GOOD-BYE PRAYER: Just-released inmate D.J. (left) shares a moment with Light Brigade volunteer Maeton Freel before Freel leaves for the night.
From Jail to Late-Night Salvation?
Believer’s Edge Shines Welcoming Light on Santa Barbara County Jail’s Departing Inmates
Thursday, August 21, 2014
The security door slammed shut with a bang and, with that, D.J. was out. A tad disheveled with a light swagger and a heavy tan, D.J. rolled his suitcase toward the double doors of the jail’s lobby, his bleary eyes eager to escape from the place he’d been booked into nine hours earlier.
Two men standing near the couches intercepted D.J.’s gaze and startled him by offering a cup of coffee. What about a bag of potato chips? A bottle of water? D.J. perked up at the water, sat down, and frantically rummaged through his luggage in search of his cell phone. The men asked if he needed a ride downtown, then handed him a coupon for a free McDonald’s breakfast; he accepted and chugged the water. With a shrug of his shoulders and a nervous chuckle that would accompany many of his other admissions, D.J. said he had a drinking problem.
Listening intently, the men learned that, prior to moving to Santa Barbara in 2008, D.J. held a paramedic job for 12 years, earned a degree in criminal justice, and then worked as a ski patroller in Colorado. Before being arrested, he said with a sly smile, he’d been dating a woman who worked at the Bacara. But benders and consequent stints in the hospital and jail changed things. He was now homeless, jobless, and “bottomed out,” picked up that afternoon for disorderly conduct. “It’s weird you guys are out here,” he said, looking up at Tim Adams, Maeton Freel, and Steve Wagner. It was approaching midnight on Wednesday, July 23. It was their first night there.
Releasees also are offered McDonald’s meal vouchers.
Adams, Freel, and Wagner, along with 30 other volunteers, are members of Believer’s Edge, an all-male religious group that meets on Tuesday mornings. Last fall, the believers offered to man the lobby of the Santa Barbara County Jail to provide inmates discharged in the late-night hours — a worrisome but often mandated practice — with snacks, conversation, and connections while they wait for rides and figure out their next moves.
The nascent program isn’t without concerns — its level of religiosity, its lack of female volunteers — but many contend it could lift people up when they’re at their lowest. The men behind Believer’s Edge proposed their services — called the Light Brigade, a poem-inspired spin-off of a program called Lights On in Orange County — at the same time the Sheriff’s Office began looking at ways to prevent people from cycling in and out of the jail. But recidivism rates plant cynical roots, so Believer’s Edge skeptics, supporters, and jail staff are wondering, one, can it really help? And two, what could it hurt?
For D.J., it meant the difference between walking down a dimly lit, sidewalk-less Calle Real and getting a ride from Adams to Faith Baptist Church, where D.J. knew the pastor. “Come get a coffee with us Tuesday morning,” Wagner suggested to D.J. before he left. Promising to show up, D.J. shook his head and laughed. “If I didn’t get arrested, I probably would have drank myself to death,” he said. “This might have been a blessing in disguise.”
By Paul Wellman
COFFEE CONVO: Believer’s Edge members Freel, Tim Adams, and Steve Wagner listen to D.J.(seated) in the jail lobby.
Friendly Face in Dark Place
The genesis of Believer’s Edge came seven years ago when seven men from Calvary Chapel created an offshoot group where men from across a dozen area churches could partner their religious beliefs with their professional goals. Since then, the fellowship — a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization — has grown to include about 100 men who meet every Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church downtown. For an hour, the men sip coffee, sing hymns, say prayers, and seek career guidance from each other and guest lecturers. (Speakers have included Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez and area McDonald’s tycoon David Peterson.)
One of the founders, Tom Doty, serves as the group’s main point man. A graduate of Brooks Institute, Doty produces videos of the Tuesday services, which reach 7,000 people worldwide through the group’s website. Easygoing and sporting a Believer’s Edge baseball hat, Doty speaks frequently about the importance of “marketplace guys” who function as thermostats setting the temperature rather than thermometers soaking it up. A full-time volunteer for the group, he was raised in a Christian family, Doty said, but it wasn’t until a “large hiccup” befell his business in 1989 that he became closer to God. “You can be raised in a garage; it doesn’t make you a car,” Doty said, relaying the story of how he “fell flat on my face and lost everything” and spent months paying off his debts. Then, in 1989, he met John Mullen.
Believer’s Edge cofounder John Mullen speaks to the service attendees on a Tuesday morning.
Partial to dark-wash jeans, V-neck shirts, and blazers, Mullen co-owns Hoffmann Brat Haus on State Street. He wasn’t raised in a churchgoing home, so while he was serving as the president of his fraternity at Cal Poly in the 1970s, he started “looking for more,” eventually finding it on a trip to Mozambique, where he realized he “wanted to devote myself to those who were broken.” In 2007, Mullen, Doty, and their friend Hank Bowis started hosting the meetings that became Believer’s Edge.
The spark for the Light Brigade came from Mullen’s work as a jail chaplain. He’d been counseling a 24-year-old heroin addict who expected to be released from custody in the afternoon but didn’t make it out until 1:45 in the morning. Concerned with what might happen in such a scenario, which turned out to be a common protocol statewide, Mullen discovered the Lights On program in Orange County. Last fall, he presented a similar idea to the Sheriff’s Office and Ivan Vorster, the jail’s community outreach coordinator.
On July 1, after bureaucratic back-and-forth with the county over legal concerns, Believer’s Edge inked a contract with the Sheriff’s Office. Though he hasn’t done jail ministry before, Doty does recall being “a young kid once” who spent a night in jail, a memory that powers his current mission. “It was a very scary place,” he said, haltingly. “To know there’s somebody friendly to be there when you get out …”
By Paul Wellman
Volunteer Hank Bowis (below, left) talks to releasee Daniel Benjamin Zinn about his next steps.
Although most releases occur in the light of day, late-night releases sometimes cannot be avoided, said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kelly Hoover. The jail must release people on the day that the court orders, but that often comes last in a tightly prescribed schedule that requires staff to schlep inmates to and from Santa Maria for court hearings, which often don’t end until late afternoon. In other cases, like D.J.’s, people arrested for public intoxication in the afternoon get discharged upon sobering up eight or so hours later. Complicating matters further, statewide “realignment” — a 2011 law otherwise known as AB 109 that reassigned state prison inmates — means the county jail’s population is larger than ever before.
In January 2015, a new California law aims to improve the situation by allowing inmates to request up to 16 extra hours of custody in order to be released during the day. Whether inmates would stay is unknown. The opening of the North County Jail in 2018 could also alleviate after-hours discharges, as the jail-to-court commute will shorten.
Santa Barbara County isn’t alone in late-night releases nor the first place where a nonprofit rose to tackle the issue. Inspiring Believer’s Edge was the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic organization whose Santa Ana chapter started serving the Orange County Jail’s late-night releases in 2006. Dubbing their program Lights On, they set up a trailer across the street from the facility and started offering coffee, snacks, phone calls, and information on available resources. Every weekday from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., two or three volunteers — men and women — run the trailer. Last year, said executive director Rich Gorham, Lights On served about 11,000 people, with Mondays seeing release rates of 50-60 people per night.
Santa Barbara’s flow is much less but still steady. On each of the first three nights of Believer’s Edge’s program in July, nine people were released; on the fourth night, ahead of Fiesta, the number jumped to 14. “We want to introduce them to a different way of life,” said third-night volunteer Bob Mangus, a blue cross stitched onto the chest of his button-up shirt. “They made a major mistake. For every guy that turns his life around, it’s a big deal — not only for their soul but for society.”