Inside the concrete walls of the Montgomery County Detention Center in Rockville, Patrick Thomas is working hard to leave behind a life tarnished by substance abuse and crime.
He's in an intensive rehabilitation program, trying to conquer the long-standing addiction that led him away from a possible career as a classical singer and into a jail cell for the second time, with an 18-month sentence for credit card fraud. But with just four months to go until his scheduled release in June, Thomas, 39, knows it's going to take more than a committed, positive attitude to stay straight once he leaves prison.
He's going to need a support system, people who will help keep him from drifting back into the lifestyle that landed him in jail.
That's where Robert DeVivo, a member of St. James Episcopal Church's Prison Aftercare Ministry, steps in. For five months, DeVivo has been meeting weekly with Thomas at the detention center, serving as a sounding board and spiritual adviser and helping him prepare to reenter society.
"Our role is to be available and to be a friend and lead by example. We don't tell them what they ought to do," said DeVivo, 63, of North Potomac.
DeVivo is one of 15 volunteer caregivers trained by the St. James Prison Aftercare Ministry to mentor inmates at the county's jail and prerelease center. The Rockville church's program, which also draws volunteers from seven other area churches, has trained about 35 volunteers since it was created in 1993, prison ministry coordinator Michael Lash said.
The church created the program after learning from prison chaplains that existing prison ministries often help inmates grow spiritually, but that there weren't programs available to encourage that growth once they are released. Without the spiritual support, the former inmates are more vulnerable to committing crimes.
The program is "really helpful for these men and women. It really gives them a chance to connect with someone in a positive way," said Susan Wiant, chief administrator of the prerelease center, a program for inmates who are within six months of release. "It's a real plus because it's not a correctional person, just a regular person in the community."
Caregivers, who commit to two years of service, complete a nine-week training program that focuses intensively on developing listening skills and includes lessons about drug and alcohol addiction. The emphasis is on learning to listen and respond to an inmate's concerns, not simply to offer advice, said Lash, 77, of Silver Spring.
Caregivers meet with the inmates once a week, and sessions may include prayers and spiritual discussion. Inmates are recommended by prison officials or the jail's chaplain for the program and usually are serving sentences of 18 months or less.
The sessions start a few months before inmates are scheduled for release and continue for at least six months after they have left jail. Some caregivers continue to maintain relationships with former inmates for years.
"The bulk of the time is spent listening and encouraging the person to discuss what their worries are," said Lash, a former engineer with the Federal Highway Administration. "The bulk of the time is not focused on religion, it's focused on relating and coming up with good plans for the future."
DeVivo, who has been a caregiver for about 30 inmates since the program started, is well versed in what he can offer -- and what he can't. "You learn that the way you do it is through listening. You try to guide them to talk a little more deeply and openly about an area that's important to them. You want them to address their problems," said the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who works in air traffic management for Lockheed Martin Corp. and attends St. Raphael Catholic Church in Rockville.
Although caregivers often find a way to make a connection, they also understand that it would be presumptuous to offer advice to people whose experiences most likely have been radically different, even horrifying, some caregivers said.
"An important part of this is that we really can't know or empathize with the experiences of a lot of people in jail because they can be very different from our own," said Dana Semmes, 53, of Potomac, who has been meeting with a 35-year-old former inmate for more than a year. "So it can be absurd to think that we can give them advice. So much is up to them and their faith."
For Thomas, DeVivo has become a friend and a role model. "In our conversations, he listens to me. He gives me instant validation. He steers me in ways from his life experience in how to live right," Thomas said. "When you're an addict like me, he has what you call a good life. He doesn't have worries over looking for the police. He has a clean life. It's hard to argue with the guy that what you're saying is wrong -- I'm in here."
Once Thomas is released, DeVivo is committed to continue meeting with him for at least six months, during the rough period when the risk of recidivism is high for former inmates as they try to fit into a society that often rejects them for what they've done.
DeVivo is helping Thomas, a computer network systems engineer, figure out what he'll do once he gets released. Aware of the challenges ahead, Thomas said he's counting on DeVivo to help him stay on track with his recovery program.
"I'm going to talk to him more, definitely, because I'll be out there in society," Thomas said. "He'll be part of my support network."
Although prison officials say it's difficult to gauge the success of aftercare programs statistically, they said that anecdotal evidence proves that inmates who can rely on the support of a caregiver do seem more likely to turn their lives away from crime.
"It definitely helps. I've seen the results. Not every case becomes a success story, but that's part of the territory," said Russell Isler, senior chaplain at the detention center.
Knowing how much DeVivo has helped him, Thomas believes that aftercare programs can play a critical role in the rehabilitation of inmates like him.
"There are so many people released from jail that are put into society, and they're placed in a situation where it's hard to get a job, to have anything in place to keep them from coming back," Thomas said. "This program gives them a leg up and a chance to get assistance with problems and make sure they stay on the right track. We have to be dealt with when we leave."