WDAY: The News Leader

Published October 17, 2013, 06:20 PM

Jail Chaplains Program: Second chances

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - Second chances: That's the motto of a unique program at the Cass County jail that's changing lives.

By: Kerstin Kealy, WDAY

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - Second chances: That's the motto of a unique program at the Cass County jail that's changing lives.

Thursday night, we shine a light on the Jail Chaplains; how they're giving inmates spiritual guidance and support, reconnecting them with family and giving them a new life once they're released.

Brandon Morin- Jail Chaplain Program: “The stuff I’ve seen; I don't want to say, but I've seen lots of dirty, grimy stuff.”

26-year-old Brandon Morin is serving a nine-month sentence for aggravated assault.

Morin: “What brought me here was drinking and drugs.”

And here is a place familiar to the Moorhead Native. A life of violence started at 8 when he joined a gang. He had his first experience with drugs and alcohol two years later. He went to juvenile detention for the first time at age 11, and in the 15 years since, he estimates he's been locked up for 10 of them; even a stint at prison at 18.

Morin: “I was trying to replace my parents that I lost at that age. My dad went to prison for 13 years. My mom gave me up to my grandparents and left to California.”

Brandon found himself stuck in a cycle of drugs, alcohol, violence and stealing. It brought him back to the same place: Jail.

Morin: “When I first came in here, like you said, I was angry at the world. Like, oh, I'm back in here… God ain't here for me and all this stuff. But like a month or two after I came in here, I picked up the Holy Bible.”

It was that decision that lead Brandon to become one of the thousands of inmates who have taken part in Jail Chaplain programs at the Cass County Jail. 25 volunteers help lead the faith-based programs in jail: Church services, bible studies, anger management and counseling. They invest about 100 hours each month.

Mike Sonju- Head Chaplain, Jail Chaplain Program: “I would say over 80% of the men and women have some kind of addiction in their life, which caused them to get to the point of being incarcerated.”

Mike Sonju is the Jail's Head Chaplain. He's seen men and women broken and at rock bottom.

Sonju: “Sometimes, they're very distraught; sometimes suicidal when they're in there, or strung out on drugs or they lost everything.”

In those darkest moments, Chaplain Mike shows them there is light, and that no matter who you are or what you've done, there's a second chance.

Sonju: “And so it's a matter of how God looks at things, not how people look at things. I don't really care what their crime is; what they've committed, unless they tell me or it's in the papers. For the most part, I don't judge anyone.”

His words of wisdom, compassion and support have gained the trust of countless inmates and started them on a new path with God.

Sonju: “I just want to let people know you can be forgiven. You can have a new start. You don't have to live in this bondage of your past.”

It's not only the inmates seeing the benefits of the Chaplain Program; the Cass County Jail itself is reaping the benefits of bringing God behind bars.

Sgt. Ben Schwandt- Cass County Jail Programs Administrator: “All the years I've worked in housing units and as a supervisor, I've seen the difference that programs bring to inmates. They're happier. They're productive. They feel like they have hope. It's been really good for us.”

While Brandon is one of the 7,800 men and women who come through the Cass County jail every year, he no longer wants to be a statistic.

Morin: “I have two sons now; one 6 and one's 3. I'm not with either of them, so it's a loss that I wish I can gain back.”

With the help of the Jail Chaplain program, he says he's ready to walk away from the parts of his past that have stolen so much, and embrace the future.

Morin: “But I'm going to have to prove myself to a lot of people that I have changed and I am going to be doing good this time.”

Brandon will be released in January. He's working on a plan for when he gets out, including going to welding school and reconnecting with his kids.