Sorry for the absence of a blog post yesterday. I went into Tampa to attend a hearing to appeal a judge’s inexplicable and unheard-of release of a convicted sex offender as the offender waits out the appeals process. Appallingly, the hearing judge yesterday decided that it was more important to honor the feelings of a fellow judge than to consider the safety of the victim and the community, and he refused to overturn the prior judge’s strange and inappropriate decision to release the convicted sex offender. Richard Chotiner remains free as he appeals his 15-year sentence for sexually assaulting a mentally handicapped man. I plan to write about this awful case next week.
Now back to something marginally less demoralizing: community sentencing programs. On Monday, I wrote about my own accidental (and utterly ineffectual) foray into drug rehab outreach. My VISTA stint gave me ample opportunities to explore the many ways that community-based program funding can be gamed for profit.
In my old neighborhood in Southeast Atlanta, the Victory House Men’s Re-Entry Program used to set up a tent in an abandoned lot and spend days blasting wildly sexist and homophobic sermons over loudspeakers, ostensibly as part of their ministry to previously incarcerated men. Homeless, ex-felons, addicts, or none of the above: I have no doubt that these events were held to justify funding lines intended for community-based prisoner re-entry and diversionary substance abuse treatment. Pastor Craig Soaries claims to have saved many, many thousands. The Victory House Men’s Re-Entry website reads: “To date [since 1992] over 100,000 men have been reached, ministered to and provide emergency or transitional housing, life skills training and hope for a brand new life.“
100,000 is a lot of men, especially considering that the Victory House on Boulevard is just a single-family home. The Georgia Secretary of State database lists Soaries as an officer of five separate corporations (four non-profit, one limited liability) located at three addresses, one of which is the Boulevard Victory House, which also houses Faith and Missions, Inc. and the Victory Community Development Corporation. Busy place.
I came to know about Victory House because — well — I had no choice, having two working ears and living a few blocks away. Soaries would plant his speakers on Boulevard and blast sermons at high volume for days at a time. He would rant about the evil of crack cocaine and homosexuality and loose women, and I, and my neighbors, several of whom were gay, would have no choice but to listen if we deigned to work in our gardens or simply walk to the mailbox.
One day I was outside tending my basil, a task considered spiritual since the Medieval era, and Soaries started up with one of his fire-and-brimstone tirades, this one about women being disobedient to their men. Women who failed to be obedient, he said, would find themselves whoring, drugging and engaging in other sinful acts, obedience to men being the only true way to control women’s innate sinfulness. Women smoked the crack pipe, for example, because they failed to recognize the superior moral guidance of men.
I put down my trowel.
I walked the two blocks to the Victory House encampment, where a few stoned-looking men sat on folding chairs in the heat, listlessly clocking their (court-ordered?) time as Pastor Soaries shouted into his microphone. To summarize the ensuing exchange, he felt that my criticism of the volume of ministering was an excellent example of disobedient womanly sinfulness, a view that even a subsequent visit from my husband, who assured the minister that I was not disobeying him, failed to deter. “Control your woman,” he screamed after us, as we walked away, banished from his earthly, possibly taxpayer-funded, paradise. For the rest of the evening, he ranted about women who don’t listen, which in fairness I was not, since I listened very closely to him after that.
Sadly, I don’t have any information about specific reimbursements Victory House may receive for their substance abuse treatment and prisoner re-entry programming and housing — there are scores of such programs, hundreds of millions of dollars churning through H.U.D. and the D.H.R. and the Justice Department — Weed and Seed, Community Redevelopment Projects, Empowerment Zones, “Community Capacity Development.” I do know that Soaries claims to provide these services, though he doesn’t register Victory House with the State as a charity. Maybe he provided for 100,000 men out of his own pocket. Maybe “reaching,” “ministering,” and “providing life skills” to 100,000 men merely means “hollering into a microphone in an empty lot next to a kudzu-covered junkyard,” which admittedly doesn’t cost much to do.
On one of his websites, Soaries quotes no less an expert than Ashton Kutcher on the topic of outreach:
“I am sharing a six part series this week on the amazing fact that as Ashton Kutcher stated and proved that “one person can actually have as big of a voice online as what an entire media company can on Twitter”.
For me that is indicative of a larger phenomena in that through the Internet one person can literally, as the Bible states, chase, interact, engage a thousand. The potential is really unlimited!”
Let’s just hope we aren’t paying for this through the courts. Hope, too, that men being released to community control in Atlanta after committing a crime aren’t being taught — on our dime — that they need to control their women in order to control their addictions. How many prison ministries — “Men’s Re-Entry Programs” — are operating this way, using public dollars from the feds, or federal dollars churned through state, county and city programs, to subsidize questionable and ineffective treatment programs? The lack of accountability in this field is staggering.