Chaplain Leroy Davis talks with Stefan Etz, an inmate at Henrico County Regional Jail West. Jay Paul photos.
Harry Greene has been baptized three times. The first two ceremonies took place during his teenage years.
"That really made my grandmother happy," he recalls, while adding that it wasn't quite as meaningful for his adolescent self. "Walked in dry, walked out wet. Just took a bath, but it got me things."
Greene, the 65-year-old CEO and president of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry in Richmond, says, "I'd attended church all my life. Didn't believe a word of it. Never really listened until I met Bill Simmer.
A Second Chance Taken
Dr. Bill Simmer, Ph.D., established Good News in 1959 and incorporated it in 1961. Fifty years after its founding, the prison ministry now places chaplains — at no expense to any facility — in 24 states, as well as 23 foreign countries, encompassing five continents.
Simmer was ministering in an Arlington, Va., jail when he met Greene, who was awaiting trials for felonies that could have netted him a multiple-digit sentence. Greene, then 20, had racked up charges in five districts in Northern Virginia and was planning an armed robbery when he was arrested in June 1964.
Greene says he "skated" through high school and eventually wound up in the Army. "I was attending West Point preparatory school at Fort Belvoir to become an officer, failed some exams and learned I was being returned to active duty," he recalls. "I thought that was a little harsh, so I went AWOL."
He wrote his first bad check to cover hunger. The 6-foot-3 charmer then kept at it, carving out a luxurious existence that included living with one woman during the week and another on weekends. When the ruse was discovered, one of his girlfriends turned Greene in, resulting in his arrest.
"Two guys and I had guns," he remembers. "We planned to hold up a Safeway store that cashed payroll checks on Friday. I've always been thankful I was arrested on Wednesday, because by that point, I'd become hardened enough — had push come to shove — I probably would have killed somebody."
Instead, Greene ended up an inmate, which, oddly enough, gave him an inside track to his future career on the straight and narrow.
Life Support Good News, which moved its corporate office to Richmond from Northern Virginia in 1995, is self-sufficient, operating on an $8 million budget with no state or federal tax revenue. Its chaplains are responsible for raising the funds for their salary and support for their local ministries. Each chaplain is required to host two major fundraising events each year. They do this through banquets, golf tournaments, concerts, walkathons, 10K runs, whatever it takes to support their work, including church presentations.
Leroy Davis and Woody Fisher, the full-time chaplains for Good News at Henrico County Regional Jail East and West, minister to about 1,300 inmates and 300 staffers and supervise a host of volunteers. Michael Wade, the county's sheriff, believes their ministry is invaluable, especially since security is the primary budgetary emphasis in jails and prisons.
"In a budget crunch, the first thing that goes are programs that help inmates," Wade says. "These chaplains handle a lot of counseling, deliver messages concerning bereavement or illness in the family, make important contact with the families for inmates. If they didn't, we'd need more paid staff."
Good News chaplains work only where they are invited, and while maintaining Christian boundaries, they must facilitate all faith groups, arranging for visits from rabbis, imams or other ministers as needed.
The centerpiece of Good News' efforts is a 90-day program that endeavors to rebuild a person from the ground up based on biblical principles. "We address every issue you can think of," Greene says. "How to be a better father, a better husband, find a job, fill out a résumé, become financially responsible. These are often totally alien concepts. This program is not restricted to Christians but is open to any inmate, as long as they are willing to come and not be disruptive.
"The national recidivism rate is about 70 percent, with inmates usually returning six months to a year after release. For those who finish our life-learning program, the recidivism rate is less than 20 percent."
That said, Greene admits there are failures, some of them particularly painful.
"We had a former chaplain who had been in prison in Florida, got out, got his biblical degree, got married and went to work for Good News," he says. "Three years later, someone offered him some cocaine. It cost him everything — his marriage, his job — and he went back to prison. We ministered to him when he came back. It was personally very heart-wrenching and difficult to go back to square one, but we have a God of second chances. We just don't give up."
A Clean Slate Good News' founder never gave up on Greene.
"It all started when Bill Simmer said, ‘I'm Chaplain Simmer, would you like a Bible?' I said, ‘No. I don't need a dead Jew. I need a lawyer.' Bill replied, ‘I don't know any dead Jews, but I do know a risen savior. I'd like to talk to you about that.' I didn't want to hear it."
Simmer persisted, though, and one day, Greene finally listened.
"There were 10 people in the cellblock. Four of us were playing pinochle when Bill came by one day. We weren't paying attention. He was bugging us. And then he says this verse out of Proverbs: ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end thereof are the ways of death.' And for the first time, it was like God just sort of reached down and tapped me on the head and said, ‘Hey, dummy, you really ought to listen to this.' I looked around. I was living 24/7 with people I'd never even associate with on the street, not even as a criminal."
Greene started attending Good News' life-learning classes and got involved in Bible lessons, which are also available through correspondence courses.
"By the grace of God, I ended up just serving a two-year sentence at the old penitentiary on Spring Street," says Greene, who went to a halfway house the day he was paroled in 1965. He met Barbara Warfield, a volunteer bookkeeper at Good News, that same day. They've now been married for 43 years and have two children.
"Bill [Simmer] kept talking about this Harry Greene getting out of jail, but I really didn't pay much attention," Barbara Greene says. "I thought it was an older man who had been helping out. When Bill introduced us, I was surprised."
Simmer acted as a matchmaker for the pair, suggesting that Greene ask Barbara to a Christmas party. "That was December 1965, and we were married June of 1966," she says.
"Trusting Bill and the Lord was what did it," she says, laughing before adding, "Harry was such a sweet talker, and I was young and foolish."
Greene, who went on to a successful career owning and/or managing trucking firms in Virginia, California and Maryland, remained heavily involved in Good News, serving on the board of directors. In April 1983, Simmer asked him to take the reins of the organization. Greene accepted, and Simmer retired, moving to Hawaii to become the president of a seminary in Honolulu before later relocating to Lynchburg.
Gov. Charles Robb appointed Greene as the first ex-felon to sit on the Virginia Board of Corrections in 1982, and he was reappointed by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles in 1986, eventually becoming the chairman of the committee that rewrote the standards for jails and prisons in Virginia.
Years earlier, some Northern Virginia sheriffs and others who knew Greene had signed petitions for a pardon on his behalf. In 1972, Gov. A. Linwood Holton granted him a full pardon.
Greene had already earned a clean slate from a higher power several years before that, when, at the age of 21, he underwent his third baptism, at Sunset Hills Baptist Church in Alexandria. "After I made a commitment to Christ, Bill got permission to get me out of the jail, and I was baptized, this time for real."
"I wanted my grandmother to know," Greene remembers with a smile.
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2010.