Rev. Irvin and Thelma Nolan, co-pastors of Heart 2 Heart Ministries, talk about how Irvin went from being an inmate to a minister at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center in Rockville during holiday program. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

The cafeteria of the Montgomery County Pre-release and Reentry Services center in Rockville was filled with Christmas gifts, “residents” who are a few months from being paroled from jail and their family members. David Anthony, 33, is finishing up a sentence for armed robbery; Yakini Fletcher, 36, expects to go home in May, and even though Brian Tyson, 26, has been in and out of jail several times since he was 16, he says he has concrete plans to stay out of trouble when he is freed next month.

“When I was locked up before, I was around people who were never coming home, but this time I have a lot of people working with me,” Tyson said.

After serving as a prison chaplain for more than three decades, the Rev. Elwood Gray has heard inmates’ promises to change. He said that some will successfully start new lives and others will get locked up again. The difference, Gray said, comes down to the kind of family and support structure people establish before they return to society.

“People are not born criminals. They are taught to do what they were doing,” said Gray, who is also president of the National Coalition of Prison Ministries, sponsor of the holiday party at the center, which houses inmates in the final year before their release. “What I have tried to do over the years is break this generational curse, because 8o to 85 percent of the persons who are incarcerated have children who follow them into a life of crime.”

During the party, Gray not only gave gifts to residents at the facility, which houses inmates in their final year before release. He also had items for Edith Bowen and her four grandchildren, because she has a son and a daughter who are locked up. Gray and a network of ministers have adopted the Bowen family and provide tutoring and other support services to the girls.

Dr. Elwood Raphael Gray (L) talks with pre-release resident David Anthony (R, back to camera) at the Rockville Pre-Release and Reentry Services facility in Rockville, MD on Saturday, December 15, 2012. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

“They have really reached out to me,” said Bowen, who added that one of her granddaughters doesn’t really know her dad because he has been locked up for the past 17 years.

During the party, Anthony kept looking at his cellphone because he said his girlfriend was on her way. The Christmas party “helps to strengthen your spirits and confidence about yourself because, at the end of the day, it helps to focus on what’s important to you: family.”

Anthony said that he had been facing 15 years for armed robbery, but his sentence was eventually reduced to 18 months.

“I wasn’t going to get to see my son until he was in college,” said Anthony, a father of children ages 11, 2 and 1 . “Now I have a second chance.”

Stefan LoBuglio, chief of the Montgomery center, also attended the party. “This is a fellowship that we need. Our residents need to feel that if they follow through in this program they can be successful. It is all part of the reentry process.”

The center, which is part of the county Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, opened in 1972 and since that time it has become a national model for preparing people who are incarcerated to reenter the community, LoBuglio said.

“The Christmas program is one program [in which] we allow the community to come and provide services to our residents,” LoBuglio said.

Gray is in charge of a network of pastors and chaplains who visit jails and prisons across the country. In addition, Gray has partnerships with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and 90 days before an inmate is released, he helps connect the inmate with a church congregation.

“If a brother gets out in Dallas ,Texas, we will forward that information to [the network’s chaplain there] to get in contact with the family of the person being released so that he can meet with the family and the inmate to develop a game plan . . . because the most crucial time for an inmate to get back in trouble is the first 30 days after they are released,” Gray said.

The partnership between the Rockville facility and the pastors is mutually beneficial. Residents of the pre-release center leave every day to work or to seek jobs, but in their free time, they can be involved in service projects or events at local congregations.

“These are men and women who volunteer their time at churches and organizations in the community,” Gray said. “The bottom line is getting them to give back to the community so the community can see them in a different light.”