Published in The New York Times: Sunday, September 26, 1993

THE city can shuck and devour idealists on the half shell, reducing them to sound-bite do-gooders or academic cranks while the larger life of New York roars on by obliviously, meanly. Such a fate was clearly tempted early on by Stephen J. Chinlund, with his tall, lean demeanor, tweed jacket-cum-Episcopal collar regalia and inbred air of decency.

The city was at full fester and ready for him three decades ago when, a few years into the priesthood, he took his first bus to the Rikers Island jail with do-gooding on his mind. "I'll never forget how vivid it was when we waited at a stop sign and a long line of inmates went by," he recalls. "How intelligent and sensitive many of them seemed in contrast to the stereotype I had accepted of just a mass of brutalized guys."

Such thinking remains belittled out here among the law-abiding majority, but the 29-year-old idealist had a notion then about getting inmates together in some sort of simple new prison program of mutual discussion and support -- exploiting the idle, gigantic resource of the prisoners themselves in self-revealing, self-bolstering groups. He discovered that prison rules frowned on this, dedicated as they were to separating and isolating society's miscreants.

Thirty years later, after long toil and mixed success, Mr. Chinlund's idealizing survives, even prevails in some cases, most impressively in the talkative, resolute groups of young parolees who gather four nights each week in various city neighborhoods as part of a program called Aftershock. This is a required postscript to the special Shock camp program, in which the state annually lets 3,000 first-felony offenders volunteer for six months of rough boot-camp discipline as an alternative to hard prison time.

The public may recognize the state prison system's Shock program, now considered a promising model for the rest of the nation for its cost- effective attempts at rehabilitation, by TV clips of young criminals marching rigidly to drill instructors' cadence. But the spiritual heart of it is Mr. Chinlund's "Network" idea of 30 years ago to let inmates gather in groups and develop methods for challenging one another to reverse their attitudes and opportunities in life.

"Our recovery, our life, what we're doing isn't over till the day we die," one young parolee severely cautioned his peers the other night as they gathered in an Aftershock session as highly vulnerable neophyte ex-convicts, only a few weeks back in the city. Fresh from meager-wage jobs and old-neighborhood routines, they gathered in confusion and doubt at the Calvary Church parish hall near Gramercy Park. They were intent on maintaining the detailed Network regimen of forcing open talk to reveal one another's flaws and promise as well as freedom's temptations: skipping a boring day's work, perhaps, or returning to the local drug tenderloin.

At the same time, true to the Chinlund ideal, they took turns celebrating mundane achievements. "I'm outstanding," one parolee barked from a position of military attention. "I'm out two weeks and I've made it to work every night." The gathering of 40 parolees and their proud staff of ex-convicts applauded, cheered and whistled at his achievement and congratulated dozens more who bragged of new self-control. "I'm drug free, have a positive attitude and I'm not hanging out with the wrong brothers!" another declared in Whitmanesque exultation.

Simple sounding stuff, of course, but of an order of self-esteem and self-determination that is a revelation to anyone who regularly visits prisons and is appalled at all the wasteful silence and waiting. The only real pity in the evening was the thought that the Network approach, under the garrulous, emotional direction of the inmates themselves, used to be available in half the state prisons. Budget cuts reduced it a few years ago largely to the Shock and Aftershock programs and to special parts of the city's prison system.

The best testimonial of the night came from a visiting parole officer, Doug Millar. He thanked the young parolees for finally giving him something that cheered him up after two decades of the usual, depressing recidivist cycle. In the last five years of Shock and Aftershock, 8,000 young parolees have returned to the city and close to four of five have not returned to prison, Mr. Millar noted.

"You recharge my batteries," he told the young ex-offenders, begging them to keep at the Aftershock meetings, which are run by Mr. Chinlund's Episcopal Mission Society. "It'll never be like this again," he said, stressing how "the next bit is hard time" -- real prison time, should they fail this opportunity. "There's hope in this room," Mr. Millar declared pleadingly. "There's help in this room."

He sat down and the young parolees went on with their meeting, looking for lapses in one another's return to freedom, talking, talking to one another, just the way Mr. Chinlund first idealized it.