Finding redemption in prison - Albuquerque Journal

Finding redemption in prison

Vincent Baca is one of nine ministry mentors at the Los Lunas prison who counsels inmates in crisis, comforts the dying and assists staff at the facility to make it a better place. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Ralph Lucero has spent the last 25 years working at prisons in New Mexico.

By his own admission, Lucero was old school and didn’t believe in change. His mantra had always been: Lock them down, leave them alone.

“That was my old mentality,” Lucero said.

In 2015 Lucero, a unit manager at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, was given a new task: Oversee a seminary program that gave a group of inmates the freedom to work with staff to make the facility a better place for everyone.

Lucero was skeptical at best, telling them, “I don’t even want you here.”

But then, something unexpected happened.

Lucero said the men, known as ministry mentors, were able to help inmates through crises in ways the staff couldn’t. They eased the minds of those who were at death’s door from disease or injury. When they spoke, other inmates seemed to listen.

Threats of suicide decreased and assaults between inmates and on staff, Lucero’s biggest worry, went from an almost daily occurrence “to zero.”

Six years later, he is their biggest champion.

“I value them and they know that I value them,” Lucero said. “… I finally see them, after 18 years, I see that they are human, they are just like me. I’m not better than them. They’re not better than me.”

‘A better, safer place’

Chaplain Kevin Everett, who works with the mentors at the Los Lunas facility, said the mission of the program is to “change the culture within the prisons.”

Everett said the men serve as a Swiss-army knife for the staff.

“They work to help the inmates – change their thinking and way of living,” he said. “But also they’re a big blessing to the staff, because everything that we do that’s positive makes this a better, safer place.”

Everett said the faith-based program really “took root” in Los Lunas, where there currently are nine mentors. There are a handful of mentors at Roswell and a few others spread around elsewhere.

Funded through a partnership with University of the Southwest, it is one of 17 prison seminary programs nationwide, according to the Prison Seminaries Foundation.

The program began in 1995 at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as “Angola,”and morphed the facility from “the bloodiest prison in America” to one of the “safest and most peaceful,” according to PSF.

Mentors in New Mexico begin their two-year training at the Hobbs prison, where they attain a minimum of an associate degree. Some have bachelor’s and at least one has a master’s. Although it is a faith-based program, anyone can apply to be a mentor. They assist inmates “of any faith or no faith at all.”

Chaplain Kevin Everett speaks with ministry mentors outside the chapel of the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The program’s benefits became evident early on as mentors worked with those in the Mental Health Treatment Center.

Lucero said whenever an inmate in the unit was “about to freak out,” he would send one of the men to talk them “off the ledge.” Soon enough, inmates were asking for a mentor “instead of acting out.”

Then they had mentors spend time with inmates in the Long Term Care Unit, where Lucero said 90% of the inmates “are going to die.”

“They were like, ‘What do you want us to do?’ And I said, ‘Pray with them, talk to them, watch TV with them, hang out with them,'” Lucero said.

When the end was near for an inmate, a mentor was tasked with standing vigil so he wouldn’t die alone.

Over time the group began training four comfort dogs at a time, like “Sugar” and “Baby,” rescued from the Valencia County shelter. Lucero said the mentors walk the dogs around the units and visit those in crisis, which lessens tension and anger.

Jason Webb, coordinator of Community Outreach and Faith Based Services with the New Mexico Corrections Department, said the mentors are “hungry to do work of any kind” and serve as the “boots on the ground” for staff looking to make positive changes.

“The kind of communication these guys are going to get is totally different. It’s very honest, and so they can come back and be like, ‘This is what’s going on over here. This is a challenge that’s going on there,'” he said. “I mean, that’s how we find out – what can we do to make it better?”

‘If you see a need, fill a need’

Vincent Baca is one of the original mentors.

The 62-year-old speaks with a swagger and bluntness that comes from spending four decades in prison.

“When they see me, they know what this represents,” he said, pointing to the purple uniform that sets ministry mentors apart. “This color represents volumes. It speaks loud. And once they start opening up, I take control and I give them a different perspective on their confinement.”

Baca and the others range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Most have been locked up for decades and bounced between facilities. Their convictions are for crimes that include double murder, molestation and a drunken driving crash that resulted in grave injuries.

They are articulate, highly educated and speak compassionately of their mission. Members of the group don’t shy away from their own demons and revert back to faith and God often, but they do not require the same of those inmates they help.

They talk, cry, pray and sing with them – whatever is needed.

After spending more than 15 years behind bars, Clifford Dees became a mentor and was told “if you see a need, fill a need.” The freedom that came with that instruction was foreign to him.

“They gave us enough rope to hang ourselves and by the grace of God it hasn’t happened yet,'” the 47-year-old said, a wide grin apparent beneath his mask. “… They’ll stick their foot in the door and break a toe trying to keep it open for us, or kick it open. We drive them nuts sometimes with all of our requests, ‘Hey, can we do this, we’re trying to do that, what you think about this?’ They’re like, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”

Dees said that thanks to the support of Everett and Lucero, they’ve become a stopgap to help resolve issues before they get to the point of staff using Mace, handcuffs or isolation on an inmate “because he’s not able to handle his time.”

The mentors also try to guide those new to incarceration.

Christopher Harvey, 31, said prison can be “a hostile environment” and not everyone can handle it. Eventually, many of them open up.

“They’re scared, or hurt, or sad. They don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s guys that have never been through prison. They think that they’re just going to come in here and get stabbed or beat up for whatever reason.”

Harvey, an extrovert, said the job comes naturally to him.

“You know what they say; when you do what you love, it’s not work,” he said. “… This kind of stuff, to me, it’s exciting. I actually care about these guys and I want them to understand, whatever you’re going through, whether it’s 100 years or one year, someone’s there for you.”

Jail officials said that because the ministry mentors are in the same shoes, they “speak the language.”

John Mayes, another mentor, said they break down barriers that staff may run up against.

“From their perspective, we’re not the guards who are going to talk down to them,” he said. “… They can have a relationship with us that can become beneficial to them, emotionally and mentally, and that makes a big difference.”

Ministry mentors at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility get out two comfort dogs they’ve trained — “Sugar” and “Baby” — to walk around the units, distribute literature and visit with inmates this month at the Los Lunas prison. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

‘I have a new life’

Matthew Gonzales recalled the moment he got sent away for 12 years.

“When the judge hits that gavel, a tear drops, just like a waterfall. Your life just changed,” he said, adding “but it doesn’t have to be for the worst.”

Gonzales said the seminary program had just started when he arrived at the Los Lunas facility. He said seeing the mentors, like Baca, inspired him.

“I’d seen rather hardcore individuals … be humble, joyful, and I’m like ‘you’re in prison, that shouldn’t be happening,'” Gonzales said. “Those guys were infectious and I just wanted what they had … I was able to find that little bit of happiness and was able to breathe better.”

He said the program has taught him that prison doesn’t have to define him. That he can be forgiven and write his own definition of who he is.

“It’s brought me, personally, more vibrancy. I have a new life, I don’t have a depressed moment in prison no more,” Gonzales said.

Mayes, in the middle of a 23-year sentence, said the program has helped him communicate better and build up relationships with those inside and outside the facility, like family.

“From the moment that I got arrested, I knew that I needed to change my life,” he said. “This program is the culmination of keeping the mindset that I need to stay focused … to do things with my life that weren’t just going to benefit me, but were going to benefit other people as well.”

The mentors try to bring that perspective to others.

“The way it’s been – (with) drugs, recidivism – they’re treated a certain way because of how they lived,” Gonzales said. “But they can change their minds, their bodies and their souls. They don’t have to live like that.”

‘It’s not the end of the world’

Baca said sometimes it’s not about teaching the men how to live. In the Long Term Care Unit, where he often finds himself, it’s helping people who are dying.

“Some guys got rods in their backs, some guys got cancer. They’re reaching out to somebody, somebody to listen to them,” he said. “I let them know ‘it’s not the end of the world.'”

Despite his assertive nature and tough guy persona, Baca said he is always shaken when those same men “leave to be with God.”

“It just blows my mind to see a man take his last breath – I’m like dumbfounded, flabbergasted – like ‘wow, did I just see this happen?'” he said. “It takes me two or three days (being) in my cell. … Then I come out, you know, continue my mission. Because I’m everywhere, I’m a servant.”

Lucero, the unit manager, said he saw the “night and day” change in people like Baca, who he knew from years before.

“It gives them responsibility and it shows them that the administration has faith in them to better themselves,” he said. “Because when they get out, and some of these guys are going to get out, they’re going to be better people.”

One former mentor has since been released and has his own congregation in Clovis. Another is moving up the ladder at the Los Lunas Amazon facility.

Not only have they changed “his whole mentality” about prisons, but Lucero said they made him an “overall better person.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s because of the program because I’m not so rigid all the time now,” he said. Lucero said if they got mentors at all 11 facilities around the state, the program could change “the whole dynamics” of correctional facilities – lowering recidivism, inmate suicides and drug use.

“The change that they affected in this facility alone is amazing,” he said. “I’m proud of the program, I’ll do whatever it takes for the program.”

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