Police prove to be effective prison ministers Ken Tutwiler uses handcuffs and a Glock 40 handgun in his work as a Riverside police officer. But off-duty, when he visits prisons, Tutwiler carries a Bible and something he says is more powerful than his service weapon: the word of God.
The 41-year-old detective is part of a small group of Riverside police officers who spends his spare time doing something seemingly contradictory to his chosen profession: ministering to criminals.
“Never in my life did I think I would be called into prison ministry,” said Tutwiler, a 6-foot-5 Christian with a confident, booming voice. “I struggle with what some of these young men have done.” Officials with the California Youth Authority, where the officers do most of their preaching, say it is rare for police to be involved in prison ministry.
“It’s sort of a new twist, although it’s an extremely positive twist,” spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman said. Chaplains say the officers are well-received because they do not judge the inmates, who crowd into chapels to hear the cops speak. An inmate at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino reads along as Ken Tutwiler and fellow police officer Skip Showalter minister to some 85 people.
“They don’t see them as police officers. They see them as men of God when they come here,” said Leonard Wilson-Banks II, a chaplain at Cummins Prison Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. “For a police officer to come inside the prison to the chapel and minister, you know they have to be real. It’s a ministry of love.” Wilson-Banks has known the men since he was a chaplain at the Chino youth authority, where the officers still do ministry. The officers stayed in touch with the chaplain and have visited his Arkansas facility three times, paying part of their own way. They also have visited other Arkansas prisons.
The ministry is not always easy for the officers, who recall incidents that have tested their calling. Last year, in Arkansas, an inmate asked the officers if he could help them baptize another man. The inmate told the officers it was important that he helped. Then he told them why: He was in prison for killing a police officer.
“We’re human, and part of us were getting angry that this guy said that he killed a cop,” said Riverside police Sgt. Skip Showalter, who also is involved in the ministry. “The human side of me said, ‘Don’t even stand next to this guy. This guy makes me sick but the God side said ‘I love this guy, too.’ ”
Most prisons offer inmates a variety of religious services, including Catholic, Jewish and Muslim celebrations led by chaplains employed by the state. But volunteers such as Tutwiler frequently come into the facilities as guest speakers or ministers.
Tutwiler, a former corrections officer, said he is clear that he does not represent the Police Department when he delivers his message at prisons and youth authorities. He represents Jesus Christ, he says. On a recent Sunday evening at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, about 85 men between 18 and 25 file into a chapel for weekly prayer and worship. The young men, wearing blue pants and shirts and sneakers, shout out prayer requests for friends, family and battered children before a volunteer leads them in praise songs. Many men simply stand still with their arms crossed. Others shake tambourines. A blond man seated on an aisle raises his right arm, revealing a swastika tattoo. The music stops. Along the sides of the room, corrections officers stand watch, their radios crackling in the silence. After a few words from the chaplain, Showalter takes the stage to introduce Tutwiler, his friend and one-time partner.
“I am a sergeant with the Riverside Police Department. He’s a detective with the Riverside Police Department. But today, we’re just brothers in Christ. That’s OK with you guys, isn’t it?” Showalter says. The wards applaud.
Not Too Late
Tutwiler steps in front of the microphone. He tells the wards about a beautiful purple flower he had seen growing among weeds at an intersection. The weeds are like sin, he says.
“Satan wants to punk you, folks. Quit letting Satan punk you,” he says, as wards snicker. “You can be that pretty purple flower.”
It’s not too late to repent, he says, getting fired up. You’re not losers. Jesus loves you. Tutwiler reads several passages from the Bible, as the wards follow along. He urges them to stop spreading hatred and seek out Jesus. Tutwiler says he prays about the message he delivers and says God directs him.
“Maybe you’re in here because you murdered somebody. Thank God for His grace because He’ll even save you,” he says. Jesus will forgive rapists, he says. He’ll forgive child molesters, he says, as the young men groan in contempt.
“Satan is so fired up that you’re here in state prison,” he continues. The snickering and other noises stop when Tutwiler tells the men about going to a gang shooting that left a 2-year-old girl injured. Some lean forward. It is something they can relate to. Joel, 19, one of the young men listening to Tutwiler, said he appreciates that the officer goes out of his way to talk to him and the others. Youth authority officials said state laws prohibit them from releasing the last names of the wards. Joel, whose crimes included carjacking and assault, said he never liked police officers but said Tutwiler has helped change his views. “I don’t look at him as a cop,” he said. “I look at him as the brother in Christ that he is.
“I really enjoy his message because he didn’t come in here and think he’s better than us because we’ve committed crimes or whatever. He looks at us as all equal.” Another ward said Tutwiler’s message is more important than his profession.
“The thing I like about Tutwiler is when he comes in here, he’s just straightforward, to the point, and he grabs your attention by the things he says,” said Javier, 22, who is serving time for drug possession. Toward the end of the service, Tutwiler and Showalter ask those who want to accept Jesus to come to the front. More than a dozen young men walk up to receive a blessing from chaplain Bruce Cunningham.
“I hope it changes their lives. If you truly receive Christ, then you will not commit any more crimes, and so this is one way that crime can be decreased,” Tutwiler said. Detective Randy Ryder, who also is involved in the ministry, agrees. He said inmates have written to the officers over the years, explaining that the officers helped put them on the right path.
“We know of stories where they have truly changed,” Ryder said. “I think that’s pretty powerful.”
Down to Earth
The detective says prison ministry does not change the way he does his job. His compassion would never stop him from putting a bad guy in jail, he said. Cunningham, Heman G. Starks’ Protestant chaplain, has scheduled Tutwiler to speak six times this year. The detective also does what is known as cell ministry, spreading God’s word to inmates in lockdown through the cracks in their doors or through the windows of their cells. Tutwiler is “very down to earth, very in your face,” said Cunningham, who said the detective consistently delivers a powerful message. Tutwiler said he became involved in prison ministry through Showalter, who was first introduced to it through a pastor at his church. Showalter said he initially had misgivings.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” Showalter said of the first time he did the ministry. “Actually, I was worried I was going to run into someone I had arrested.”
That has happened a few times. After the services Sunday, four or five young men approached Showalter and Tutwiler, saying the officers had arrested them. The young men just smiled or laughed as they made that observation. Riverside police Sgt. Leon Phillips, an accomplished singer who went to Arkansas for the first time recently, called the trip one of the best experiences of his life. The ministry is humbling, he said. And officers connect on a spiritual level with people who are so different from them.
“We didn’t meet any monsters,” Phillips said. “We just met a bunch of people who made horrific decisions and got caught,” he said.
Staff Writer Bettye Wells Miller contributed to this report.
Original article written in Press Enterprise by LISA O’NEILL HILL