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Group therapy at the Camden County jail

Five men with "CAMDEN COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY" printed on their mustard-yellow scrubs sit in plastic chairs facing Stephen Michael Tumolo.

Five men with "CAMDEN COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY" printed on their mustard-yellow scrubs sit in plastic chairs facing Stephen Michael Tumolo.

"We usually start," he says, "with a moment of stillness."

The beige, bare-bones classroom goes quiet.

But elsewhere in the minimum security unit of the massive facility in downtown Camden - currently home to some 1,400 male and female inmates - an undercurrent of boisterous voices flows on.

And staccato chatter ("Mental health 1-2-3, Mental health 1-2-3") continues to erupt on the PA system.

"Be aware of your breathing," suggests an unfazed Tumolo, the executive director of Heart-to-Heart.

His Merchantville nonprofit offers this prison ministry program, and Tumolo, who wears a white button-down shirt and khakis, guides the guys through a few minutes of meditation. It ends with an Amen.

"The topic of today's lesson," he says, "is the difference between observation and evaluation."

Turns out the difference isn't merely semantic or academic. It's practical, and useful for anyone who finds it tough to separate an observable fact from an emotionally tinged judgment.

"Give me an example of a thought that might lead to trouble," Tumolo says, and one of the men quickly offers: "I can drive around without no license and not get caught."

For the next two hours, Tumolo, 53, of Pennsauken, facilitates a process that's part group therapy and part psychology class, with bits of 12-Step recovery, mindfulness meditation, and spirituality mixed in.

"There are a lot of strategies," he tells me later. "But they all have to do with connecting to the heart.

"I'm inviting the men to become more connected to, and not react to, their feelings," he says. "The key insight is that every action is an attempt to meet a need. But the thinking may be twisted and the choice [of action] may be destructive."

Tumolo fills the green chalkboard at the front of the room with sentences that reflect destructive ways of thinking.

I'm a thug, this is how I act.

Selling drugs . . . is how I pay my bills


She can get high, and I won't.

Heart-to-Heart's goal is to help inmates get ready for life on the outside - where many have previously tried, and failed, to stay on the straight and narrow.

"I've been in and out for 27 years," says one fellow.

"I've lost count," another says.

On the day I visit, the ages of the group's members range from the mid-40s to mid-50s.

Two are from Camden, others are suburbanites, and like everyone else in the jail's Second Chance rehabilitation program, all five are drug addicts.

Their offenses are nonviolent, and include selling drugs, burglary, and credit-card fraud.

Their current sentences are measured in months rather than years.

"These people are all on their way home," Second Chance program director Marsha Smith notes.

The weekly sessions started in November. Heart-to-Heart, which also offers classes to the larger community, is modeled on a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Tumolo worked in the 1990s.

The South Philadelphia native, who holds a Master's degree from the Maryknoll School of Theology and is enrolled in a Ph.D program at Gonzaga University, returned East because of a family member's illness in 2008.

He launched Heart-to-Heart ( in 2015.

"I love God and pointing people to God at the center of their hearts," Tumolo says.

Heart-to-Heart also serves Bayside State Prison in Cumberland County and the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, where Smith says she saw firsthand Tumolo's "caring and concern and follow-through."

"If I hadn't liked what I saw," she says wryly, "he wouldn't be here."

As I sit in that chilly classroom, where bars bisect the windows and a guard sits near the door, I too like what I see.

Tumolo is earnest, engaging, and respectful. He's also familiar with the sketchy thinking to which addicts, and recidivists, are prone.

And he understands how an insight or a moment of connection can become, in a crisis, a useful tool.

"I sold drugs for years," says one of the inmates. "I'm getting older and I'm not accomplishing anything."

Tumolo nods.

"I've been charged too," he tells them. "I've been charged with caring for [you] men.

"I admit it," Tumolo adds. "I'm guilty."

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