JIS News

In the midst of a society, which is generally uncongenial to persons, who have been on the wrong side of the law, Cornerstone Ministries is one non-government organisation that has assumed the gargantuan task of helping to reform those behind bars and to reintegrate ex-inmates and deportees into society, Established nearly 20 years ago by Douglas and Lorna Kessner, the non-profit vocational organisation, through its evangelical operation dubbed ‘Overcomers’ and its Deportee and Ex-Inmate Reintegration Programmes, empowers offenders to be of value to the society, against which they have committed offences.
The institution takes both rehabilitative and preventative approaches to the gruelling crime situation that affects Jamaica. Working closely with the island’s major prisons, Cornerstone takes its message of hope to prisoners, offering them counselling and training, and providing an outlet for their various talents.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) endorses these activities, as they are in keeping with the tenets of restorative justice. The concept, which is being interwoven into Jamaica’s Criminal Justice System, is primarily geared toward making restitution to all parties affected by crime – the victim, the community, and even the offender.
Speaking with JIS News, Permanent Secretary in the MOJ, Carol Palmer states, “If we are going to be honest with ourselves, then the offender is also a victim.” She explains that, “invariably, persons do things as a result of something that has happened, whether they just ‘flipped’ in a particular instance or something has made them turn out to be what they are.”
Continuing, Mrs. Palmer notes that “history has shown in all our systems of justice that just parking somebody in an institution doesn’t make any improvement to their situation,” unless the context is rehabilitative.
Facilitating this rehabilitative context is a large part of the mission of Cornerstone Ministries. “We started out by offering apprenticeship programmes in the construction industry,” Managing Director, Randy Finnikin, informs JIS News.
The organization’s initial efforts were so successful that in 1993, Cornerstone “was invited to replicate its training concept into the correctional services,” Mr. Finnikin discloses.
“Since then, we have been working closely with the Department of Corrections to provide rehabilitative interventions, mainly skills training programmes, counselling programmes, half-way houses, ex-offender reintegration programmes, and so on,” he explains.
Using facilities at their main training location on 21A Connolley Avenue in Kingston, Spring Village, prison farms and construction sites, Cornerstone delivers training, mainly in the areas of “construction skills, cabinet making, joinery, welding, concrete block making, agriculture, broiler chicken rearing and production, and information and communication technology, ” Mr. Finnikin says. The HEART/NTA provides accreditation for Cornerstone’s training programmes.
The institution also engages in community outreach programmes, infiltrating schools, clubs and other groups upon invitation.
With most of its employees being ex-offenders, Cornerstone Ministries practices what it preaches. “We’ve got a story to tell, we’ve been there, we’ve experienced some of what we are now trying to repair,” explains Mr. Finnikin.
Co-ordinator of Cornerstone’s Deportee Re-integration Programme, Evangelist Evelyn Mason, who is now an integral part of the ministry’s workforce, was repeatedly sentenced and deported before undergoing a spiritual transformation.
“I’ve been deported three times – twice from the United States and once from England,” she tells JIS News. Continuing, she reveals, “I was deported because of criminal activities. I was a drug dealer.”
Now a Minister of the Gospel, Evangelist Mason, who also serves as the Assistant Co-ordinator of the Overcomers, attributes her recovery from a ruinous path to the interposition of God’s mercy. Unashamed to tell her story to anyone whom it will help, she testifies, “God changed my life, I didn’t want to change, but Jesus Christ came into my life.”
Her last prison sentence was a wake up call for her. “When I was in prison,” Evangelist Mason recounted, “I had to live with crack addicts and prostitutes, and when they told me what they had to do to get money to buy crack, it really touched me that I was one of the people, who was responsible for these people doing those acts, so I made up my mind not to ever be in drugs again.”
Her turnaround is partly owing to volunteers, who preached in the prison where she was serving a five and a half-year sentence. It was a group similar to Cornerstone Ministries that helped to facilitate her surrender to the Lord.
Realizing that “being a deportee has a stigma attached to it” with an attendant suffering, Evangelist Mason is now committed to giving service of the kind that helped her to overcome her recidivistic nature, targeting an average of more than 3,000 persons, who are deported to the island annually.
Evangelist Mason notes that, “when they deport you, they deport you with nothing. You lose your children, you lose your home, you lose your car, you lose your clothes.” After going through the demoralizing experience of deportation, “you’re bitter, you’re angry and you’re very revengeful,” she tells JIS News.
Deportees therefore need “some nice friends, family, the body of Christ to meet them, to greet them – you need a friend, you need some love..” she emphasises. She adds that they also need counselling, training, employment and sometimes housing to re-assimilate them in a society with which many have become out of touch.
Failing these provisions, Evangelist Mason points out that deportees are likely to revert to illegal activities and become a continued threat to the safety and security of the society.
In terms of providing this arm of restoration, Evangelist Mason says, “I see the deportee ministries going a far way.”
Similarly, the more established Ex-Inmate Reintegration Programme helps persons, who are just released from prison, to find a productive niche in society.
Co-ordinator, Dexter DeCordova, who is also a beneficiary of the programme he now co-ordinates, relates that Cornerstone achieves this by providing a positive alternative to the whirlpool of crime that exists in the communities to which ex-inmates return.
Mr. DeCordova, who has served time at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (GP), says that whenever he returns to prisons as a member of the Overcomers, he sees familiar faces of persons serving repeated sentences. “They say to me ‘Dexter, I don’t have any friends other than the type of men you see me moving with. When I leave GP, the only person (who) receive or accept me is criminals like myself and if me did have somebody like you guys to come alongside, I think I would be doing what you doing.'”
Reflecting, he adds that “Cornerstone brings hope in hopelessness and when I say hope in hopelessness, I speak for all of the other inmates that are a part of Cornerstone’s programme”.
By creating ways for ex-offenders to give back to society and rehabilitate them from a life of crime, Cornerstone Ministries is demonstrating the spirit of restorative justice.
Says Mr. Finnikin, “essentially, that’s what restorative justice is about -offering a second opportunity to persons who may have offended, recognizing that in fact there are persons, who have made mistakes and if they could redo, they would have made a different choice, and we are just trying to help those persons make that choice”
Although Cornerstone caters to only one aspect of restorative justice, Mr. Finnikin notes that “[Cornerstone’s] interventions in communities that we term as preventative, and our interventions in the correctional services that we term as rehabilitative, do bring a welcome input into the restorative justice framework”.
Dedicated to the task he sees as a spiritual mandate, Mr. Finnikin indicates that the organisation is “about to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Corrections”. This, he says “will see us putting in place the necessities to establish and implement programmes in all of the correctional centres across the country”.

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