For a self-proclaimed “kid always in trouble,” these words defined Bill Heyer for much of his youth. It wasn’t until Heyer got arrested and spent time in the Winnebago County Jail (WCJ), that he began to redefine his life.
During his incarceration, Bible classes Heyer attended through the Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry (RRJM) changed his life.
“My religious faith went from being impersonal to personal,” Heyer said. “Instead of just sitting there and being talked at, I was interacting with the program. As an inmate, it made me feel as if I had a say, like my life was worth something. My whole life, I was used to being told I’m not worth anything.
I’ve had those curses spoken over me my whole life, to where I believed them and even attempted suicide,”he added. “Now, with the tools I have received from the RRJM: confidence, purpose, belonging and leadership, I was able to accept the fact that I do have self-worth and that God has a plan for my life.”
Since 1974, the non-profit RRJM has been transforming the lives of inmates in the Winnebago County Jail. The ministry’s main focus is to those currently incarcerated and those who have recently been released from jail.
Within the jail, RRJM has chaplains available to inmates for one-on-one counseling, prayer and for emergency notification if a serious illness or death happens in a jail resident’s family.
According to John Evans, RRJM executive director, there are around 900 inmates in the WCJ. Of this population, about 70-100 are women who are seen by female chaplains. He estimates that around 200 men are involved in the Phase program with several others receiving weekly visits from individual chaplains. The average stay for an inmate in the WCJ is 12 weeks with some inmates spending years in the criminal justice system.
Phase classes and the weekly Sunday service for inmates is limited to 20 people and is usually held in a classroom or the common area of a jail pod. In the last several years, Bishop David Malloy of the Catholic Diocese of Rockford has presided at Mass on Christmas and Easter at the WCJ.
Evans said that the Phase program aims to give inmates leadership tools, Biblical training and life skills guidance.
“We have mandatory classes and elective classes. Attendance is taken and the inmates move through four Phases. Phase I, is a very basic Bible study class. If they progress through that … they would go to Phase II a class about the words of Christ, Bible stories and the commandments,” Evans said.
“Once they get to Phase III, the inmates are eligible to participate in Project Phillip Training which emphasizes leadership skills and evangelization within their jail pod. When they move to the final Phase, they still study the Bible, but we’re equipping them to become leaders.”
According to Evans, the chaplains and volunteer ministers in RRJM strive to build connections with the inmates so they can evolve into peer leaders within the WCJ population. Whether an inmate is transferred to prison or reenters the community, RRJM serves as a support system
“If someone that has been through our Phases program is sentenced to prison, we still support them. We write to them, we send them literature. Because of the training they have received though the RRJM, these inmates are sharing what they have learned with their peers in prison and in the community.” Evans said.
Heyer has seen firsthand how crucial his connections with the RRJM were in helping him successfully reenter society.
“As soon as I got out, I hadn’t even left the parking lot at Stateville Correctional Center, and my first phone call was to John Evans I told him that I wanted to get connected with a church,” Heyer said. “This is how I knew that the mission of RRJM was real. I was on the outside, I wasn’t John’s responsibility anymore, but the brotherhood that we had built when I was in jail solidified the minute that he contacted me after I was out.”
Since his release from prison, Heyer has taken his love for audio production and turned it into his personal ministry. He runs the sound board for services at Halsted Road Baptist Church and says that daily Bible study, praying with his family and being involved at church have kept him from making the same mistakes that landed him in jail.
“I’m conscious of every choice that I make. I have many choices that I can make in a day. I can either make the choice to better myself or I can make the choice to revert back. I have been tempted and I have started slipping, but that’s when I call upon my pastor or John some of the guys from the jail ministry and they support me so I can make the right choices,” Heyer said.
Captain Tim Owens, who oversees the daily operations at the WCJ, is a staunch proponent of RRJM.
“The inmates who progress through the Phases into leadership roles within the jail can hopefully deescalate a potentially dangerous situation before it gets to the next level and creates problems. They can talk to their peers and possibly head off further conflict.”
An inmate’s involvement with RRJM is always voluntary and does not figure into any “good behavior” credits when the inmate’s case goes to court.
Owens said that if an inmate has been an active participant in the Phases program or an addiction recovery group, documentation can be submitted to the court on the inmate’s behalf. An inmate may also request letters of reference from a clergyperson or jail chaplain.
“The fact that an inmate’s participation in RRJM is not recognized by the judicial system is done on purpose,” Evans said. “The ministry is not a means for the inmates to collect ‘points’ toward a lighter punishment. We want people to be a part of the ministry because they want to change their behaviors and change their lives.”
Disciple. Leader. Beloved. The former troubled kid, Heyer, now defines himself in a very different way as a result of his involvement with the RRJM.
“I have seen and felt the love of God,” Heyer said. “This program is real. I was a mess. If it can fix me, it can fix anybody.”
— Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry changes lives one at a time —-