For the Rev. Bill Coates, advising the governor on re-entry initiatives for prisoners leaving the corrections system wasn’t a role he would have sought — until it struck home.
“About a year and a half ago, we took a young girl into our home. She was 17. She had become pregnant and she was accused of killing her baby,” said Coates, pastor of Gainesville’s First Baptist Church. “I felt that she had some issues and some problems, but I didn’t think she had done that.”
He came to know Haley Clark’s case when a church congregant, her public defender, called seeking his advice.
“‘I’m just really torn up over this young girl, and I wish you could go see her,’” he recalled him saying. “It began to make me see, more than I ever had before, how difficult it is for people who don’t have as much of a chance in life to begin with. I had begun to be really moved by the plight of people in that situation.
“My heart is really in this partly because of that experience, so I was happy to be a part of this.”
Coates is one of two local pastors who will serve with 12 other religious leaders across the state on an interfaith advisory council for meeting challenges facing prisoners re-entering society, building upon criminal justice reforms in the state.
The Rev. Rodney Lackey of Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville also was appointed to the council by Gov. Nathan Deal, who made the announcement April 25.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Lackey said of the appointment. “I was really amazed and a little caught off guard. I feel quite honored.”
Lackey has been involved in re-entry and prison ministries since his theological study, serving for a period at the state prison in Jackson.
“It’s just amazing that this year, as we were revamping our prison ministry at the church, one of the biggest topics we wanted to tackle is re-entry, having something in place that will integrate people back into society that get out of prison,” he said. “So this is in line with what our vision has been for our church prison ministry.”
Deal said in a press release that faith communities and religious leaders were “critical to ensuring the success of our criminal justice reform initiatives,” and that the council members are on the “front lines” in Georgia communities, with invaluable perspective and experience.
Echoing Deal’s words, Coates posed the issue another way: “When especially younger prisoners do get out, who’s going to be on the front lines to help them reintegrate, if not the churches?” he asked.
Coates said he hopes to see the religious community step up when it comes to avoiding “pathways to prison” in the first place.
“If you’re in a single-parent family and you’re growing up with all those strikes against you, your chances of doing something that will land you in prison ... are exponentially greater,” Coates said. “Education is part of the problem, or that is, lack of education; poverty is part of the problem; lack of values is part of the problem. There’s so much going on there.
“Of course, we live in a nation where we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. I do applaud the governor very much for beginning to say that we’ve got to figure out a way to stop sending so many people to prison.”
As the committee meets, Coates said, the members will begin to devise a strategy to help the state and churches implement thoughtful policies and practices.
And compassion will be key, he said, recalling one young couple seeking direction after brushes with the law. They got instruction and reassurance for help finding a job, but what they needed more than anything was love, Coates said.
“There’s so many people who grew up and never had much love. And it breaks my heart,” he said. “That, to me, more than anything is what we as church leaders have to take the lead in doing, and explaining and patterning and encouraging.”
“First of all, we need to teach our people to embrace them as they come out,” he said. “They’ve served their time. Show them the love of Christ. Realize that they, very well, should not be treated any differently than anybody else.”
Any programs or suggestions are meant to empower prisoners to help themselves, Lackey said.
“I hope I can be a voice for those who are coming out of the system who are not necessarily looking for a handout but a hand up, to help get them on their feet once a person has served their time,” he said. “They deserve, I feel, an opportunity to integrate back into society and be productive citizens, and I think it will be good for the state of Georgia.”
“I just hope we can make a big difference,” Coates added.
He also has hopes for the girl who first endeared him to embracing a role in criminal justice reform. Haley Clark was eventually sentenced to seven years’ in prison on a lesser charge. When she leaves, Coates said, he and his family will help her get back on her feet.
“She seems to be doing so well, and I’ve just got to believe she’s going to have a good future,” he said.