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Holy redeemer
After three decades in law enforcement, Jerry Hancock turns his focus to prison ministry
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Hancock: 'What is needed is a more expansive concept of justice.'
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Much of what the Rev. Jerry Hancock has to say about the criminal justice system sounds reasonable coming from a clergyman who heads a Madison-based prison ministry program. But when you consider that he's spent more than 30 years as a lawyer in this system, many of them as a prosecutor, his perspective is positively stunning.

"It's true," says Hancock,61. "I made my bed in thejustice system, and it was a very nice one. Now I get to question it. I see the world differently now. For me, the current system will never be just."

Since 2006, Hancock has run the Prison Ministry Project, through Madison's First Congregational Church. Its mission is to serve prisoners and their families, engage the wider church in prison issues and advocate for prison reform. Hancock and the project's 60 volunteers do three things: facilitate Christian worship through church services; do one-on-one pastoral counseling with inmates; and run nonreligious programs, particularly in restorative justice.

In the nearly three years since the project was established, its members have made more than 600 visits to prisons and jails.

"I try to speak truth to power," says Hancock. "You can't go inside the walls and see and hear what we do and remain silent." He writes articles, cooperates with other organizations and pushes prison-reform issues.

Hancock's most famous client is Eric Hainstock, who was 15 years old when he shot and killed Cazenovia's Weston High School principal, John Klang, on Sept. 29, 2006. Hancock was asked by the Public Defender's Office to counsel Hainstock. "I told them I'd be happy to do so - but they wouldn't hear anything about it."

This relationship, which began when Hainstock was in the Sauk County jail, is the same as the ones he has with about 15 other inmates he sees at least once a month. They can talk to him in complete confidence.

Hainstock, now 17, is incarcerated at Green Bay Correctional Institution, serving a life sentence. His first parole eligibility will be in 2037, when he'll turn 46.

"We talk about God and stuff like that," Hainstock told Isthmus in an interview from Green Bay prison last June (see "Eric Hainstock: Free At Last," 8/1/08). "He's really helped me with a lot of stuff. He's helped me to look at who I am, that I'm not a terrible person. I just made mistakes."

Hainstock says Hancock "urges me to forgive people," and it's worked. He says he's forgiven the kids who used to pick on him at school ("I know they're young"); now he's working on forgiving some of the adults in his life.

Shouldn't Hancock be more concerned about crime victims than perpetrators? Hancock, who's written to Klang's family, has no qualms about assisting Hainstock. "We need to recognize all the suffering in this case, not just part of it," he says. "That's how I understand this ministry."

The possibility of change

Wisconsin, laments Hancock, is notably unwilling to seriously consider alternatives to prison, instead "using the language of fear." Every politician and judge talks about being tough on crime; local officials are busily adding police officers to "make the streets safe"; school boards make it sound like classrooms have become war zones.

Hancock is especially incensed about Truth in Sentencing, one of Wisconsin's tough-on-crime measures, enacted in 1998. He describes it as "evil," for embracing a concept of punishment that denies the possibility of personal transformation.

"It says you'll never change, so there should be no good time, no parole," he says. "The single biggest change I'd like to see in the legal system is a recognition of the possibility of transformation."

Hancock offers this perspective deliberately, based on his own experience of seeing inmates change in significant ways. He calls on society to "be smart and dedicated enough to figure how we can recognize that change." He adds that, in this time of fiscal crisis, this could also save the state significant sums.

Wisconsin incarcerates three times more people than Minnesota - at an average of $33,000 per inmate per year - and keeps them locked up for longer periods.

In Minnesota, each county pays for the upkeep of its inmates, which creates an incentive to provide alternatives to incarceration, like drug and alcohol treatment. In Wisconsin, the state pays, and the focus here has been on building new prisons. And because so much is spent on incarceration, little is left for treatment, meaning that many offenders will be recidivists.

Isthmus made numerous calls to state Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), as well as calls to Reps. Steve Gunderson (R-Waterford) and Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) and Sens. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Alan Lasee (R-De Pere), all supporters of Truth in Sentencing, requesting a response to Hancock's views. None of these calls were returned.

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, a Democrat, says the state's Truth in Sentencing law was well-intentioned, since in the old system the time people actually spent in prison was much less than the sentence they received. That was unfair to victims.

But Blanchard believes doing away with parole, as this law did, was a mistake. Judges must now predict how a person will be years down the road, based on current information. Change is possible and does happen, says Blanchard, so we need a good, strong parole system that acknowledges victims and also the possibility of change.

"I really support what Hancock does," says Blanchard. "It's wonderful work."

Process vs. justice

Jerry Hancock became a lawyer in 1972, but his experience with offenders goes back even farther. As a law student at the UW-Madison, he interviewed inmates in jail.

After law school, he worked as a public defender. Then he became one of Jim Doyle's two deputies from 1976 to 1982, when the latter was Dane County district attorney. When Doyle was elected attorney general, in 1990, Hancock worked for him again, as head of the state's crime lab and office of consumer protection. He finished his state career with five years at the Justice Department, doing environmental protection.

Toward the end of his state service, Hancock began to feel that God was calling him in a different direction. At the same time, he became increasingly unhappy in the justice system. He felt it is preoccupied with following rules, and values process over justice.

To illustrate his point, Hancock offers a scenario: a young black man from Allied Drive and a young white man from the UW's dorms are convicted of the same drug offense. Both get probation with certain conditions: get treatment, move out of the area, stay in school. The white man has health insurance through his parents and is able to receive counseling. His parents move him out of the dorms, he stays in school and finishes his probation.

The black man left school in the ninth grade, lives with his grandmother and has no access to treatment other than through the county, which has a six-month waiting list. Without the support net that keeps the white man out of trouble, this black man is very likely to return to jail.

Studies by UW-Madison sociology professor Pam Oliver have shown that, in recent years, young black men in Dane County have been between 50 and 208 times more likely than white men to be locked up for drug offenses. Hancock says it shows how a fair process - both men in the above scenario were given the same penalty and offered the same way out - can produce unjust results.

"What is needed is a more expansive concept of justice that recognizes the inequities in the larger society and acceptance of the responsibility to address those inequities," he says.

"I know the people in this justice system aren't racist," he contends, "but as Sister Helen Prejean has said repeatedly, this system will let an innocent man be executed as long as the process was fair. A fair process and trial are not enough - but they are what the legal system can produce, at its best."

Dead Man Walking, Prejean's book about her work with death row inmates, had a profound effect on Hancock. "I realized that if I was going to do ministry to people in prison, I also had to be present to the victims of crime," he says. "Our ministry occurs in the common suffering of victims and offenders."

Hancock has regrets from his time in the legal system. As a public defender, he settled for outcomes he now abhors. As a prosecutor, he was at times so intent on prosecuting that he ignored "all the suffering that was before me - of the victims and their families, the families of the perpetrators. Those memories are still fresh and inform what I do now. What I've come to see most clearly is the suffering: victims, defendants, the whole community."

In his 50s, when he was still a state worker, Hancock enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary. Five years later, in early 2006, he launched the prison ministry at First Congregational. He says his wife, artist Linda Hancock, and two adult children were "surprised but supportive" of his change of heart and direction.

Bob Selk, now retired from many years in the state's legal system, is an old friend and colleague. He says Hancock was always interested in doing more than just keep things running. When be oversaw police training as a division head in the Department of Justice, Hancock pushed community policing when that concept was still young.

Selk, whose office was across the hall from Hancock's, was surprised by his colleague's change in focus. "It doesn't happen often that a lawyer makes a transition like that," he says. "But once he decided, I saw him going through the process. I think he's very happy doing it."

Recognizing the suffering

Hancock's study at First Congregational is comfortable and lined with books. A cartoon on the wall says: "Our extended global forecast includes global warming and the catastrophic end of the human race. But for the weekend, it's looking like sunny skies, mild temperatures and a general apathy toward environmental concerns."

It's hard to imagine Hancock arguing passionately before a judge. He seems more thoughtful than forceful. His statements are often preceded by long, silent pauses. He returns to points to correct himself and restate his case. His expressive hands begin moving before he speaks; then his face changes into a sometimes painful, sometimes questioning or puzzled look.

A big part of Hancock's prison ministry concerns restorative justice, which brings perpetrators in contact with crime victims. Hancock says the goal is "to put things right for crime victims by recognizing that you need to involve the community and the offender. Through restorative justice, I can do things that I never could do as a lawyer - recognize the suffering the justice system ignores."

For offenders, it's a way for them to understand the "ripples of harm that their crime caused to the victim, the victim's family, their own family, and the community. Once that happens, they begin to repair that damage."

The offenders must look at their lives and motives and acknowledge their own losses. "For me," says Hancock, "it offers a sense of hope even inside a maximum security prison because it shows inmates that they can live a life of integrity within their own community and, hopefully, outside the walls."

William Payne, an inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution, is a graduate of Hancock's restorative justice program. He's serving a 45-year prison sentence after being convicted in 1997 of felony murder, party to a crime, in connection with a robbery.

In a letter from prison, Payne praises the program as the best thing that's ever happened to him. Hancock "showed me a new way to live my life...changed me for the better. He made you come face to face with your problems. You can not bullshit him."

Payne, whose spelling mistakes are corrected here, goes on to say "some of us been hurt when we was little but was scared to tell someone or felt like it was something we'd done." But through participation in the program, "some of the bad guys, like myself, break down and cry...the things Hancock was teaching us will stay with us forever.

"To us, Hancock is a hero. He showed me how to give back, talk to people that could be going down the same road I did and help them not to."

Gina Golding, who is not a member of Hancock's church, volunteers with the program. She facilitates relaxation, meditation and spiritual discipline classes in prisons. These are talking groups in which men are asked difficult questions: "How do you react when someone tries to force their opinion on you?" "Who's your God and how have you come to know that God?" "Who was your mentor?"

The purpose is to have the men reflect, be listened to and connect. Golding says they may find spirituality and community in a place that is "very macho" and doesn't generally offer such opportunities. There is no debating or arguing.

"This work," says Golding, "shows me the need to work with at-risk children. These men are so talented and bright, and their talents are wasted because there was no early intervention. These are human beings whose many needs were never met. They've done criminal things, and they also had crazy lives that we couldn't fathom."

Besides, Golding believes working with these men does society good. Most will eventually come out and may again endanger the public unless they "straighten out their ideas and begin to understand things about themselves." Program participants often show deep remorse and aspire to work with young people, to keep them out of trouble.

Golding calls Hancock "a pretty magnificent guy, to give up being an attorney and come into the walls. He is a truly compassionate man. It's a big gift to those inside, for him to come and be with them in an authentic way. The men like and respect him, and he likes and respects them."

Love and be just

Hancock acknowledges that some Christians use the Bible to justify many of the vindictive policies he works against.

"As a Christian, I find it difficult to understand people who want to use the Bible to advance a public policy to put barriers around the commandment to love thy neighbor," he says. The Bible is full of cruel passages and laws, he allows, but it also calls on people to love and be just.

"For me," he says, "in the Bible every conflict, law and rule is overridden by what Jesus called the Great Commandment - to love thy neighbor as thyself, even if that neighbor is in a Supermax prison. This commandment supersedes all others."

Hancock sees prison as a tragedy for every inmate, although each deals with it in different ways: Some are devastated, some irrevocably altered, some barely survive, and some come out stronger. "I've seen every single one of these reactions in prison," he says. "The difference is that the tragedy of prison is entirely a human construct, so we have more control of the outcome."

You, too, can go to prison

The Prison Ministry Project, of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, is directed by the Rev. Jerry Hancock. The church, at 1609 University Ave., is affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Madison.

The project uses volunteers to run a series of prison ministry programs. To learn more, call Hancock at 608-658-6630 or email him at

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