Two Ohio University alumni and close friends—Marc Houk and Mike Swiger—talked about their careers in the criminal justice system to students in Dr. Nicole Kaufman’s Criminology and Criminal Justice classes in April.
Over the past 27 years, Houk has worked in the area of criminal justice, specifically in the corrections sector, holding a wide range of positions across the state of Ohio including sergeant, lieutenant, administrative assistant, and warden. He is currently a member of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Parole Board.
Swiger is the Executive Director at True Freedom Ministries, which has the largest prison ministry in the state of Ohio, with more than 15,000 inmates attending services. It has other ministries as well, such as the homeless ministry, nursing home ministry, and addiction & counseling ministry. True Freedom Ministries has 35 state-run facilities accessible to adults and juveniles. His wife, Sue Swiger, also attended the April 16 class visit.
These two men are not just any set of normal friends. They are a unique pairing because of the capacity in which they met within the criminal justice system. Swiger was an inmate at one of the prisons where Houk worked.
One Who Worked in the Correctional Facility
Houk grew up in Athens. His father is a retired professor of Chemistry at Ohio University. He started his college career at Ohio University after high school but decided to take a step away from school and enter the workforce. As one could imagine, Houk said the toughest day of his life was when he had to approach his father and tell him he didn’t want to finish school. His father replied simply, “What’s your plan?”
Houk was always interested in law enforcement, and his first plan was to become a patrolman with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Soon he found out there would be an 18-month wait before being able to take the Ohio State Highway Patrol entrance exams, so he went on to plan two. He had a friend who had an internship with Hocking Correctional Institution, so he decided to go to Hocking, talk to staff, and gain some insight from them. He decided it would be a good place for him while he waited to become a state patrolman. He was hired as a correctional officer at Pickaway Correctional Institution in 1987.
“Someone must have seen something in me,” he says, because he was promoted 18 months into his career at Pickaway Correctional and was transferred to Grafton Correctional to be a sergeant. Two years later, he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Lorain Correctional Facility.
In June of 1990 at the Lorain facility, Houk met Swiger, a man who would become the only one of Houk’s clients who would become a very good friend much later in life.
The One Who Went to Prison
Swiger’s “odyssey” into the criminal justice system started when he was a sophomore at Case Western in Cleveland. His brother, as an undergraduate student, burglarized several fraternity houses and local houses around the neighborhood with a friend, Butch Pratt; neither was caught.
Two years later, Swiger’s brother was a student in law school, and Pratt got arrested for a newer crime. To get minimize his charges, Pratt told them he knew about a string of robberies that had occurred in the area and was going to testify against Swiger’s brother. A meet arranged between Swiger’s brother, Pratt and their girlfriends, so the brother flew in from school. Swiger picked up his brother at the airport and dropped him off where he was meeting Pratt and the girls. When he returned to pick up his brother, he arrived to see his brother beating his friend to death.
Swiger ran out of the car, got his brother off Pratt, helped move the body. He lied to the police throughout the course of the investigation to cover it up. And then one day the questioning just stopped.
In the meantime, Swiger was in school, got engaged, and bought a house, trying to live life normally. He returned home from work one day to find police officers waiting to arrest him. Throughout the trial, he maintained the belief that he was not going to get convicted because he didn’t kill Pratt. When the verdicts were in, he was found not guilty of murdering the victim, Butch Pratt. But he was convicted on three different charges and sentenced to serve three consecutive sentences, adding up to a minimum of 21 years in prison.
Throughout his time prison, Swiger said he was determined not to waste any time. He applied to Ohio University because it was the only university that offered a correspondence program for people in prison. He always wanted a degree in business, but the correspondence program did not offer one, so they told him he had to apply straight to the College of Business. So he did, becoming the first correspondence student in the College of Business. After he completed his undergraduate degree, he went on to get his master’s. He also wrote books and short stories.
Houk and Swiger crossed paths several times at the Lorain Correctional Facility. Houk had returned to Ohio University to finish school, even taking week-long accelerated courses during the summer to fit school around his career. He finished his bachelor’s degree around the same time as Swiger.
‘I Wanted that Candy Bar!’
Swiger’s first encounter with prison ministry was as a prisoner in search of a free candy bar. He did not really want to attend the service, but he wanted that candy bar. He had to sit through the entire service in a room, with the door locked behind him.
One service changed his entire life and launched his career in prison ministry. After he was released, Swiger got involved with helping others getting released from prison to reenter society. Eventually, he began doing prison ministry inside prisons.
Swiger now directs True Freedom Ministries Reentry Ministry, taking advantage of his personal experiences to relate to the inmates being released. He shows them it is possible to make their way back to a normal life after prison. The ministry gives them a hand to help them back up when the rest of society has marginalized them, but it also gives them a family to turn to and a support system on which they can rely.
True Freedom Ministries structures reentry based on research and proven methods developed in part by Swiger. The ministry follows the motto “reentry starts the moment you walk in the door.”
Swiger talked to the Ohio University students about the four keys to reentry that True Freedom Ministries is structured around:
- Genuine religious conversion
- Pre-release mentorship
- Pre-release and post-release education
- Post-release accountability
One of the first things Swiger says to the guys on the inside is, “Life is not fair, and the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can develop the tools you need to succeed in life.”
‘Prison is a Family’
Both Swiger and Houk expressed how much working in a prison and working with inmates is much like that of a family. In these positions, more time is spent with the people in the prison than with your own family. At True Freedom Ministries, “you’re their call at one o’clock in the morning when they need help and don’t know what to do,” explains Sue Swiger.
Houk shared a story about a guard who passed away and his wife asked if the funeral processional could make a lap around the prison. As the Warden, Houk allowed it, explaining, “As the funeral processional came around the cell block where this guard worked every day, you could see all the veterans who were incarcerated standing in their windows saluting the funeral processional as they drove by paying their respect to man who was a large part of these peoples’ lives.”
‘The Decisions You Make Today Matter’
Both of these speakers gave students a chance to hear firsthand how two very different sectors of the criminal justice system can be very similar in nature.
“I really thought it was interesting to see how a person with deviant views during adolescence could restructure his life after a criminal act to help others reenter into society,” said student Mackenzie Miller.
“The speaker Mike Swiger gave a very moving presentation that I thought was going to reinforce negative prison stereotypes but instead was a heartfelt look at the life of a man striving for contrition from both society and his family,” said student James Kight. “Swiger emulates how our rehabilitation facilities should work, where inmates are provided with a social support system and attainable social capital. I was very pleased to hear Mike speak. His lecture was quite remarkable.”
A lasting note Houk left with the students: “If you take nothing else away from today, remember that relationships are the key to life, and how you treat people is the key to success in your career.”