Winning Edge ministry, encouraging criminals to change their lives

"Murf the Surf" Jack Murphy and Julie Simpson

Middle-aged and retired women walk single-file down the narrow sidewalk between barbed wire fences on a cold December morning. Headed to prison.

But only for a visit.

The Winning Edge’s biggest annual volunteer-based prison ministry event kicked off Friday, Dec. 1, at several prisons, including the Gist State Jail and the LeBlanc State Jail in Beaumont and the Lucile Plane State Jail in Dayton, about an hour outside of Beaumont. Only male volunteers entered men’s prisons while the women headed to the Plane Unit. 

The Plane State Jail is the closest women’s state prison to Beaumont, TDCJ spokesperson Connie Durdin confirmed, with a population of 2,101 prisoners living in the jail as of Nov. 30, including 35 women from Jefferson County, six from Hardin County, and 31 women from Orange County.

As the volunteer group stepped into the Plane Jail’s chapel, the ladies walked past wanted posters of Jesus taped in the library window and artwork painted by prisoners during their incarceration.

“Line up the offenders,” the guard said into her radio.

Women in white scrubs and Army green jackets filled the rows of chairs before the guards did a head count. Volunteers are allowed to briefly hug the offenders, but offenders and prisoners sit in separate areas of the chapel until the discussion time.

The Winning Edge is a non-profit located in Beaumont that hosts several events every year in schools and prisons, supporting anti-bullying and drug free programs as well as inmate ministry and feeding officers at the jails.

President and founder Robert L. Smith worked alongside Bill Glass Prison Ministries for two decades, which became Champions for Life, before he launched The Winning Edge in 2010, which originally started through Beaumont’s First Baptist Church in 1994.

This year, The Winning Edge visited five prisons in Southeast Texas housing about 7,400 inmates, the organization said in a release. The volunteers also fed about 500 correctional officers at the units.

The session in the chapel at Lucile Plane State Jail featured two speakers – Tino Wolenda, an eighth generation circus performer, and Jack Murphy, formerly known as “Murf the Surf,” convicted murderer and part of the America’s biggest jewel heist in 1964 when the “Star of India” was stolen from J.P. Morgan Chase’s collection in the New York Museum of Natural History.

Murphy and Jack Griffith were later convicted in 1969 of first degree murder in the death of one of the two bodies found weighted down in a Florida canal, known as the Whiskey Creek murders. 

Murphy opened with a brief summary of his story and then asked the audience, “Now the real question is, do you think Matthew McConaughey can play me in an upcoming Hollywood film?”

The prisoners and volunteers laughed.

Murphy said he identifies with offenders and wants to help them adjust to the outside world when they get released. Not every church is willing to let an ex-con join their fellowship, he said.

“This is serious business,” he said, recounting his past. “You can’t tell that story in church.”

Murphy has spoken in prisons with Bill Glass ministries since 1986, shortly after his release in 1985, which he said has taken him to prisons around the world, including the Ukraine.

He shares his story with those serving time like he did, hoping they won’t return to prison and will turn their lives around.

The three year recidivism rate for offenders released from Texas prisons was 21.7 percent for men, 15.8 percent for women, and 22 percent for juveniles, according to the most recent statistics published by the Texas Legislative Budget Board in Jan. 2017. According to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, out of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, about 68 percent were arrested for a new crime within three years of their release from prison, and 77 percent were arrested again within five years. 

The same study indicated that more than a third — 36.8 percent — of all prisoners who were re-arrested within five years were arrested within the first six months of release, with more than half — 56.7 percent — arrested by the end of the first year.  

TDCJ spokesperson Tammy Houser said she is not aware of any TDCJ studies for five year, 10 year, or lifetime recidivism rates. The average national recidivism rate for prisoners released is 43 percent, according to an April 2011 report published by the Pew Center on the States. 

For Murphy, the answer to prison recidivism rates is Jesus.

“If the best that you can do today is you woke up in a stinky penitentiary and a prison guard yelled at you, then you’re not managing your life very well,” he said. “You need a new manager.”

Debra Wheaton is also a regular volunteer at the Jefferson County Jail in addition to working with The Winning Edge once a year.

She told the inmates her story of marrying an ex-con and former white supremacist — and she’s a black woman.

“Now, ladies,” she said. “I never thought I’d fall in love with a white boy … but I did.”

Georgia resident Cheryl Pittman said she travels around the country doing prison ministry events like this with her husband.

She explained that she prays over the women and just talks to them.

“To me, talking to them is more effective than, ‘Let’s read this,’” she said, referring to gospel tracts.

Some of the women went up into the K unit, where more serious offenders are held.

“Thank y’all for visiting them,” the guard said. “Some of them are murderers. They need it.”

“Well, but we all need Jesus,” one of the volunteers responded.

“This whole evangelism thing is so simple that it’s kind of scary. All you’re doing is introducing somebody to Jesus,” Don Landry said in a volunteer meeting before the weekend kicked off.

“Billy Graham never saved anybody – that’s the Holy Spirit – but what we’re gonna do is set the table.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with The Winning Edge next year can call (409) 781-8474 or visit www.thewinningedge.us.

Eleanor Skelton can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 222, or by e-mail at eleanor [at] theexaminer [dot] com.

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