Inmates serving their time at the DeSoto County Adult Detention Facility have someone they can call on when they feel it is time to consider their future once they leave the walls and barbed wire fencing that became their temporary home when they were convicted of a crime.
The future to consider is not only how they will support themselves and stay out of jail once they’ve “done their time,” but even to possibly to consider an eternal future in the life everlasting.
Both are part of the work done in the ministry of Rev. Curtis Pennington, the Chaplain of the DeSoto County jail facility in Hernando. Pennington’s work can range from fulfilling a request for reading glasses to provide a new Bible and offering a word of encouragement to an inmate trying to figure out their purpose in life.
Pennington, who also serves as an associate with a Missionary Baptist Church and lives in Senatobia, began with the county jail in 2015 and worked up to being a full time employee under DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco.
However, budget constraints temporarily stopped the program.
“In October of last year, Sheriff Rasco told me that the board (of Supervisors) did not fund the chaplain position for 2019-2020, so he had to let me go,” Pennington said. “I left for about three months and during that time, the programs began to fall apart. Some of the citizens that I had worked with before called and wanted to know what my salary was and if they could meet my salary, would I come back to work, community-wise?”
That led to a foundation being formed with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi (CFNM) under the name DeSoto County Jail Ministry Fund. Pennington’s compensation, and that of Jackie Willcutt, who works with the Precious in Pink ministry for female inmates, comes through that fund.
Pennington encourages people who want to support and donate to the fund should do so through the website www.cfnm.org or contact the Foundation’s offices at 662-449-5002 for more information.
The Word of God is never forced on an inmate, but Pennington is there to give advice and counsel if requested. But, that request for counsel, a pair of glasses or even a new Bible comes directly from the inmate to Pennington.
“We have about 333 inmates and every one of the inmates has the capability of making a personal contact with me,” he explained. “We have a kiosk system, so they talk to me directly through this system.”
Pennington’s day involves monitoring and dealing with those requests, as well as running and managing programs that are offered to the inmates.
“If you don’t have a chaplain ministry, you won’t have a lot of things happening, like the ability to rehabilitate,” he explained. “We teach them a class on how to be parents when they get out, women are taught how to be parents with their children. Men, we teach them fatherhood classes. We teach anger management and and conflict resolution. All of this is part of what got these guys in the predicament they are in the first place.”
Needs that are specific to women are addressed with the help of Willcutt.
“I love coming here and I look forward to it. I think it makes a difference in their lives,” Willcutt said. “I lead a series of Bible studies and have a chance to speak one-on-one with women if they choose. I was working for a ministry in Memphis and we came out here to interview a couple of ladies. The Lord began to draw me, so I left that job and started here.”
Willcutt said it can be hard to gauge and determine how her efforts are working for the women inmates, but, “I believe it is successful because God’s Word is being proclaimed and He gets to do with it what He chooses, so we are doing what we’re called to do and praying for results.”
A program Pennington has seen specific results in is an addiction recovery program he wrote and provides those inmates seeking assistance.
“I have graduated probably 200 people in the last four years since I’ve been here and I’ve only seen a few come back to jail,” he said. “One graduate owns his own construction business and has about 4-5 employees working for him. He’s a sought-after person, but when he came here, he was an addict and had no hope.”
A Bible program is another effort Pennington has done that involves churches and groups donating brand new unwrapped Bibles to the jail that may then be used by the inmates.
“I don’t take old Bibles because it’s too easy to put dope inside,” Pennington said. “They need to come from a book store and be wrapped in a package and in a box. That cuts out the chance of somebody putting dope inside.”
Mainly, the chaplaincy program at the county jail is meant to bring new light, life and hope to those who struggle with their predicament and what will become of it, or as Pennington said,
“Down in the jail you have a cesspool of evil and there needs to be somebody, whether it’s me or somebody else, to be able to have some type of spiritual center in the jail.”
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.