VALPARAISO — For the third time in five years, Roy Castro is calling Porter County Jail home.

This time, he's awaiting trial on burglary, theft and armed robbery charges.

The 25-year-old father of two swears it will be his last time. 

This time, he says, he's spending his time in jail learning how to be a better man and father, thanks to a program affectionately nicknamed the God Pod.

"A lot of us have known what we do is wrong, but we never had the power to get out," said Castro, who said he's battled drug addiction most of his life.

The men in the pod have turned to God and a group of volunteers to help them take control of their lives.

"I hit bottom with drugs and my life. My little brother had been through the program last year, and he convinced me to apply," said Castro, who has been living in the God Pod with about a dozen other inmates for the last two months.

In the beginning

The official name of the program is Biblical Life Principles.

It is a strict, intensive program. Participants spend at least five hours a day, five days a week in classes and Bible study.

Volunteer instructors teach classes in conflict resolution, financial management and Biblical Life Principles. They attend meetings of Reformers Unanimous, a faith-based addiction group.

They live together, eat together. More importantly, they hold one another accountable and support one another, because for many, this could be their last chance.

Jay Birky, chaplain and program director for Porter County Jail, visited a similar program with former Sheriff Dave Lain about two years ago at Kent County Jail in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"They had something similar and when we left, we knew we wanted to institute it here," Birky said.

Inmates must apply to be in the God Pod, Birky said. They must be willing to put in the work and live under stricter rules than enforced in the prison's general population.

There is no cussing or vulgar talk. No talking loud. No arguing. The men stand when anyone in leadership enters the room.

"We try to read their motive," Birky said.

"Do they really want to change the lifestyle they are living? They can be of any faith or of no faith. We have had one Muslim member."

The program began in June 2014. Volunteers from nine area churches teach classes, support the men and provide funding. Birky said there has been little, if any cost, to the county for the program beyond the usual costs of housing the inmates.

Funding for the program has been left to private resources.

Ben Polhemus, pastor of Liberty Bible Church in Liberty Township, estimated that in the last year and a half, the churches spent about $5,000 to $7,000 to provide materials used for the program inside the jail. In most cases, those who volunteered to teach one of the classes also purchased the material for the classes.

The churches, Polhemus said, have banded together under the umbrella, God Pod Community. The group will operate the after-care portion of the program, including raising and managing funds. 

They are estimating a budget of $30,000 to run the after-care program, Polhemus said, adding that doesn't take into account individual donations of clothing, rent or, in one case, a car. They have set up a bank account, and Open Door Fellowship church in Kouts is managing the program's finances.

"Often the faith community tends to live in a bubble. This gets them out of the bubble," Birky said, adding he tells volunteers when he brings them to the pod, "This is not a zoo. These are men behind bars who made a bad decision. We help them through the program to make better decisions."

Since its inception, 53 men have gone through the program. Only seven have returned as inmates. Birky said that is far less than local, state and national recidivism rates. An Indiana Department of Corrections report states the 2014 recidivism rate in the state is just under 40 percent. A National Institute of Justice report sets the three-year national recidivism rate at about 68 percent. So far, less than 20 percent of God Pod members, or about 13 percent, have re-offended and returned to Porter County Jail.

Pod Father

"I went from gang-banging to banging for the Lord," said Jesus Fuentes, 41, of Chicago and East Chicago.

Fuentes pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges last year including drug trafficking, murder and ordering two other murders. The alleged founder of Dark Side Two Six Street Gang is awaiting sentencing in federal court.

"I've learned that even Moses killed a man. God still allowed him to split the Red Sea, so I know he can forgive me," said Fuentes, who is called Pod Father by the other inmates.

Soft-spoken and reticent to talk about his past, Fuentes said he is one of the original four members of the God Pod.

"At 12, I became a gang member when we moved to Chicago," he said. "I did nothing but gang-banging. I was into drugs, pot and cocaine."

He got into gangs, he said, because of a less-than-ideal home life.

"My stepfather beat me. I found love and acceptance on the streets," he said.

Fuentes said when he was arrested nearly three years ago, he wanted to change his life.

"I wanted to change from the old way to the new way. It has given me a lot of peace. He changed my life for the better. I'm thankful for this program Chaplain Birky started. He don't look at our charges. It's like God's love says, come as you are and he will make the changes," Fuentes said.

"It's all about turning our negative into a positive."

While Fuentes is facing life in prison, he said he won't change once he's transferred to a federal facility. Instead, he hopes to begin Bible study or similar classes wherever he's sentenced.

Chasing money and girls

Trevino Benton, 36, of Chicago, has been in and out of jail since he was 17.

"My addictions were chasing money and girls," said Benton, who is serving time for check fraud.

Benton, a father of five, said he believes God led him to Porter County Jail.

"I was sick of living the life I was leading. One day I asked God for help, and he led me to this program," said Benton, who has been part of the God Pod since July.

"You sit around all these people and all you do is the negative," he said about his life before the God Pod.

"I had been down the road for a long time. I had hit rock-bottom. I feel that it is God working to eventually help me re-enter life."

Benton, who loves to write, said he's working on getting his CDL and wants to minister to young people when he gets out. He pleaded guilty in February and was sentenced to two years in jail.

'They are not getting paid'

Ryan Wellman isn't sure what he'd be doing now if it weren't for the God Pod.

"I'd be hurting, that's for sure," he said.

Wellman, 30, of Kouts, spent 385 days in jail on charges of domestic battery and resisting law enforcement. He spent nine months of his time in the God Pod. He's been out of jail for six months.

"I had given my life to Christ in jail. I realized there was a lot of negative in the jail, and I applied for the God Pod," he said, adding it wasn't only the time he spent inside the God Pod, but also the support that continued once he was released, that has made a difference.

As part of the program, inmates have to participate in an after-care program, including associating with a church, having an accountability partner and meeting once or twice a week at a local restaurant for breakfast or lunch to touch base with one another and provide support.

Wellman went to a church in Kouts. He said a couple offered for him to stay in their home until he got back on his feet. Another member offered him a job in a landscaping company.

"The program works, because the state is not involved," Wellman said.

"Every volunteer is a volunteer. They are not getting paid for this. I see their hearts in this. They pour their hearts into this."

Another man at the church volunteered the use of a rental home to the program to house the men once they got out, Birky said. The only thing they needed to do was pay for the utilities. Donations have been raised to pay those utilities for two years.

Wellman will manage the house.

Ultimately, Birky said, they'd like to start a business to provide jobs for the men once they leave jail.

Building relationships

"I always had a heart for people who the church doesn't do a good job for," said Ben Polhemus, the pastor of Liberty Bible Church in Liberty Township and a volunteer instructor for the program.

Polhemus said the success of the program is built on relationships. 

"These guys have exposed us to their families, which is really important. We open up our networks to them as well. We want to integrate them into our lives and relationships. It is a model of what Jesus did," Polhemus said.

"It is the whole relationship piece. If you can't help them build relationships, they'll go back to a toxic situation."

Polhemus and fellow volunteer Terry Machowicz, pastor at Town and Country Christian Church in Winfield, said they get as much as they receive.

"It's a calling. It's the way God wires you," Machowicz said. "It is a joy investing in people's lives."

"It also changes our perspective on people. Most of us have pretty good lives," Polhemus said. "It helps us understand being poor, growing up without support."

Why does it work?

"When God gets ahold of somebody, if they allow it, their lives will change. It is a therapeutic community. It is one thing to take Bible study, it is another to live it," Birky said. "In our pod, we've had big, grown men break down in tears and take their masks off. They become different men."

Sheriff Dave Reynolds embraced the program when he took office.

"From my perspective, they are making a concerted effort to turn their lives around. This program and others offered by the jail are in an effort to give them the opportunity to make better choices," Reynolds said, calling it a pragmatic approach.

"If you don't provide programs, if you don't give them the opportunity to learn to make better decisions, to turn their lives around, they are going to get out and continually victimize society."

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.