NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Featuring Governor Bill Lee as the keynote speaker, Men of Valor, the men’s Christian prison ministry, held an all-day criminal justice reform conference Wednesday at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville.
Through a series of panel discussions and breakout sessions, the conference addressed the question in the subtitle of the conference, “How can the church, the community, and government work together?”
Governor Lee made criminal justice reform a central theme of his campaign platform as well as his first year as Tennessee’s 50th governor, in large part due to his experience with mentoring a now-released prisoner and his work with Men of Valor.
Before becoming Governor, Bill Lee served for many years on the organization’s Board of Directors.
Men of Valor was founded in 1997 by Carl Carlson, an honorably discharged Vietnam veteran who served prison sentences himself. During his time being imprisoned, Carlson found God and committed to service for the rest of his life, which ended unexpectedly but peacefully in his sleep on October 14, 2014.
The organization, now with over a dozen staff members and over a hundred volunteers, includes ministry efforts inside the prisons as well as aftercare and re-entry programming. Incarcerated men who complete Men of Valor’s one-year program have recidivism rates at or below 15 percent, versus the national average of about 70 percent.
Tuesday’s event, set up with table seating to accommodate about 700 people, was attended for at least part of the day by Republican State Representatives Rick Eldridge (R-Morristown), Bruce Griffey (R-Paris), Jerome Moon (R-Maryville) and Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster).
Beginning with brief comments by Men of Valor’s Program Director, Curt Campbell said, “I don’t know what got you here today, but I do believe he has brought you all here with a specific purpose in mind,” before leading a prayer.
Raul Lopez, the Executive Director of Men of Valor laid the foundation for the day, saying that it is together that the issues of criminal justice reform, addiction and mental illness will be solved.
Mentioning that as he looked out, Lopez saw friends who had been there from day one when Carl Carlson had his vision, but also new friends. He believes that, in Bill Lee, “God has placed a Governor who gets it.”
Christianity being a theme with virtually everything that was said throughout the day, Lopez said, “We believe in the power of the Gospel,” and that through it, “We must empower men to re-enter society as men of integrity.”
Men of Valor, funded entirely through donations, had help with the event from sponsors and partners recognized by Lopez, including private corrections and detention provider, CoreCivic; Americans for Prosperity Foundation; Equal Justice USA; FreedomWorks; Right On Crime; 94FM The Fish; The Governor’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives; Latinos for Tennessee; Prison Fellowship; and, Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services.
The event was broken into four-panel discussions, each with six participants, plus a speaker and a moderator.
For the first panel discussion, titled “Challenges,” Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, was the speaker.
Sheriff Hall is the President of the National Sheriff’s Association and has been nationally recognized with awards from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The early 2020 opening of a one-of-a-kind behavioral care center in Nashville is being spearheaded by Sheriff Hall.
A brief video interview with Sheriff Hall from a few years prior was first presented, where he spoke about some of his philosophy on law enforcement and incarceration.
Perhaps the most profound takeaway from the video was Sheriff Hall’s experience that many inmates are not met by anyone at the door when they are released from prison. That raises the question, said Sheriff Hall, if no one is at the door, is there any doubt they would return to prison?
Sheriff Hall credited Men of Valor for there being a figurative 1,600 empty prison beds because of the organization’s mentoring along the way.
When Sheriff Hall began speaking live to the attendees, he paused for a moment to take it in, “It feels really good to be in a room with people who think like you do,” he observed.
It was less than 15 minutes into the 10-hour program before about a half dozen protestors scattered throughout the tables in the large banquet room began disrupting the event by shouting. As they moved toward the front corner of the room together, they shouted over each other, making it difficult to understand their specific issues.
Sheriff Hall, standing at the podium on the stage, went between continuing his talk and inviting the protestors to sit down and listen or have a conversation.
At one point, one of the protestors could clearly be heard saying that CoreCivic, the state’s private prison provider, served cold food.
There were also references to ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – and a chant, “My body does not belong to the state.”
After being politely escorted out of the room, the protestors continued undiscernible chanting outside the room for about five minutes, before quiet returned.
Ironically, the protestors portrayed dissatisfaction with the state’s law enforcement and criminal justice system, while the attendees were ones committed to making improvements to that very system, some observed.
Sheriff Hall went on with his comments, saying that the first time he visited a prison was at the age of 18 and relayed the impression that made upon him.
In discussion with his parents after that first prison visit, they talked about the prisoners making license plates, which kept them productive and saved the taxpayers money.
That conversation stuck with Sheriff Hall and has been combined with today’s reality of the large majority of inmates having an addiction problem. Adding re-entry of those inmates into society, Sheriff Hall drew a more complete picture of the problem, calling it the “release a bunch of addicted license plate makers.”
Sheriff Hall said that the reality is that law enforcement arrests the people, but not the problem. As the Sheriff, Hall tries to arrest the “why.”
He said, “The why is not super complicated. It’s super complicated to fix.”
He also spoke of the problem with mental illness, saying that four in ten arrested today are afflicted.
Sheriff Hall also made the point that nowhere else in the world would a naked man in an airport be arrested, “Here, we arrest, convict and incarcerate.”
Sheriff Hall, somewhat known for his apolitical stance, said the problem is bipartisan and does not have a party, race or gender.
While at this for 30 years, Sheriff Hall says he feels “society moving on the issue.”
Before concluding, Sheriff Hall shared a story about answering to his youngest of two sons, “Dad, what do you do,” where he likened his job to discipline them. “I run time out,” Sheriff Hall said he told his son, which was met with laughter from the attendees.
Sheriff Hall explained to his son that even when in time out, he loves the son unconditionally.
“We should not judge people. Our job is to love them while they’re in time out,” concluded Sheriff Hall.
Rudy Kalis, News Channel 4 sportscaster for more than 40 years, now a Men of Valor mentor moderated the “Challenges” panel discussion that included Don Bruce, American Home Design; Anthony Charles, former inmate and Men of Valor Aftercare and Re-Entry Manager; Lindsay Holloway, former inmate and This is Living Ministries; Alice Johnson, former inmate and criminal justice reform advocate; Eddie Hutton, Interstate AC; and Josh Smith, former federal prison inmate and founder 4th Purpose Foundation.
Alice Johnson, sentenced to life in federal prison, served 21 years for a conviction related to the non-violent offense of trafficking cocaine in Memphis.
She said she has become famous because of her connection to Kim Kardashian, who lobbied on her behalf, and President Trump for commuting her sentence and then inviting her to his 2019 State of the Union address.
Johnson has since become an advocate – an extremely eloquent one, at that – “to put a face on the women and men” in prison whose faces “you will never see.”
All of the panel members spoke of the challenges, each from their own experiences and unique perspectives, relative to re-entry as well as the impact of having Jesus Christ in their lives. Challenges ranged from difficulty in obtaining work, especially at a living wage, job skills, health insurance coverage, changes in the world such as technology and housing.
The second panel discussion, “Collaborative Solutions,” featured Damon Hininger, CEO of CoreCivic; Dave Worland, newly-appointed head of The Governor’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives; Tony Parker, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction; Hannah Cox, Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty; Monty Burks, Director of Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Faith Based Initiatives; Deniece Thomas, Deputy Commissioner of Workforce Learning and Development for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“The Church Responds” panel discussion included rousing and animated opening remarks from Men of Valor’s Tommy Vallejos. The discussion amongst John Spurgeon, Prison Fellowship; DeAndre Brown, LifeLine to Success; Darren Tylor, Conduit Church; Steve Austin, New Vision Baptist Church; Gina Guy-Warren, Truth N Love Ministry International; and Galen Davis, Cornerstone Church, was moderated by Rudy Kalis.
The dinner panel discussion, “CJR 2020,” addressed what’s next in the realm of Criminal Justice Reform and included state legislators Representatives Michael Curcio, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and Mike Sparks as well as Senator Leader Jack Johnson, who is also the and Senate Republican Leader, as well as Tori Venable, State Director Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee; Sarah Anderson, Federal Affairs Manager at FreedomWorks; and Julie Warren, Right on Crime State Director for the Tennessee and Kentucky Region.
In the three breaks between the near hour-and-a-half panel discussions, there were five-hour-long breakout sessions that attendees could choose from:
- Prison Fellowship and Men of Valor was designed for people interested in learning about prison ministry “inside the walls,” and the process of providing a successful re-entry opportunity for men and women coming out of the prison.
- Right on Crime and Americans for Prosperity addressed criminal justice reform in Tennessee and what could be expected in 2020.
- Equal Justice USA’s “Death Penalty and The Church,” looked at the failings of capital punishment as well as the alternatives to violence and trauma that could provide better outcomes.
- “Mental Illness, Drug Addiction and the Church,” presented by the Tennessee Department of Mental health and Substance Abuse Services, presented innovative ways that Tennessee has approached partnering with the faith-based community to combat addiction and mental health issues.
- FreedomWorks presented reviewed criminal justice reform at the national level and what policies are making communities safer and justice systems more effective.
When Governor Bill Lee was introduced during the dinner session by Jack Wallace, Men of Valor’s Board of Director Chairman, it was to a very warm standing ovation.
Governor Lee recalled the first time he visited a prison, still remembering the sound of the doors slamming behind him.
After visiting with prisoners and getting to know them, Governor Lee said, “I came to want for them the same things that I came to want for everyone in this state – to succeed.”
Reinforcing a recurring theme throughout the day that 95 percent of those imprisoned will be released, Governor Lee said, “Every single one of those incarcerated that I was meeting with was going to get out and re-enter and I learned how hard it is to re-enter without the support and tools that are necessary.”
Alluding to the “thread that runs through” the substance abuse and mental health connections discussed throughout the day, Governor Lee has come to believe, “We incarcerate for reasons they shouldn’t be incarcerated.”
As he has contended since coming on the public scene, Governor Lee said, “We need to recognize the difference in being tough on crime and being smart on crime.”
He spoke of the investment in diversion programs that recognize that the mental health and addiction problem is connected and that drug courts do much more to correct that problem as well as saving the state money.
A $10 million investment in education “for people coming out,” was also mentioned by the Governor.
“Why would you want to invest in education for someone incarcerated?” posed Governor Lee.
In addition to having a 40 percent better chance of succeeding, Governor Lee said, “I’d rather invest in their education than their incarceration,” which was received with affirming applause.
Recognizing that there’s a better way to do this, Governor Lee said led to the expansion of an investment of $6 to $7 million in a mental health safety net that primarily provides service for the uninsured or underinsured.
The need for youth mental health services related to another recurring theme throughout the day and confirmed by Governor Lee, “The trauma the vast majority of them endured as a child led me to believe that I would be in prison, too, if it happened to me.”
“As much as government can do, government is not the answer to the problems we face in our society or the challenges we face in our communities with substance abuse, mental health, criminal justice and the reforms needed there.”
“There’s not nearly enough money to address all the areas that need to be addressed,” said Governor Lee.
In addition to the community, pastors, corporations, law enforcement, Governor Lee said “It’s going to take this government of the people to solve this enormous problem.”
“It’s a big problem, but it doesn’t deter me.”
Governor Lee talked about supporting and elevating the conversation so that it gets to a level that is appropriate.
While government has a role to elevate and the power to convene, said Governor Lee, “At the end of the day, it’s the people of Tennessee with organizations like Men of Valor, faith based organizations and private companies that decide to hire individuals coming out of prisons or jails, taking the risk,” like his company did.
Programs have been expanded through the state’s Department of Corrections, like removing the expungement fee, so that those who appreciate the opportunity to go to work come out with fewer barriers to employment.
As Governor Lee looked out over the attendees, he commented, “I see a lot of familiar faces, a lot of power in this room for change, particularly a lot of passion in this room for change.”
Expressing his gratefulness that one of the reasons he ran for governor was to elevate the opportunity for change, Governor Lee said it is with “tremendous honor and favor to be able to stand in this spot and to encourage and support it and to strengthen it.”
“It is an honor to serve as Governor, even as those who sit incarcerated today, I say I’m going to be the Governor for every Tennessean, and that includes them.”
Starting to say “join with me,” Governor Lee graciously recognized, “Actually, I’m joining with you.”
“You all are doing it. Men of Valor – I joined. They were doing it.”
“I want to join with you,” continued Governor Lee. “Together we can advance the cause. We can lead the country. We have the right minds in this state, the right passion and focus, and the wind is with us.”
Reinforcing the most important and overarching theme of the day, Governor Lee concluded, “And, I believe the Lord’s favor is on it.”
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.