Religion

SECOND CHANCESPrison ministry helps former inmates get their life back on track

BRADENTON

Jim Russo Prison Ministries in Bradenton is all about second chances.

The faith-based ministries at 2106 26th Ave. E. help former prisoners get their life back on track.

“It’s what I needed,” said Charles Mintlow, who has been at the Jim Russo Development Center, a transitional housing program for ex-offenders, since last August. “Instead of just letting you out, it helps you ease back into society.”

Jim Russo Prison Ministries was started by Russo in 1979, said Ron Luke, executive director. Prison was no stranger to Russo, who at one time was on the “10 Most Wanted List” for his activities as a con man and incarcerated in the federal prison in Atlanta.

While in prison, Russo found God, which changed his life, said his widow, Jean Russo, who now oversees the ministries since her husband’s death in 2000 of a heart attack. It all started when he began reading a Bible given to him by his first wife, Betty.

“He used to say no Jesus, no change; no change, no Jesus,” she said. “He firmly believed that. If God hadn’t come into his life, he wouldn’t have changed.”

He was eventually freed from prison and joined St. John’s United Methodist Church in Sarasota. He became a United Methodist minister and started the prison ministry by giving Bibles to offenders in Florida prisons and visiting inmates.

Russo believed God could heal even the worst of offenders and once a month he visited men on death row, said Jean Russo. In addition to his preaching, he even managed to get black and white televisions for death row inmates.

When inmates threw urine at him or shouted profanities, it didn’t stop him, his wife, an ordained Methodist minister, said.

“He went back faithfully,” she said. “That was where his heart was.”

Devoting his life to Christ and helping prisoners became a passion for Russo, said Luke.

“We all make mistakes,” he said. “He truly believed if they had another chance, they could make it.”

Jim Russo Prison Ministries includes two ministry teams which visit prisons around Florida, donating Bibles to prison and jail inmates, a toy drive to provide toys for prisoners’ children, and the transitional living program which Russo started in 1986.

It was 1980 when an old house on 27th Avenue was to be demolished to build a new elementary school, according to Luke. The house was moved across the street to Russo’s property and became the Jim Russo Development Center.

Russo worked closely with the Florida Department of Corrections to provide after care and transitional housing for paroled and probationed prisoners from all over Florida, according to Luke. They still take in about 50 men a year and the men spend at least four months at the facility. Many end up staying longer.

The program has an 85 percent success rate, according to Luke. Ex-offenders without a transitional program have almost a 50 percent chance of re-offending, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

“It’s a great moment when you see the change in the men,” said Jean Russo. “I cry. I rejoice for them.”

Emory Parks graduated from the program in 2003 and returned to work as a night manager for the development center. He spent 10 years behind bars before coming to the Jim Russo Development Center. He credits the program with changing his life.

“When I went in I had material things, and when I came out, I had none,” he said. “That was hard. But I did it with faith. I made up my mind when I was in; I was going to do that.”

Yet Jim Russo Prison Ministries doesn’t work for every man that comes through the doors, said Jean Russo, who is called “mom” by most of the men. And Jim Russo knew that, too, when he established the program, she said.

“He used to say if you’re not sincere, don’t come,” said Jean Russo.

Jean Russo has continued the ministry and now serves as chair of the ministry board.

“That’s where his heart was and I’m beginning to think that’s where mine is too,” she said. “I love doing this.”

Although they get by with the help of United Methodist churches, Manatee Community Foundation, and other congregations, funding the prison ministries at times can become a daunting task for the 75-year-old.

“We have to pray a lot,” she said. “Every time we get discouraged, something will come along.”

When the men arrive at the Jim Russo Development Center, they have only the clothes on their back but are given everything they need to get a fresh start, said Luke. They must pay rent of $77 a week to help with expenses and food.

“The first thing we do is give them a chance,” said Luke. “We worry about the money later.”

The men must find a job and abide by rules which include a nightly curfew and daily chores. They do their own laundry and are responsible for getting back and forth to work. They are asked to attend two evening Bible study classes a week.

But there are no bars on the windows and the men can come and go freely, said Luke.

After spending 13 years at the Liberty Work Camp, Randy Barde said Jim Russo Ministries has given him a “good spiritual foundation” and has been a “blessing” in his life.

“I decided to step out in faith and go a different direction,” said Barde, who has been at the center seven months. “It’s really a wonderful place.”

Mintlow, who shares the house at Jim Russo Development Center with Barde and nine other ex offenders, said living at the center has been more than just a place to live.

“It’s very peaceful here,” said Mintlow. “To me, it’s home.”

Mintlow, who spent 15 years in Everglades Correctional Institution, hopes someday to return to being a chef, his profession before going to prison. But for now, he is content with just having a job, a roof over his head, and the chance to get his life in order. And he credits Jim Russo Prison Ministries for giving him that chance.

“I feel good,” he said. “When you come from prison and you’re treated with dignity and respect, it helps.”

For more information about Jim Russo Prison Ministries, call (941) 746-3717.

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