

Jeff Hunsaker serves as the Horizon program coordinator at Marion Correctional Institute.
He also relied on a book, Man's Search for Meaning," written by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, which chronicled his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Frankl concluded that even under the worst circumstances, life has meaning and that even suffering is meaningful.

Klett, 38, has earned a doctorate in Christian counseling and psychology and currently serves as a program aide for Horizon. He also has written a curriculum called "Awakening," used by Horizon, which explores the relationship of spirituality to mental and emotional growth.

He pointed out that despite the interfaith focus, the Horizon program "is about commonalities rather than differences" and serves as "a model for society."

A welcoming church

Burroughs, who had rejected his strict upbringing as a Southern Baptist, felt differently about the Episcopal priest he met at Marion Correctional Institute. "It was refreshing to me to see this man come in with the love of Christ," he said.

The Horizon program gave him additional support. "I relied on other people believing in me to believe in myself," he added.

Although Burroughs visited different churches after he was released from Marion, the local Episcopal congregation in Elyria "was the first one where I really felt welcome."

The challenge for churches, according to Hunsaker, is to help all those released from prison adjust to life on the outside. Eighty-six percent of Marion's Horizon graduates have successfully reintegrated into society after their release.

For more information, Hunsaker can be reached at Marion Correctional Institute by calling (740) 382-5781, Ext. 2351.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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