SPARTA, Ga.––Prisons are not inviting places. At their worst, they are a place of sorrow. At their best, prisons are a place to wait out the dull, slow passage of time. Prisons are not naturally a place of hope. Hancock State Prison, a concrete outpost in the sparsely-populated, wooded expanse of east-central Georgia, is no different. There is no artistry in the prison’s architecture, only bland walls interrupted by few windows or other signs of the paused lives on the inside. Dirt tracks and endless barbed wire topping miles and miles of perimeter fence surround everything. Every 30 seconds a patrol car completes another loop around the perimeter. Acres of ground are cleared outside the fence, leaving only dirt, patches of grass and no place to hide.
Standing just outside the heavy security gate, as the sun shines uselessly down on the prison, Peggy Lieurance waits, happy and beaming. She is small and silver-haired, and for seven years she has passed through this checkpoint so she can teach inmates how to live, and stay living, on the outside. But more importantly, she says, she shows these young adults imprisoned as teens how to be good men.
“There’s so many areas of their lives that have never developed that they are still kids when they get out,” she said.
But for the inmates she counsels – “her guys,” she calls them – Lieurance is a rare ray of light in a very dark world.
After retiring from teaching in the late 1990s, Lieurance moved south from New Jersey, drawn by the preaching of the Rev. Creflo Dollar, a black megachurch pastor and televangelist who is based near Atlanta. Dollar’s church, World Changers, teaches that believers should “apply the Word of God with simplicity and understanding so that it may be applied to our everyday lives in a practical and effective manner,” according to its website. Believers who do so are then “transformed into World Changers—changing our immediate world and all those with whom we come in contact.”
Lieurance arrived in the South, she says, just as Atlanta was demolishing its housing projects. For two years, she performed street ministry, adapting to the differences between the white, middle-class, northeastern suburbs where she had spent most of her life, and the poverty-stricken projects of a Southern city still deeply entangled in race issues. It was a shock.
“Color issues are much more pronounced down here,” she said, seemingly still reeling years later.
For six years, beginning in 1999, Lieurance worked in Georgia’s juvenile detention centers. She soon began an outreach program called Heads Up (Hosting Effective Discipline Strategies Under Pressure) in the prisons when kids sentenced under SB 440 were first being transferred to adult prisons. In 2005, she moved the program into adult prisons, focusing on the SB 440 population. According to Lieurance, her clients — her guys — are overwhelmingly African-American, somewhere between 90 and 95 percent. And, she says, they need help desperately.
Working directly with the inmates on the inside, Lieurance picks up where the prison system’s education leaves off, teaching basic life skills such as balancing a checkbook or getting a driver’s license.
“We don’t have things on the outside to help them,” she said.
Lieurance says it was her faith that first led her into the prisons, although she is quick to point out that her work is not faith-based.
“I think God put me in there in a time when they [the inmates] were so incredibly needy,” she said. “There was nobody doing anything.”
With the sincere caring and affection of a grammar school teacher and the no-nonsense attitude she imported from her native New Jersey, Lieurance’s presence is exponentially larger than her physical size should allow. The young men she counsels treat her as a surrogate mother, and like so many kids, they are more afraid of disappointing her than of angering her.
But her guys need more help than she can give on the inside, according to Lieurance, who finances the project mostly out of pocket.
“I have a great sadness that I do not have a network that’s big enough to pick them up when they get out,” she said. “They are still so broken. And if they don’t have the support on the outside . . .” she adds, her voice trailing off, leaving the thought unfinished.
A serious defect of the current prison system, Lieurance says, is its lack of educational opportunities, leaving a vacuum in the inmates’ lives too easily filled by what’s around them in prison.
“They’re going to learn something,” she said. “We’ve got human needs and they are going to take the negative because that’s all that’s offered to them.”
For the SB440 kids, adult prisons in Georgia are required to provide the equivalent of a high school education beginning when they transfer from the juvenile system at 17. But the prison must only provide it until the inmate turns 18. After that they must wait until they are close to their release for classes that teach valuable job skills.
“That’s why Heads Up is really the only program that is starting with these kids,” Lieurance said. “Because they have long sentences, they aren’t eligible for anything else. They [prison officials] are saving the spots for someone else who is about to get out.”
Lieurance tailors the curriculum to teach skills that will be most useful for her students when they are released. She wants to “help them understand who they are and help them get some appropriate thinking for success on the outside. The key is not to bring in a whole bunch of people from the outside, but to use those that have come through.”
To do this, Lieurance is recruiting former students – inside and outside of prison – to take on teaching and leadership roles in Heads Up. And with more teachers, Lieurance says she can offer more classes.
For the moment, she is seeking outside funding. She’s a one-woman show, working out of her small, white car on a bare bones budget, but the program still needs money. There will always be those on the inside who need her help. Plenty of SB 440 kids are still growing up in prison and someone needs to teach them how to become men.