Missouri Baptist warden helps change hearts of inmates
Murphy understands a changed heart means a changed life
By Allen Palmeri
May 31, 2005
ALGOA FARM – After five years as superintendent of the Algoa Correctional Center, Mike Murphy knows how to turn an inmate into a productive member of society.
Help him get a job and keep it. Return him to a stable marriage or home environment. Make sure he stays off alcohol and drugs. Get him to seriously practice a religion.
“That is what works,” said Murphy, 50, a member of Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City. “We have the evidence that backs that up, so we try to address all of those things.”
Algoa is at the head of a national prison reform movement that is giving prisoners who want to change the tools to succeed. Murphy said the prison received grant money a couple of years ago to pioneer “the Missouri re-entry process.” Algoa, which had already launched a pre-release program, is now ahead of the other Missouri prisons in this area, Murphy said.
“I envision a time where we can actually connect an inmate to a job before he even leaves prison,” Murphy said. “I think you’ll see a reduced recidivism rate from about 35-45 percent to about 25-30 percent. If we can see a 25 percent recidivism rate, I think we’ll have been extraordinarily successful and beat out most any other institution or prison system in the country.”
Murphy gave The Pathway a tour of the minimum security prison on a sunny May day. Inmates passed the time by playing handball, basketball and horseshoes. Others worked in the prison laundry or automobile repair shop.
Algoa, which dates back to 1932, can hold 1,565 prisoners. Beds are rarely empty. On May 17, the day of the tour, Murphy said there were 1,549 inmates, with about 400 employees caring for their needs.
“That’s like a small town,” Murphy said.
At the Algoa chapel, Chaplain Doug Worsham was interacting with six inmates on the first day of a discipleship class. Christianity is presented to the inmates as one of several religious options, but Murphy does not try to hide the fact that he prefers Jesus. The warden said he greatly admires the 10-15 percent of the prison population who participate in chapel programs.
“The inmates who are involved in this have a pretty good influence out there (in the prison yard),” Murphy said. “They are very much what we call on Front Street. People know whether they are really Christians or not. The guys who come in here to work are truly committed men who I have profound respect for because they are scrutinized every day, all day long.”
Murphy holds to a Christian worldview that compels him to care for the souls of his inmates.
“I think the Lord has placed me where He wants me to be,” he said. “Prison can be a very rough and violent place. It can be a very frustrating place. You have to have a lot of patience. You have to keep your wits about you. But at the same time, Christians have to be willing to step up and take these hard jobs.
“I look at the question of Paul and the jailor (Acts 16:23-33). One thing we do around here is count, and that’s what that jailor first did. Our technology has not exceeded 2,000 years on how we make sure the inmates are here. We count! Now, the next day, did he quit his job as a jailor, or did he go back and was he a wiser, discerning, compassionate jailor? Where else was that Christian man needed rather than the most brutal place?”
Algoa uses transitional housing units to “make smooth that path” for an inmate to walk, Murphy said. Classes on employability and life skills are taught so that inmates know how to buy a car and a house, how to balance a checkbook and how to prepare a resume in advance of a successful job interview. Vocational training is offered in the areas of auto mechanics, culinary arts and building trades. A work release program is made available to reinforce work ethic, and a hard-working, dedicated staff has bought into the overall vision of the importance of the re-entry process, Murphy said.
“I like to give inmates an opportunity to change,” he said. “If they realize that they do not want to come back to prison, there are some changes that have got to be made. The most important change, I believe, is the internal one. You’ve got to have a change of heart that accompanies a change of mind. If you change the mind and change the heart, you’re far less likely to come back to prison.”