A straight and narrow path: Jail worker, former inmate help others improve lives

For the gate is small and the way is narrow, Matthew said in his Gospel. Admonishing the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy meant to be a gentle way of helping a person correct wrong choices or behavior. That person, in turn, can then choose to make amends for what they have done and help others not to make the same mistakes they made.

Maurice Duncan talks to participants in the Youth Coalition — a program he founded to support youth and inspire them to chase their dreams — after a basketball game Sept. 3. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)
Maurice Duncan talks to participants in the Youth Coalition — a program he founded to support youth and inspire them to chase their dreams — after a basketball game Sept. 3. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

That is what Sartell resident Maurice Duncan, a self-professed career criminal and former drug dealer, is trying to do with his life.

Despite the fact that Duncan grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, he said he had the “greatest parents in the world.”

“They worked hard, they were present in my life,” he said. “I had rules — I had to be on the porch by the time the streetlights came on. But the things I saw happening in the street with the gangs became attractive. It gave me false hope.”

Duncan began dealing drugs in Chicago and later moved to Minnesota because, he said, he could make almost three times the money he was making in Chicago. But it’s also when he first met Jeff Pollreis.

Pollreis is the programs and resources coordinator for the Stearns County Jail in St. Cloud. Duncan had been in and out of jail several times when Pollreis offered him an opportunity to make a change in his life.

“Jeff always told me the truth whether it hurt my feelings or not. He valued me, he saw something in me,” Duncan recalled. “He said he knew I had the potential to be a leader. He said, ‘I don’t want to see you fail.’”

admonishPollreis, a member of St. Michael Church in St. Cloud, connected Duncan with the D.A.R.E program, which was originally founded to help students resist drugs. According to its website, the national D.A.R.E. program has expanded to “help [students] develop core skills around sound decision making. Students learn about self-esteem and personal responsibility; and how to make healthy choices when faced with issues like drugs, peer pressure and bullying.”

Area schools participate in the D.A.R.E. program. Often, when they have completed the in-school training, they bring students to the jail where they meet Pollreis, who gives them a tour of the jail. At the end of the tour, the students assemble in a classroom and are given the chance to meet an inmate and ask him or her questions.
Pollreis asked Duncan to sit in front of the kids and take their questions.

“I saw potential for change in him,” Pollreis said. “He had enough in his past that needed to be told to the kids. He made a lot of wrong choices, he wronged a lot of people. I saw that he truly was remorseful and that he had a story to tell. I also wanted him to get something out of it.”

Pollreis remembers Duncan breaking down in front of the kids. “He was crying and shaking. It really hit home for him.”

“To look those kids in the eyes, that was it for me,” Duncan said. “That was the moment I knew I was going to have to dig deep and make some changes in my life.”

Since that day, Duncan said, he has been “on the straight and narrow,” and was released four years ago.

“I am so appreciative for that chance to work with the D.A.R.E. program. If Jeff didn’t allow me to do that, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I think I’d still be trying to run around and hustle.”

Jeff Pollreis
Jeff Pollreis

Duncan says his primary job now — and the hardest — is being a father. He has nine children and 10 grandchildren. His second job — the bread-winning one — is as a quality assurance inspector at New Flyer. He also is active in the community, mentoring inmates, coaching basketball and supporting youth through a program he founded called the Youth Coalition.

“It’s strange because I didn’t change my life for my own kids, I changed for somebody else’s kids,” he said. “It was those kids in that room that kept coming back to me. It was like I was seeing the faces of the kids I was poisoning, the kids I was making bad choices for. These kids are so innocent and I remember myself being that kid. … I can’t give back all I took away but I can give back.”

The Youth Coalition is one way he is giving back. It started with him and his son playing sports. As they began to play, Duncan encouraged his son to invite his friend to join them, then more friends and then their friends’ dads, eventually forming a mentoring group for at-risk youth.

“We want to inspire kids to go out and chase their dreams, to tell them they don’t need to be someone to everybody, that they can be someone for themselves,” Duncan said.
His main advice to these youth he said is to “be respectful, help people and give back.”

“When you start doing that, people will respect you, too,” he said. “Always put your best foot forward. No matter how many good things I do, I have to make sure I don’t slip up again. You have to make that commitment to want to do right. Every decision I make today is based upon how it’s going to affect my kids. That is what keeps me on the straight and narrow.”

Duncan also keeps in touch with people who helped him along the way, like Pollreis.

“In prison, a lot of people don’t think that anyone cares about them,” Duncan said. “It’s called a correctional facility and there’s quite a few people there that truly want to help people make corrections in their lives. They got into that line of work because they want to do something to help people stop making bad choices.”

Although Pollreis says he’s just doing his job and he sleeps better at night knowing he did everything he could to make the community safer, he also knows that his faith is what keeps him going.

“If I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t be doing any of this. I’d be punching the clock twice a day and going through the motions in between,” he said.

Pollreis exemplifies the spiritual work of mercy in the way he seeks the root of the inmates’ problems and helps them find solutions so they can be successful when they leave.

“I really want to change the world that I’m involved with one piece at a time. And hopefully, I don’t see them again [in jail],” Pollreis said. “That’s how I measure success.”


What does the church teach about admonishing the sinner?

By now we have seen that practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy is not for the faint of heart. Every one of these practices requires that we move beyond our comfort zone in response to a neighbor’s bodily or spiritual need and thus to protect their human dignity. Admittedly, it’s always easier and more comfortable to do nothing at all.

By Maureen Otremba
By Maureen Otremba

Nowhere is this truer than in the injunction to admonish the sinner, which, like all of the works of mercy, has deep roots in both the Old and New Testaments (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and the Letter of James come to mind). Not only is it easier to say nothing, but to say something can result in a negative outcome. The hearer may resent our words or reject them; we can appear judgmental; we can appear to be meddling.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is the cultural imperative to “live and let live,” which, ironically, can seem to get a boost from the words of Jesus himself: “Judge not, lest you yourselves be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

The problem here is confusing “judging” with “admonishing.” The first passes a value assessment on a person’s motives and moral state; the second calls into question a person’s actions. As far back as Genesis 4:9 (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), we have been charged with tending to one another, and this includes leading each other away from sin.
But how do I undertake this delicate task without appearing “holier than thou” or risking the loss of a relationship?

Here are three basic steps. First, I must have my own life in order before I can presume to assist someone else. (In other words, I have to be open to being admonished, too!) Jesus clearly warns, “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Second, I must truly desire the good of the person whose actions I am confronting. I must pray for the person, for their conversion and well-being. My goal must be rooted in charity, not righteousness.

And, third, I must value the relationship enough to risk losing it. For rejection is a distinct possibility; the prophets are vivid examples of this truth. Though I may not suffer the fate of being thrown into a cistern like Jeremiah, my witness to the truth in love could cost me. But if I believe that the person’s spiritual health is at stake, in good conscience, I can do no less than to invite them back to the love and forgiveness of our merciful God. This is human dignity realized: a person fully alive to the glory of God.

Maureen Otremba , a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.

Author: Kristi Anderson

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