11/23/06 — Inmates learn gift of caring about others

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Inmates learn gift of caring about others

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 23, 2006 8:19 AM

Duplin County Correctional Facility inmate Bruce Wilder has made plenty of mistakes in his life.

But this Thanksgiving, he and seven other members of the Duplin Staff Resident Council are trying to make up for some of them -- and to start their own lives on a new path -- by giving back to others.

"I've always been one who has taken all my life and I just think to give back ... to me that helps me grow," Wilder said. "It makes me feel better as a man to give something back, rather than taking all the time.

In the past, the Duplin Staff Resident Council has adopted families at Christmas, helped area rest homes provide holiday parties for their residents and even donated to the Kenansville Park. This year, the members are providing a turkey dinner for one elderly county woman.

For them, all non-violent and mostly drug offenders, it's a chance to begin turning their lives around and making up for their previous mistakes.

"It's always been easy for me to do something wrong," Wilder said. "For a lot of the time, doing something wrong felt right. But now I'm seeing that doing something right is a feeling you can't replace, and I feel better about myself."

Once he's released, Wilder, who serves as club vice president, said he is counting on that feeling to help keep him out of trouble.

"I had to make a change in me. Now I see that as long as I continue to keep myself stepping in a positive direction, I don't have to worry about coming through that door (of the prison) again," Wilder, 43, said. "Now, I can walk around with a smile on my face and my head held up high."

For many of the men, walking in that positive direction means making a return to the values and lessons they learned growing up.

Providing the Thanksgiving dinner, inmate Willie Moore said, reminds him of when he used to take cans of food to school for food drives -- something he hadn't thought about for a long time.

"I gave up doing that a lot of years ago," he said. "For me, it's about being normal again and doing the things I was raised to do."

Even the way they raised the $40 to pay for the meal -- picking up and selling aluminum cans for 60 cents a pound and taking and selling photographs for $2 a picture -- is a reminder of the choices he could have made.

"As a kid I sold soda bottles. I forgot the kind of merit that builds up," Moore, 49, said. "I might be opening a new door to the life I gave away."

For more than 10 years, the correctional facility's men's group has been a popular organization for inmates looking to open similar doors.

It provides them, correctional case manager and program coordinator Gloria Sutton explained, an opportunity to give something back to not only their fellow inmates through cookouts, tutoring, counseling and other assistance programs, but to Duplin County as a whole.

"The main focus is service," she said. "You have to be of good character (to participate). Everybody in prison is not bad, and I think the public needs to know that."

And programs like this one, Ms. Sutton continued, help to further the rehabilitation of those participating.

It's made a change in the life of club president Willie Henderson.

His path toward prison, he said, began when he was about 13 years old.

"Thanksgiving would come around then and I would show up, but it didn't really have any meaning for me," said Henderson, 38. "Then I got in prison, and it still didn't have any meaning to me. It was just another day, another holiday.

"But now I've started to see it. Thanksgiving, for me, is like every day now. I am so thankful to awaken in the morning."

And that sort of attitude rubs off -- it's why several of the men, including Henderson, decided they wanted to join the group.

"I joined the men's club because I saw the positive things they were doing," inmate Michael Stephens, 44, said. "I used to rag on them, too. Now, I'm trying to change for the better. We're doing this from the heart."

"One of the problems we run into in this environment is hopelessness," inmate Moses Mullins, 48, continued. "We don't know who we influence. We don't get direct feedback for all we do, but that's not important.

"When you see someone else stand up and be a man, that gives someone who's negative a chance to see another alternative."

To get that opportunity to stand up, though, members must meet several strict criteria -- be on the unit for at least 30 days, have no disciplinary problems and be involved in a job or school assignment. The club's current members also must vote on each applicant.

"To me, most of the members of the club are men of integrity," Henderson said. "We are more or less role models for the rest of the inmate population. We show them what the rewards are when you do the right thing.

"Living a life of crime for so many years, the chance to do something positive is an amazing turnaround for me. It's a joyous feeling."

His only disappointment, he continued, is that because they are in prison they are limited in what they can do.

They have to rely on Ms. Sutton and others to carry their thoughts and prayers and holiday wishes to those people they're trying to help; and they have to rely on her to carry their $40 Thanksgiving dinner to one elderly Duplin County woman.

"Yeah, I wish we could do more, but I know right now is not the time," Henderson said. "There is a season for everything, and this is a learning process. I can take what I learned in here and take it out on the streets and there I won't be limited. I look forward to seeing these guys on the street doing what we're doing in here."