On the day a teen was beaten to death in his cell at the Augusta Youth Development Campus, a small group of inmates graduated from a course on Christian character development.
Of the two occurrences, only one made headlines. That has bothered Devon Harris for more than a year.
“There’s good at YDC, despite what you hear,” said Harris, the executive director of the Full Circle Refuge Juvenile Justice Ministry.
The Augusta facility has been beset with problems, from the November 2011 death of 19-year-old Jade Holder to the October escape of five inmates.
In light of high-profile incidents and ongoing reports of problems at the facility on Mike Padgett Highway, Harris sees an opportunity to expand Full Circle Refuge’s ministry of weekly Bible studies, mentoring sessions and discussion groups.
The ministry reaches half the youths at the YDC, but with more volunteers, it will be able to reach all 120 next year.
“We know we can do a lot more,” said Aaron Snow, the volunteer coordinator of Full Circle Refuge. “These guys are depending on it.”
Joshua Pinter is expected to bring a unique perspective when he joins the ministry’s staff next year.
The 22-year-old from Buford, Ga., spent three years at the Augusta YDC.
“For a while when I was at Augusta, I didn’t have a mentor. Devon became my mentor. We talked about goals, plans, staying positive and focused,” he said. “A lot of the youth there may not want to admit it, but they need it. They’ve got an opportunity while they’re there to get it right and correct the mistakes they’ve made. Having more volunteers would set the youth up for success. There’s not too much positivity going on there.”
A report released Friday revealed several issues at the YDC. Youths in confinement are denied access to religious services even when they don’t present a threat to others or the security of the facility, the Department of Juvenile Justice found in August.
The YDC is tasked with scheduling religious activities and programs, but interviews with youths and staff found that programs were inconsistent, and chaplaincy services were provided only if inmates initiated the request.
“We’ve heard all the drama,” Harris said. “We see it firsthand sometimes at YDC. We want to bring a different light to what’s happening there. Kids say to me, ‘We’re not all bad. We just made a mistake.’ ”
Where others see a troubled facility filled with troubled kids, Harris sees promise.
“Right now at Augusta YDC, we have a great opportunity to serve young men,” he said. “This missing link is men in this community who are willing to step up.”
Inside the fence
Harris founded Full Circle Refuge in 1999. For two years, he worked at the Augusta YDC.
After retiring from the Army, he was hired by the Department of Juvenile Justice to serve as assistant volunteer service coordinator in Augusta, but he left to pursue full-time ministry. Now, through Full Circle Refuge, he works in eight Georgia YDCs and one South Carolina facility.
The opportunities there are great, he says.
At each, volunteers lead inmates through Straight Ahead’s Living a Life of Promise curriculum, which incorporates the principles of a traditional 12-step program with teachings on Christian living.
“Augusta YDC has given us the opportunity to conduct Promise groups in three dorms. We need six to eight guys to make that happen,” Harris said. “I really pray, ‘God send me men.’ They need a man to give them some direction.”
The Augusta YDC’s acting director, Melvin Womble, did not return calls for comment about the ministry’s work there.
Snow, a former youth pastor, facilitates one group at the YDC on Tuesday nights. Eight to 10 youths come to each session. With more volunteers, they could expand.
“We want to duplicate our efforts,” Harris said. “The kids are better for it. If you leave kids, teenagers too idle, you’re going to reap the results of that and it’s going to be ugly. The responsibility is on the church community.”
Harris says he’s pleaded his case to area churches, but “they have this mindset they’re not allowed to go.”
Harris says it’s true that volunteers must go through a lot of paperwork and a background check before being allowed to serve on campus, but he says that shouldn’t stop someone from offering help where it’s desperately needed.
“I would tell anyone just to throw the stereotypes out the window,” Snow said. “They’re 12 to 21 years old. They’re all races. There are church kids in there. It’s everyone. If you can put it aside, you realize this is someone’s son, someone’s brother or cousin, and they need a man in their life. Once you see inside of the fence, there’s no going back. You see a person.”
Harris said he frequently walks out of YDCs encouraged.
“We see things that surprise and encourage us from these so-called hardened criminals,” he said.
Joe Stevens spent three years at the Augusta YDC. The 22-year-old from Loganville, Ga., met Harris at a movie night put on by Full Circle Refuge during his second year.
Within a few months, Stevens became a Christian.
“The program he put me through, it taught me a lot. We talked about how to study the Bible, how to keep my self-esteem up, how to take more control of my life,” he said. “You learn to change your thoughts. You learn to set goals.”
Now that he’s out of the juvenile justice system, Stevens says he wants to go to school to study computers.
Pinter, too, has set goals now that he’s left YDC. Along with joining the staff of Full Circle Refuge, he plans to start on an associate’s degree in criminal justice in January.
“I’d really like to work with youth and give back to them,” he said. “There is such a great need out there. I want to reach out to people like Devon did to me.”