A Saving Grace
Detainees spread the gospel, hard truth at A.M.E.
story by Jessica Blomquist • photo by Angelina Bellebuono
On Saturday, April 12, Mardrecus Harris, 23, returned to his hometown of Madison as a member of the Atlanta Transitional Center Choir. The choir’s program at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church was planned to send a message to the young people of Madison as part of the “Make the Right Choice: Choose Freedom” campaign started by Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald.
The campaign’s purpose is to encourage at-risk youth to make smart decisions, stay in school and out of prison, said Susan Phillips, director of Public Affairs for the GDC. The GDC partners with other agencies, faith-based organizations and schools to reach young people with its message.
At-risk youth are those who live in communities with an above average number of people who go to prison or where there is an expected growth in the number of people entering prison.
Though Madison is not among the top 25 at-risk areas in Georgia, Rita Harris, hospitality chairperson at St. Paul and Mardrecus’s mother, planned the one-time event to teach young people in the community to make the right choice. The choir’s purpose is “to reach out to young people to encourage them to stay on the right track,” she said.
Her son Mardrecus was just 20–years–old and a sophomore at Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga., when he made the decision that would affect him for the rest of his life.
Charged initially with armed robbery and aggravated assault, he was facing a potential sentence of twenty years in prison. Those charges were eventually reduced to robbery by intimidation and he was sentenced to seven years incarceration.
He has turned his life around in prison by joining the choir eight months ago and helping to warn young adults about the consequences of their decisions.
“God has been good to me,” Harris said. “I thank him for bringing me back to my hometown a changed man.”
The choir is made up of 15 men incarcerated at the Atlanta Transitional Center, as well as four others who have since been released from prison, but who return because of the brotherhood they feel with the choir as well as the importance of the stories they have to tell.
“They’re very effective,” said Climon Nix, chaplain at the Atlanta Transitional Center and volunteer director of the choir. “We don’t come out just to entertain or because we think we sound good. We have a message.”
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, under the direction of Reverend Cedric Cotton, and the transitional center partnered to share the program on Saturday. The church hoped to have 100 people in attendance for the program, which started at 5 p.m. When the program began, the church, which has a seating capacity of 200, was full to the brim with people of all ages packing the pews and others standing around the edges.
The choir performed original songs of praise, poetry, and skits during the two- hour program, while also sharing their testimonies and offering a time for questions from the audience.
“Ninety-five percent of what we sing, we write,” said one member of the choir.
Their songs celebrated the fact that their lives are turned around, a certainty that God will work problems out for his believers, and a dependence on God every minute of the day.
While their music was optimistic and uplifting, the men made sure to stress the consequences of their decisions and shared all the opportunities and life experiences that they have missed out on because they are in prison.
One choir member was a talented athlete in high school who was traveling internationally representing the United States as a runner by the time he was 16–years–old. After a poor decision he made at the age of 18, he has currently served almost five years of a 12-year sentence.
His advice for young people is to “allow your dreams to motivate you” and to focus on education.
Another member of the choir who was recently released from the center in December was 18 when he was incarcerated. He is now 33–years–old.
“Not only do you affect yourself, you affect your family,” he said.
Perhaps the best example of imprisonment’s effect on the family was in the testimony of one member who has already served twenty years for something he did when he was 16–years–old. His 21–year–old son was sitting in the audience.
Mardrecus Harris summarized each of their stories simply by saying, “Once I was lost and now I’m found.”
The Atlanta Transitional Center Choir has been in existence for almost four years and is just one of the activities that inmates at the transitional center are privileged to take part in. The center has been open since 1970 and is an alternative to a regular prison setting.
Inmates who are deemed worthy of the privilege are selected to live at the center, said Nix. The center is under the direction of the GDC and therefore not a halfway house, but it was designed to allow inmates to transition from incarceration back to the community.
The center gives the nearly 250 men who live there the opportunity to take a variety of classes as well as helping them to find jobs. Inmates at the center can take academic classes for literacy training or to study for the General Education Development (GED) tests. They may also complete vocational training in a variety of areas, such as auto mechanics, woodworking, computers, food service, electrical wiring, fitness training, real estate and plumbing.
In addition, some may take part in a work release program where they work either in a government agency or with partnered businesses, earning money that will be put away until they are released.
According to the GDC website, research shows that offenders who have the opportunity to go through the transitional center before being released into the community are up to a third more likely to succeed in maintaining a crime-free life.
The success rate of choir members is very high, said Nix. One member who returned to sing with the choir used the training he received at the transitional center to become a manager of an LA Fitness gym.
Mardrecus Harris will begin a work release program in July and his temporary parole date is in May of 2009.
“We have made mistakes, but life goes on,” Harris said. “You have to face the consequences, but you can change for the better.”