Darrel Wiltrout of Trail Christian Fellowship volunteers at the Jackson County jail providing sermons and counseling to inmates. pennell photo - Bob Pennell

'Instead of seeing it as serving time, allow time to serve you'

When Darrel Wiltrout meets with jail inmates, he encourages them to view their arrest as a rescue of sorts — from harm to themselves and others.

"Instead of seeing it as serving time, allow time to serve you," he says.

As chaplain at the Jackson County Jail, Wiltrout's goal is to help inmates break cycles of criminal behavior, abuse, dependency on alcohol and drugs.

In addition to counseling individuals, the 64-year-old ordained elder at Trail Christian Fellowship holds weekly chapel services.

Wiltrout says there are 83 approved clergy members representing 50 religious traditions volunteering in the Jackson County criminal justice system. About 20 volunteers visit the jail and work release center on an average week.

In addition to ensuring the jail library has an adequate supply of Bibles, Wiltrout brings Islamic and Jewish texts for those who request them. Wiltrout says spiritual care is provided only if the inmate asks for it.

"We don't beat them over the head with a Bible," he says.

His cell block congregation offers unique challenges.

Substance abuse and criminal activity go hand-in-hand, and 80 percent of the people in the county's jail are there on drug and alcohol charges, Wiltrout says.

The way he sees it, drugs demoralize and dehumanize a person. Many of the inmates have a long history of bad behavior and have lost all of their family support.

"I try to restore human dignity," he says.

Some inmates who come to him have no prior experience with religion. Wiltrout generally asks inmates who seek his counsel to surrender their lives to God.

"There's such a thing as jailhouse conversions," he says. "People begin to realize what they're doing isn't working."

But as to whether the commitment sticks, he can't say.

"Only time tells," he says. One inmate, soon to be released, claims his life has changed through Wiltrout's efforts.

"The proof is in the pudding," Wiltrout says.

The chaplain says he can often tell the straight-shooters from those making phony promises.

"These people here are sharp, they know how to work the system," he says. "I don't like to be manipulated. My time is valuable. Some are just manipulative. They got here by manipulating."

Discerning who has genuine spiritual aspirations from those who are just looking for a break is not the hardest part of being a jail chaplain, he says.

"The most challenging situations are those who are despair of life," he says, explaining that some he counsels can't find a reason to live any longer. "This is not a very uplifting place to be."

Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Penland credits Wiltrout and his efforts with shifting the mood of the jail.

"I think he's done very good things here," Penland says. Sometimes when jail staff have to deliver bad news to an inmate, it's nice to have Wiltrout, a compassionate outsider, break the news, says Penland.

"He's a very valuable asset," he says.

Share This Story