August 22, 2014

Elyria
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Ex-con leads prison prayer

GRAFTON — A quiet fell over the prison folding tables Wednesday as every head bowed in prayer.

“What we go through tonight will be very personal,” said Michael Andrew Swiger, 39, a reformed convict. “The person sitting next to you is likely someone who wants your forgiveness, or who you want forgiveness from.”

STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE
Michael Swiger speaks to inmates at Grafton Correctional Institution.

With Bibles open, family members huddled in clusters of two or three around the 17 inmates preparing emotionally and spiritually to one day leave the prison and return to normal life.

Swiger led the group — pacing at the front of the room and quoting scriptures about forgiveness. And if there’s anyone who understands how important that is, it’s Swiger.

When he was 19, he watched his brother beat a friend to death to cover up a series of frat house robberies.

Swiger lied to police — saying he was nowhere near the scene of the murder. His brother, though, told prosecutors the real story, and that led to Swiger’s 1989 conviction on involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to serve 13 to 50 years behind bars.

In prison, Swiger converted to Christianity. And, after his release in 2006, he decided to share his story with other convicts.

Now he is one of four mentors helping Chaplain Don Mosley, 52, prepare inmates and their families to return to the world outside the Grafton Correctional Institution.

Ten months ago, Mosley started the faith-based program to help them deal with the baggage that comes with the release of a spouse, father, mother, brother or sister. Ex-convicts struggle to find jobs, find housing, control anger, communicate with others, and regain self-esteem, he said.

“My thought is that a family that worships together, prays together and grows together has a better chance of being stable,” Mosley said.

Today, he’s found local clergy and parishioners from a dozen churches to counsel prisoners and study the Bible with them.

“I’ve learned to believe in the families that come here,” he said. “To me, it gives a sense of hope.”

So far, four inmates involved in the voluntary program have been set free. Meanwhile, Justin Johnson, 38, is getting ready to finish his sentence for felonious assault and robbery.

“I sold drugs and ran around with other women. But this has helped me realize my family is the most important thing in my life,” he said Wednesday.

“I’ve learned how to talk to others and not hold things in. I’ve finally figured out how to take off my mask,” he said.

Contact Jason Hawk at 653-6264 or jhawk@chroniclet.com.