Ex-NJ Gov. McGreevey finds niche mentoring inmates

For anyone curious about what Jim McGreevey is up to seven years after coming out of the closet to become the first openly gay governor and resigning over an affair with a male staffer, his simple answer is this: "Having lunch at Hudson County Correctional Center."

But the story of McGreevey's nationally televised fall from grace on Aug. 12, 2004, and subsequent search for a more authentic life is much more nuanced than that. His journey finds him, on weekdays anyway, inside one of New Jersey's largest jails.

McGreevey, 54, is the spiritual counselor to 40 female inmates who have been locked up for crimes ranging from manslaughter and gun possession to drug dealing. Almost all have addiction problems and pasts stained with sexual violence.

The women McGreevey counsels — he affectionately refers to them as "my ladies" — are enrolled in a pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism by addressing the problems that keep them coming back to jail: drug dependence, difficulty finding jobs, lack of decent housing, absence of psychological counseling.

"Prison ministry is something that spoke very deeply to me — allowing women and men to reclaim their lives, to go beyond our personal circumstances," says McGreevey, who was introduced to jailhouse mentoring after enrolling in an Episcopal seminary in 2007. Following the 12-step treatment model made famous by Alcoholic Anonymous, he encourages the women to find and embrace a higher power.

The once high-strung former governor bounces through the jail with ease, a knapsack flung over his right shoulder. On the sixth floor, he greets every woman in the program by name.

He reads from an Anglican prayer book during group counseling sessions but just as often is called upon to address an inmate's more earthly and immediate needs: Could he place a call to an inmate's lawyer? Help arrange for her kids to visit? Give her money for cigarettes? (Jail rules prohibit him from honoring that last request.)

Warden Oscar Aviles says the program is the only one of its kind in a county jail in New Jersey, where scarce rehabilitation dollars are seldom directed because inmates typically move through quickly, either because they're awaiting trial or transfer to prison.

David Kerr, founder and president of Integrity House, the nationally recognized substance abuse treatment provider that helps run the jail program, credits McGreevey with a lot of the program's early success.

"We've always been working with inmates in prisons, but not so much in jails. This is pretty unique, and Jim pretty much is the creator of the idea," Kerr says.

"Jim started the spiritual groups with the ladies," he added. "They were so thrilled and so positive we started to look at how to help these women who are so motivated once they leave here."

In the seven months since the program started, McGreevey and his Integrity House colleagues — trauma counselor Martine Kieffer and substance abuse counselor and Yury Tarnavskyj — have come to know the women's tragic life stories. McGreevey says he's enraged by the violence they've suffered, empathetic to their victims, and humbled by their resilience.

"Every day is an incredible blessing," McGreevey says. "I learn so much more from these women than I can give them — their honesty, courage and strength. It's a very different place than politics."

He still hopes to become an ordained priest one day, but that ambition has been delayed by the church because of his public resignation and bitter divorce.

It's been suggested that the public humiliation of his abrupt resignation helped him earn "street cred" among the inmates, but Sen. Ray Lesniak, his best friend in the Legislature, says it's more about the cachet he carries as former leader of the state.

"It's more, 'This guy was governor and he's here to help me,'" Lesniak says. "He has really devoted his heart and soul to prison reform."

The women seem to respond to McGreevey's brand of sincerity and charm.

One who McGreevey says shows particular promise, a 22-year-old gang member named Ashley, joked around with the former governor during a recent visit, saying, "He's always pushing me." She fanned the pages of a notebook filled with journal entries and said: "See, Jim, I'm not just sitting here doing nothing."

Ashley didn't want her last name to be used because of her circumstances as an inmate awaiting transfer to prison.

McGreevey has to be reminded that the seventh anniversary of his resignation is approaching — but once he's reminded notes that a lot of what he says to the women also applies to himself.

"The thing I always say to them is 'suffering is endemic to life. It's how we respond — do we respond in a healthy way or do we become self-destructive?"

For McGreevey, it's as if life really began after he came out.

He and his wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, had a long, exceedingly bitter and very public divorce and custody battle; both tried to sway public opinion by writing personal memoirs and appearing on television shows.

McGreevey now lives with his partner, Mark O'Donnell, a financial adviser, and their four dogs. He shares custody of daughter Jacqueline, 9, and sees daughter Morag, 18, who lives in Canada, as often as possible.

"I call it a fall into grace," McGreevey says of his journey. "There's no place I'd rather be in my life."