Unique jail program heals in more ways than one

Robert Raleigh checks out a hymn at the pulpit in the chapel at the Clay County Jail while Wayne Monts (center) talks with relatives.
Staff Writer

They look like any other family...husband, son, wife, mother, grandmother, cousins, all gathered in a lively conversation while waiting for the minister to start the Christmas service.

Then the words on the back of a shirt catch the eye: "Clay County Inmate."

It's a startling realization.

But for this family and many others, the service is just as special, if not more so, as any other at any church, any denomination, at Christmas.

"What this means to me, my family, it's immeasurable. The best way to explain it is that it is unexplainable," said 36-year-old Wayne Monts, the one wearing the inmate shirt.

Monts is in the Clay County Jail serving a 10-year aggravated assault sentence out of Oktibbeha County for shooting a man in July 2014. He pleaded guilty in June 2016. After being processed at the Department of Corrections' Rankin County Detention Center, he earned the right to be sent to the Clay County Jail as part of the state's inmate work program.

He quickly fell into one of the most unique programs of its kind in the state, a weekly church service where families are allowed to join their inmate relatives for church in the jail chapel.

In the 18 months since he's been in Clay County, Monts has missed one service. His family has been right there, too.

"We're here every Tuesday and every Sunday almost. It's important anytime but at this time of year, you just can't say how much," said Monts' grandmother, Shirley Monts, shaking her head almost in disbelief at the program's significance.

"It let's us be like a family. We grow spiritually together. It's more important than you can imagine. That's so importasnt any time but at Christmas...wow," Wayne Monts continued, his 4-year-old son tapping his knee to get his attention.

Former West Point resident Robert Raleigh started the program in 1995 when Laddie Huffman was sheriff. Raleigh has moved to Amory but still oversees the services each week with local reverends. The services include hymns, Bible verses, readings and prayer like those in more-traditional church settings.

Tuesday night was not only church but also Christmas dinner.

"It's hard to say the difference the program has made, that Mr. Raleigh has made. I know it helps turn lives around, turns people around," Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott says. "I can't imagine not having it."

The Clay County Jail and Justice Court are in what once was the Ivy Memorial Hospital. Before it closed in the early 1980s and was replaced by what is now North Mississippi Medical Center-West Point, thousands of Clay Countians went through Ivy's rooms to give birth, get health care, and to die.

Years ago, the late Sheriff Huffman turned one of those rooms into the chapel, complete with a small pulpit. It has room to expand if the crowd gets too big, which it sometimes does, especially at holidays.

Like Scott, Donna Ford can't imagine being without the church services that are known as H.O.P.E. of Clay County. She's been coming for more than nine years. Many visitors think she is just a concerned community volunteer at first greeting.

But her story may say as much about H.O.P.E.'s impact as any testimonial.

She got started when her son, Trent Todd, who is now 30, was given 10 years in 2009 for robbing a store near their home in Montpelier. After being sentenced, he ended up back in Clay County on the state work program.

And the church service became an important part of their lives. He recently was transferred to the state's regional correctional facility in Alcorn County, but his mother keeps coming to the local jail.
"God put him (Trent) in jail here for a reason. It brought him to God, it brought my work with God stronger, and it made us stronger. All that wasn't an accident," she explained.

The irony of the jail's history as a hospital isn't lost on her.

"My son was born in this hospital. A lot of people were. I see inmates come here dead, their spirits are dead. This changes that, it's an opportunity like none other in the state, a chance to leave alive," Ford said, promising to keep coming after her son completes his sentence next August.

"He wants to come back and keep being a part of this, to try to help others," she stated.

Obviously the program doesn't save every inmate. But having the opportunity makes all the difference.

"A lot of the guys need someone to talk to, maybe a hug, just a place to start," Ford said,

'Everyone in here has done something wrong, something bad. But this gives them a chance. They can't take it back, can't fix it, but it is a chance," Ford continued as she checked on a Christmas dinner items before Raleigh's opening prayer.

Like many, misgivings made Monts hesitate at first.

"I had some hard feelings, I was upset at every aspect of what was going on, at what was happening. Then I began to realize and accept life isn't always peaches and cream. This was my doings. God put me in my place, this place, for a reason and I have to take responsibility," Monts explained.

Through the H.O.P.E. services, he has made peace with himself and with God. But he knows he hasn't crossed that threshold with one important person -- his victim.

Armed with a handgun, Monts shot Tiberias Lampkin, a West Oktibbeha County High graduate and promising football player at Northeast Mississippi Community College, in the right leg on July 25, 2014. Monts confronted Lampkin, who was 19 at the time, outside a friend's home near Sturgis because he thought Lampkin was driving a stolen four-wheeler.

Lampkin recovered, but the injury initially clouded his potential football future. The 5-9, 220-pound tailback returned to Northeast and earned MVP honors at a junior college all-star game. He just completed his first year at Mississippi College, rushing 128 times for 648 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.

"As bad as it was, I know the outcome could have been way worse," Monts said, his voice trailing off, leaving unspoken the obvious -- Lampkin could have been killed. "I am grateful he is where he is.
"I'd like to make peace with him, to heal. I need to, I want to," Monts said of Lampkin. "I just don't know. I hope God will give me that opportunity to meet him and apologize, to say how sorry I am."