Healing inside

A woman and man embracing
Horizon Prison Initiative promotes growth and community-building among those who are incarcerated, like Silas Galdamez, right.

Marcus Freed climbs the steps to London Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison 30 miles west of Columbus. He’s carrying only his driver’s license, prison ID, and a clear bag filled with program materials. Once inside, he hands the items to a security officer who searches the bag, then waits for the OK to step through the metal detector. The officer unlocks a door to a second secure area, where Freed presents his license again, and another officer confirms his identity and unlocks a gate so Freed can make his way to the D4 dormitory and begin his volunteer work.

It’s a routine Freed has performed thousands of times volunteering for Horizon Prison Initiative, but he doesn’t think twice about the extra steps required just to get there. The retired guidance counselor spends 30 or more hours a week at the prison supporting Horizon’s program coordinator, Richard Boone; more than 30 Outside Brother volunteers; and 56 incarcerated men working to change their lives. Many people never step foot in a prison, but Freed says he feels called to be there.

“People in prison are just like you and me,” he says. “They just made a decision they have to live with for the rest of their lives.”

The idea behind Horizon is for incarcerated men and women (Horizon also has a program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville) to gain insights into how they got to prison, heal from trauma, and discover a greater purpose for their lives. At the beginning of the program year, incoming participants are assigned to an eight-person family unit and live as a family until graduation 10 months later. They take classes to develop social and emotional skills — tolerance, accountability, conflict resolution, how to rely on someone and be relied upon — and practice using those skills within their Horizon families. They learn about different faith traditions and respecting people who have different backgrounds and beliefs.

A powerful component of the program is a trauma-healing workshop, which addresses both the trauma the men have endured and trauma they have caused. Getting to the root of their pain, Freed says, helps participants open up emotionally and start to connect with others.

“When people start to heal from trauma, they look for a larger purpose,” he says. “They’re not just thinking about themselves anymore. They’re thinking about how they can help others.”

Freed shared the story of Silas Galdamez, a former drug dealer who graduated from the Horizon program. After Galdamez finished his prison sentence, he returned home to El Salvador and looked for ways to give back to the community. He began volunteering with a group that delivers donated wheelchairs to people who need them. Galdamez’s job is to adjust the wheelchairs to fit each recipient. Since 2015, Freed has traveled to Central America eight times to help Galdamez, customizing hundreds of wheelchairs and helping a local school become more accessible for students with disabilities.

Horizon Prison Initiative also had a profound effect on James Clay, who joined the program begrudgingly after a friend persuaded him to go. Eighteen months into his nine-year sentence, the former Marine wanted to put all of his energy into fighting his case — not taking classes about feelings.

The trauma-healing workshop changed his mind.

“It was a breakthrough,” Clay says. “I got a chance to go all the way back to what made me who I was. All my anger and attitude toward everyone else went out the door, and I decided to change me.”

From that point forward, Clay fully embraced Horizon, serving as an encourager and peer advisor to new participants until his release in 2017. Today, the father of seven lives in Dayton, where he works full time, takes evening classes at Sinclair College, and spends time with his family. Despite his busy schedule, Clay takes every opportunity to speak to groups around the state about his prison experience. He wants to build a career as a professional speaker so he can advocate for programs like Horizon and share his story to inspire others.

“I am looking to motivate people so they understand that no matter what they’re going through, they can overcome it,” Clay says. “Look at me. I was at the bottom of the social ladder, but I no longer allow labels to tell me who I am.”

Horizon Prison Initiative is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Columbus. With seven full- and part-time staff and around 30 volunteers, the nonprofit works with 56 men at London Correctional Institution and 80 women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. For more information, visit their website.