Features

Faith behind bars

Written by James Combs

Chaplain Jim Cornell provides hope for the hopeless.

An iron door slams as Jim Cornell walks down a hallway. He sees a listless young man trading street clothes for an orange jumpsuit and flip-flops that identify the man’s new status: inmate. 

With any luck, Jim will help him find faith—and hope—through spiritual nourishing. 

Jim is employed by Good News Jail and Prison Ministry and serves as chaplain of the Lake County Jail in downtown Tavares. Each day, he deals with men and women whose lives have been marred by violence, addiction, and crime. Steel bunk beds lining concrete-block walls and the clinks of ankle chains are reminders of their grim situation.

To many, these men and women are nothing more than lost souls; criminals destined to a lifetime of incarceration.  

But not to Jim. In his eyes, even the most heinous of violent offenders are loved by God and worthy of his attention. 

“All inmates, no matter what they’re in for, are still valuable to God,” says Jim, a Fruitland Park resident who has been chaplain since 2011. “Nobody is beyond having God working in their lives. My goal is to help inmates grow spiritually and change their lives for the better.”

To accomplish that, Jim and a team of 48 volunteers provide worship services, bible studies, and faith-based mentoring to inmates. In addition, they also organize faith-based classes focusing on issues such as addiction, anger management, and parenting skills.  

Some may see his efforts as futile, and there’s no denying that in many cases, turning to God while incarcerated is superficial and temporary. In fact, 76.6 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years, according to studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

“Unfortunately, more people leave and fail than leave and continue in their spiritual growth,” Jim says. 

However, the ones who become productive and caring citizens of their communities make sharing the gospel, spreading hope, and teaching life-changing classes worthwhile. 

“I had one female inmate tell me that she never felt so clean in her life because the Holy Spirit is living inside her,” Jim says.
“I also had a death-row inmate tell me that life has changed in such a way that he wasn’t the guy he used to be. Hearing statements like those keeps my fire going.”

Jim graduated from seminary in 1979 and has served in various capacities at several Central Florida churches, including First Baptist Church of Clermont and First Baptist Church of Leesburg. When former Lake County Jail chaplain Pete Bandstra decided to retire in 2011, he asked Jim to consider replacing him. 

Jim has no regrets about accepting the position. 

“The reason I continue is because some inmates nurture their spiritual growth and discover a new, positive life path outside of jail,” he says. “Some inmates get it, and that’s exciting for me to see.”

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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