This month marks the three-year anniversary for Friendship Outreach, an effort to provide spiritual counseling to Moffat County Jail inmates. Neil Folks, a spiritual mentor, conducts sessions with inmates two days a week. He said much of the behavior leading inmates to incarceration stems from past pain and grief.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

This month marks the three-year anniversary for Friendship Outreach, an effort to provide spiritual counseling to Moffat County Jail inmates. Neil Folks, a spiritual mentor, conducts sessions with inmates two days a week. He said much of the behavior leading inmates to incarceration stems from past pain and grief.

A shepherd of life's spiritual journey

Outreach mentor guides inmates to healing

— The second-floor courtroom is quiet on this day, a Thursday afternoon in the Moffat County Courthouse, and its rows of seats are empty, save for the man sitting in the front row.

His head is bowed slightly, the room's stillness providing a tranquil environment for meditation.

Many days, although not as many as he'd like, he takes 20 undisturbed minutes in the morning to "get centered" for the day ahead, and 20 more in the evening to "unload everything."

As he waits on this day, the courtroom around him gradually fills. Prosecutors, a public defender, court clerks, on-lookers, the judge and inmates, shackled and guarded by a Moffat County Sheriff's Office deputy, make their way inside for the afternoon docket.

One-by-one, inmates make the short walk from the jury box where they wait to the defendant's table, where they face the judge and learn their fate. As each inmate crosses paths with the man in the front row, a nod and smile is exchanged between them.

Some inmates do not have any friends or family in the courtroom. Some of them don't have any in the outside world, either.

But they have him.

"I'm just here, in terms of presence, for moral support," whispers Neil Folks, a companion/spiritual mentor for the Friendship Outreach program, an offshoot of the Communities Overcoming Meth Abuse group. "They appreciate that someone cares about them and is here for them in this very trying period.

"It's about trying to help another human being in their painful moment."

Since 2005, Folks has served as the spiritual mentor to inmates, spending two days a week, and sometimes more, at the jail, as part of Friendship Outreach. He also is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to inmates in emergencies.

This month marks the three-year anniversary of the program.

To the layman, the sessions Folks conducts with inmates may be viewed as therapy, but he said that word - therapy - implies using tools of science. What he does, he said, is tend to matters of the soul.

"I'm here," Folks said, "as your listener. I'm trying to give you total presence."

Sometimes, that presence puts him in company with people accused of murder, rape, robbery, child abuse, dealing drugs. It doesn't matter to him what the inmate did in the past, he said. It matters what he or she can do in the future.

"I don't work off labels," Folks said. "I don't like what they've done, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't still love them and not ignore them. They need help. They need to be held responsible, yes. They owe that to society, but at the same time, they need specific help."

It's during sessions that inmates can "unburden" themselves of the symptoms that perhaps lead them to incarceration - past hurt, anger, hate and addictions.

There is no time limit, no ending after an hour, Folks said.

"Until you feel safe with yourself," he said. "If it takes all night, I'm staying here with you. : At the end of it, they feel exhausted and so do I, but I feel good."

As a society, Folks said, we do not deal with pain, loss, suffering and death. In a session, the spiritual mentor tries to take the inmate's painful past and put it "in a bucket, and take it out."

Or, "leave it all here," he tells the inmates, "me and Jesus will do something with it."

"I go in there alone, but I'm walking with them," he said. "You and I will take the journey together."

His own journey is perhaps unlikely, and certainly something Folks said he couldn't have predicted.

Born in Ashland, Kan., a small agricultural community in southwest Kansas near the Oklahoma border, Folks was the son of a conservative ranching family.

After high school, he received his bachelor's degree in range management from Fort Hays State, and a master's degree in wildlife research from Utah State University.

He spent 33 years in Browns Park as the waterfowl management area superintendent, retiring in 2000. But, instead of retiring to a leisurely life, he shirked it aside for volunteering to "help my community, in a sense."

"I wanted to do something to return the favor," Folks said. "I didn't want to retire to a rocking chair and a fishing pole."

His volunteer work began with Advocates-Crisis Support Services, and later bloomed into contributing to various community-oriented groups. They include: Rotary International, Love INC, Youth Initiative Against Alcohol, Moffat County Council on Aging, Region XI Area Agency on Aging, Yampa Valley Senior Task Force and COMA.

He also is the Moffat County Jail chaplain, a volunteer position, and part of the Moffat County Law Enforcement Chaplain's Group.

Folks recently completed training at the internationally recognized Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, a private organization "dedicated to furthering our understanding of grief," according to a news release. It is one of five courses required to earn a Death and Grief Studies certificate accredited through Colorado State University.

His desire to help others with their pasts and pains has taken him across the state and country for training. Given that no two situations are ever alike, Folks said, he is never done learning.

When he'll finish his work companioning with inmates, when the end will come for him shepherding them on their "spiritual journey," is anyone's guess, though it's not likely to be soon.

"All this training," Folks said, "has not been for naught."

Folks' work in the jail and personal dealings with its inmates - he's companioned with 145 in three years - has shaped his views of a society he considers too violent, and a justice system he believes punishes crimes, yet largely avoids causes behind them.

He considers these systemic problems.

"We are creating a violent society," Folks said. "We have built an entire economy around the idea of incarceration. If we work on causes that create wrong-decision making, we put people out of work, a wrecked economy."

Crimes should be punished, Folks said, but taking a person with pain in his or her life and putting that person in jail without needed treatment compounds the problem.

When they get out, he said, the odds are stacked against them, increasing the likelihood they'll go back in.

"Deep down, (they are) a beautiful person," he said. "You just have to get all that other stuff out of the way."

And helping inmates clear those issues out of the way - something he can only guide them on doing - is what Folks' life has become. It doesn't come without sacrifice or having a firm grasp of his own life, he said.

"I will not go into the jail if I'm not 100 percent ready," he said. "I've got to be in top shape.

"They read your eyes, your emotions, they listen to your words. They can tell if you are really true. : I've got to be in tune with me."

Sometimes, it's too much, he said. Sometimes being the sponge that absorbs others' pain weighs him down. And in those times, it's best to step back. So, Folks will get back to his roots, where he spent three-plus decades of his life - the wilderness.

He'll take a walk at Loudy-Simpson Park. He'll observe the open space, the quiet and the wildlife, breath it all in and refocus. He'll recite a Christian centering prayer.

He'll find someplace quiet, someplace like the empty courtroom Thursday afternoon, and bow his head in meditation. Anything to stay concentrated on helping heal the wounded.

"When I see a young person finally get it, that warm smile from someplace that can't be described comes onto their face. : I just had that come up last week with a lady. When someone says 'for the first time in my life I feel worthy,' that's the reward. That's Angelic.

"Three years would be worth it for just that one person."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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