Kennith Armstead, the assistant corps sergeant major of the East Northport, N.Y., Corps, was recently named to the Salvation Army’s National Corrections Committee. He spent time in state prison from 1970–1986. Later, he worked 30 years for the New York City Board of Correction, where he ministered to both inmates and corrections officers. He hopes to start a prison ministry in the New York City Department of Correction.
Where did you grow up and what did your early spiritual life look like? I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of nine children and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. I was raised in a Christian home where I learned strong spiritual values from my mother and father. My father was a deacon, so we spent our evenings and Sundays at the church.
As a child, I remember watching adults praising God, crying, dancing in the aisles, and singing. Back then, I was confused; I wondered why I didn’t feel the joy and exhilaration. I didn’t feel connected to God. I wondered if it was something I had done. However, I also remember being happy in a home where we prayed together and were cared for and loved by our parents.
Then one day, it all changed. My father went to visit his siblings in Virginia and was involved in a near–fatal accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. After the accident, things in my home began to change. We didn’t go to church as much. I still believed in God, but felt an empty space within me.
During your time in prison, how did God change you? At 17, my life took another bad turn. I was arrested and sentenced to 15 years to life. Over the next few years, I went from being an adolescent to becoming an adult. During that time, prison life exposed me to the horrors of being behind those walls. But God protected me. I was still searching for Him, trying to make a connection as I sought to survive. It was difficult for me because I didn’t know how to seek God on my own or how to fill that spiritual void. I prayed daily for a way to deal with my circumstances but I still felt that something was missing in my spiritual life. As I went from being an adolescent to an adult, various people came into my life and caused me to understand the need for having a faith walk. I believe that God knew my heart and was working on me the whole time, even though I didn’t realize it. He prepared me for the blessings He wanted to give me, and for the new life He had in store for me.
When did you accept Christ? I would say 2002. Aside from helping people who were incarcerated, I volunteered to be the head coach for a Pop Warner youth football team in Brooklyn. One day, while walking my team down a street in Brooklyn, I saw a childhood friend.
At first, I wondered what he was doing in the neighborhood. Then I realized he wore a uniform. I had not seen him in six–and–a–half years. I was surprised to learn that he was a Salvation Army officer at the Brownsville Corps. Captain John Ducksworth invited me to a Bible study. I hesitated, but I showed up. I enjoyed the study and returned a second time with my spouse. He then invited me to a Sunday service. Again, I hesitated, but we showed up.
As I attended more services, I finally understood the need for a personal relationship with Christ. When Captain Ducksworth moved to a new appointment in New Jersey and was replaced by another couple, they too became instrumental in my Christian growth. In fact, (then) Captains David and Margaret Davis helped me through the toughest time of my life.
When my son Gemeyl was diagnosed with cancer of the femur in 2000, my world fell apart. But the Captains were there for my family every step of the way. While Gemeyl was on his death bed, Captain Dave drove to the children’s hospital of Philadelphia to be with us. This act of compassion was the key to my accepting Christ as my personal Savior.
One day after a service, my corps officer said that it was time for me to put on the uniform. I did. From that point on, I began my journey with Christ. In the stillness of the night, I finally heard that call in my spirit in 2002. That was when my life truly began to change.
When you got out of prison, you had a long career with the New York City Board of Correction. How were you able to help people like yourself? My employment with the Board of Correction gave me the opportunity and authority to provide oversight in the NYC jail system in its entirety, including Riker’s Island. I had the authority to help inmates have their voices heard, their rights upheld, and more importantly, I ensured that my interactions with them and their families were always done with respect. I had the authority and mandate to ensure that all inmates were provided with medical and mental health care, and that their bare conditions of confinement (to preserve their human dignity) through our minimum standards were upheld. It was my responsibility to hold inmates and staff accountable for the way they treated one another. I was often called upon to intervene in some of the most extreme cases that the board handled because of my background and approach to the job. In 2006, I was promoted to the position of director of field operations, which allowed me to further enhance ties in the community with organizations providing re–entry services that helped inmates with their transitions. Due to my unwavering fairness, professionalism, and ethical approach to my work, my civilian colleagues elected me president of their fraternity.
How did your experience in jail help you in your career? When I arrived in state prison, I was a high school student. During the incarceration, I completed my GED and continued my education by securing two associate’s and two bachelor’s degrees. I was motivated by my diligence for justice, the need for fairness for incarcerated individuals, commitment to the community, and improving the human experience. I also have a passion for influencing another 17–year–old who might be forced to make the journey I was forced to make. I am motivated and willing to make the best of every situation and sacrifice time and finances to help others.
You are now helping inmates re–enter society. What are some obstacles they face and how can you help? The research across the country continually shows the following are lacking for many released inmates: housing, jobs, financial stability, health and mental health follow–up services, family support, education, and spiritual connections. I can help these inmates by setting up a network within The Salvation Army to direct the post–incarcerated to services that can help them with all of the services and support systems mentioned above. There are many community resources and organizations that are offering these services that The Salvation Army can partner with so that referrals can be made.
Tell us about your recent appointment to the Salvation Army’s National Corrections Committee. What do you hope to bring to the group? Having recently retired after 29 years in City Corrections, where I worked closely with licensed mental health professionals, I saw the atrocities brought upon a number of inmates and saw the hopelessness and despair of those inmates. When I learned what the committee’s goals were, I agreed to become a member. I bring a dual experiential and professionally trained expertise to the committee that I hope will help to shape future goals. I also bring a level of compassion, commitment, and belief in the power of God and how these can influence the lives of the jailed and of the jailer. Having been a local officer, that also enriches my connection to what happens at the national level down to the local corps level.
This issue of our magazine is about biblical illiteracy. You are planning a ministry outreach in the NYC jails. What do you hope to accomplish? What I hope to do is the work of the Kingdom, expose more incarcerated people and their families to the Word of God, and find avenues to demonstrate to The Salvation Army their transformation at the local corps level. And lastly, I want to introduce leadership to the world of corrections, re–entry, and the halls of criminal justice.
by Robert Mitchell