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Looking to be set free: Officials hope jail ministry program helps close 'revolving door'

Isaac James' problem with alcohol landed him in jail. Through a program at the Cass County Jail, he's trying to be set free - not from his cell, but his addiction.

Isaac James' problem with alcohol landed him in jail. Through a program at the Cass County Jail, he's trying to be set free - not from his cell, but his addiction.

"I had to put my trust in the Lord to do that," said James, a 24-year-old from California.

He's in jail on two counts of stolen property, three counts of theft and two counts of forgery. He said he stole stuff to get more alcohol.

James said his addiction has held him back from his goals, and a relationship with God is the only way to turn his life around. He said he wants to attend North Dakota State University next semester.

"No matter what your past is, there's always a future through Christ as long as you acknowledge you do sin," James said. "God makes a way out of no way."


So Wednesday morning he listened to Bible verses describe the slavery of sin and the freedom that comes with faith.

He filled in blanks on a worksheet with words like tempted, slave, confess and obey. He prays with fellow inmates.

"You'll be given a solution," volunteer Myron Jacobson, a biblical counselor, told the four inmates gathered for the class. "But you still have to make a choice."

Jacobson leads the Wednesday Set Free class each week. It's a voluntary, 12-week treatment program based on the Gospel. A weekly class is also held for the female inmates.

It's an example of ministry jail officials hope benefit the inmates, and can help close the "revolving door" of repeat offenders filling the facility.

A large portion of the Cass County Jail population has chemical dependency issues, said Lori Lawson, program administrator.

Most volunteers who come into the jail are from religious organizations, Lawson said. Faith-based programs play a large role in any correctional facility, she said.

The Set Free program was created in Minnesota's Otter Tail County by the Rev. Tim Sherman, a chaplain there and in Becker and Mahnomen counties.


Since he led the first lesson in 2003, it's expanded to more than 40 county jails, most in the Midwest, and also the Minnesota State Prison Intake Facility in St. Cloud.

Cass County started the program in September 2004.

Mary Geller, a classification officer at the jail, said she's heard some inmates say the Set Free program is "too faith-based" and too difficult to go through.

But, Geller said, if it can keep even one or two people out of the incarceration cycle, it's worthwhile.

For years, rehabilitation treatments have relied on secular psychology and haven't worked, said Sherman, a missionary sent from Berean Baptist Church in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Addiction is sin, not a disease, Sherman said, and psychiatry doesn't change a person's heart.

"It really takes a changed heart through a born-again relationship with Christ to change a person's behavior," Sherman said.

"It's definitely a program that not everybody wants to hear because sometimes the truth is difficult to accept," he added.


The class can be used when offenders are referred to a treatment program. But Sherman said it can treat other compulsive behaviors - gambling, pornography, anger - that may not be illegal but get people in trouble.

Participants can join any week. They get a certificate if they attend all 12 sessions and complete the homework.

In Becker County, seven inmates wearing orange jumpsuits and pink socks sit in plastic chairs as Sherman leads a lesson.

He sits on the table but stands and removes his glasses when he makes a point not on the handout sheet.

He makes no apologies but lays it out as the Gospel does. He used a parable the inmates are familiar with - a courtroom.

God is the judge, Satan is the prosecutor, and they are the defendants. After the devil rests his case, the only one who can speak on their behalf is Jesus, he said.

"Do you want to meet your defense attorney the day of the trial?" Sherman asked. "You've got to meet your defense attorney (ahead of time) and accept your pardon."

Jesus can forgive them from the ultimate punishment, Sherman said. But he will not remove the consequences of the behavior, like jail time and fines.


He also won't get rid of the temptation to take another drink or smoke another joint.

"The Lord will scoop you up, give you grace to help you through those times," Sherman said. "But he doesn't always undo them."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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