‘We get a chance to speak our heart’: Volunteers help people open up in Tennessee prisons
Note: For the purpose of this story, the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections asked News 2 not to use the prisoner’s real name. He’ll be referenced as ‘Ron’ throughout.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Ron is a prisoner, and he’ll be that way for a long time.
“It’s been a long journey, and it’s still continuing. But it’s beautiful though. I wish I would have had this out there,” he said, tapping his Bible next to him. “I had the opportunity to have it out there, to trust God, to serve God. But, sometimes God’s got to get you away from all of the distraction.”
In Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, lots of men change – partially because of the volunteers.
“They’re convicts. You can’t con a convict,” volunteer Rudy Kalis said. “They could read your heart, they could read your mind, they can tell if you’re phony. So, you better be real about what you believe.”
Kalis has been volunteering at the prison for about half a decade. He used to be a sports reporter before retiring and finding what he says he was put here to do.
An old intern of his was in Men of Valor, a Nashville prison ministry organization. After speaking with the former intern, Kalis felt compelled to make a visit to Riverbend with them.
“The minute I walked in, I said, ‘This is my world.’ It started one day, then two days, then they asked to go into the tougher units,” Kalis said. “I wound up going into Death Row. Now, it’s four days a week, and it’s my whole life.”
“Rudy allows us to open up, to be man, to talk about our faults,” Ron said. “He sets the platform every week by talking about his week.”
“I think they help me more than I help them,” Kalis said, smiling.
“He’ll tell about watering the garden, he’ll talk about what’s going on in his life with his family, the good things and the bad things,” Ron said. “He relates that to the Bible, and what it does is, it breaks our walls down.”
Sometimes it’s not necessarily being a faith leader or even being a therapist. It’s simply being present that makes a difference.
“Just being a friend, being a confidant, someone they can talk to and share, and someone they can learn from,” TDOC Director of Religious and Volunteer Services David Dodson said. “These volunteers are great models, good role models, and that’s what these folks need.”
Men, statistically, already struggle to open up emotionally. In prison, it can be even more difficult considering the circumstances. Volunteers can help unlock some of those emotions.
“To hear so many men not only cry, not only express their deep feelings, it’s just beautiful,” Ron said. “It’s so much healing going on with Rudy, and I just feel like he’s made for what he’s doing.”
“They’re not defined by the blues they wear,” Kalis said.
The mutual relationship means a lot, especially to the men at Riverbend who are incarcerated. Volunteers bring one key thing – hope.
“Without hope, we’ll be like wild animals in here, just in here killing each other,” Ron said. “But a volunteer coming in, cultivating us, raising us, teaching us… it gives us hope.”
When the cell door closes each night, it’s people like Kalis that push him through.
“It gives me the strength to go back to my cell each night and say, ‘You know what, I can make it another day,’ because I have a lot of time,” Ron said.
The recidivism rate in Tennessee is about 46%. For men who complete Men of Valor’s six-month program within prison and 12-month program once released, the rate is less than 15%.