NEWARK, N.J. -- On a recent Wednesday morning, James E. McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey who resigned in disgrace nearly a decade ago, stands in the center of a circle of several dozen women, all prisoners at the Hudson County Correctional Facility.
"We talked a little bit about shame last time," McGreevey tells the women, who call him Jim. "We talked about unhealthy shame. What would be an example of unhealthy shame?"
McGreevey pauses, and snaps his fingers at a latecomer with straight brown hair and bangs, lingering on the fringes of the meeting, "Pull up! Come in!"
Wearing a navy sweater with a hole in the elbow, McGreevey flashes the charismatic smile that helped endear him to a generation of New Jersey voters. "People project their prejudices on you, their hatred on you. If somebody doesn't like you because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, the community you're in, that's unhealthy shame."
"Healthy shame is when you what?" He pauses and glances around the room. "When you recognize that there's a right and a wrong, and you have violated your moral code. Somebody just say yes so that i know that you're listening to me."
The women start to nod, some sleepily, some emphatically, some with tears in their eyes.
"Yes." "Yes." "Yeah, that's right, Jim."
In 2004, McGreevey announced in a public resignation, that he was a "gay American," and that he had been having an affair with a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces whom McGreevey had appointed New Jersey homeland security adviser. Now, Alexandra Pelosi's new documentary, "Fall to Grace," which debuts Thursday on HBO, thrusts him back into the spotlight. The film chronicles McGreevey's political downfall in 2004, his comfortable new life as an openly gay man and, most importantly in his eyes, his reinvention as a spiritual adviser to women in prison.
That latest chapter began a couple of years after his disgrace, when he entered divinity school, pursuing a dream he said predates his interest in politics. He hoped to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, one of the first denominations to accept openly gay clergy. But the church was "hesitant' to accept him, he said, something he attributes to his resignation and the divorce.
"And I understand that," he said. "I think ironically it's a good thing."
As he sees it now, his effort to join the priesthood was in some ways just another campaign, another symptom of the relentless ambition that earned him the nickname "robo-candidate" when he was in politics. By the time that campaign foundered, he had already begun working with women prisoners, and he said the failure of his clerical ambitions brought him closer to those women.
"A title can be a source of division or separation, or even promote a sense of 'better than' as opposed to 'equal to,'" he said. "For the women, there have been all too few people in life who have met them on their terms."
For a disgraced politician who has forsworn ambition, McGreevey continues to be remarkably adept at convincing people to see him as a leader. The program, in which McGreevey's official title is "spiritual counselor," offers addiction counseling to inmates as they prepare to leave jail and attempts to soften their transition to the outside world by providing them with transitional housing, job training and other services. According to the Associated Press, it has cut recidivism by more than half, and the Justice Department has named it one of the two top re-entry programs in the country. He and Oscar Aviles, the director of corrections at Hudson County, see their program as a potential model for jails nationwide, and are trying to get other facilities to adopt their approach.
Aviles and others hope that McGreevey's political acumen can help win more support. McGreevey hopes so, too; he and Pelosi say that's why he agreed to let her document his work.
At the jail Wednesday, McGreevey prompts the women to talk about the specific behaviors that make them feel shame.
"When we're running and doping in the street, what do we do?" he asks.
"Operate out of what we know how to do best," says a woman in flip-flops.
"It's stupidity," says a woman in a white hair-wrap. "You go around in darkness."
"Negative behavior," says a third woman.
McGreevey nods. "You have a default mechanism. Your default mechanism is to do x. Where did you learn that behavior?"
The woman in flip-flops is still listing shameful behaviors. "Lyin', cheatin', manipulatin', fightin', usin', cheatin',
McGreevey interrupts, stamping his foot. "Preach, preach, preach!"
She trails off, and McGreevey brings the conversation back into focus. "But what is Elle sharing with us? These are behaviors that she…?"
McGreevey: "We copy behavior. How did we get to this lovely Hudson County college?"
The woman in a hair wrap: "We walked in."
McGreevey: "You walked in all right. You walked in with handcuffs."
The conversation continues in this back-and-forth style for some time, and then McGreevey makes a suggestion.
"At some point in time when we're out on the street and no one is watching, the question is ... Will we turn over our will to unhealthy cravings? Or will we stay in a godly place and do what we are meant to do? And that's always the challenge. That's always the challenge. So yes, we're blessed with free will, but what I would like us to be called to do is to exercise free will in a godly sense. So before the food comes, some prayers. Then we'll break."
This story appears in Issue 47 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 3.
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