By David Dawson
JACKSON — The staff at the Gibson County correctional facility knows what to expect when they see the gleam in Paul Thomas’ eye.
They know that Thomas, the Gibson County Sheriff, has been thinking about something — or more accurately, praying about something — and that he’s likely got a big idea in mind.
“My staff has a real love-hate relationship with me,” joked Thomas, “because I get up about four o’clock every morning, and I do a lot of reflection, a lot of reading … And some mornings, I will come into the office about eight o’clock and I’ll say, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ and they all will say, ‘Oh my gosh, what does he have now?’ ”
Since being elected sheriff in 2014, Thomas, a member of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, has indeed come up with numerous new ideas, almost all of which are related to his desire to positively impact the lives of the inmates at the Gibson County facility.
Whether it’s establishing a highly successful re-entry program, hosting a one-night revival or feeding the inmates an Easter meal — on his dime, no less — Thomas is continually looking for opportunities to better the lives of the inmates. And, whenever possible, introduce them to Jesus.
“God has given me this huge platform to stand on and to shout at the top of my lungs, and that’s what I try to do,” he said. “I’m just trying to make this the best county it can be, and give the citizens of my county — especially those that are incarcerated — the tools they need to be successful and return to their families.”
For the record, his staff is actually very supportive of his ideas, no matter how “outside-the-box” they might be. For instance, when Thomas recently arranged the one-night revival (with 11 services being held simultaneously), his staff was quick to step up and fill the need for extra off-duty correctional officers.
“I was willing to pay them, but we had 14 employees volunteer their time to come in at night just to be a part of it,” Thomas said. “And one of those employees got saved that night and wants to be baptized with the inmates.”
Shortly after being elected sheriff in 2014, Thomas said he felt the Lord was urging him to “go all-in” regarding his role as a Godly voice in the community.
“I told the Lord, ‘If You have given me this stage for something bigger than what I’m doing, just lay it on me,’ ’’ said Thomas. “And that’s when I started the re-entry program with the men and trying to reduce our recidivism numbers.”
The re-entry program that Thomas helped establish is a multi-pronged system for the inmates in Gibson County.
The program includes a faith-based, Christian-run, 12-month transitional living home that enables inmates to increase their chances of having a successful transition from jail to home. Thomas raised over a million dollars of private money to build that facility.
The re-entry program has had an enormous impact. In 2014, the jail’s recidivism rate — which represents the number of inmates who are incarcerated again after their initial release — was about 80 percent. But since the start of the re-entry programs, along with the work programs and education programs, the recidivism rate has dropped to 13 percent.
Thomas said he feels certain that “those numbers rank (among) the best in the state.”
He then added, “But that doesn’t mean we are satisfied. We’re not.”
Thomas began his career in law enforcement in 1994, working with the Milan police department in West Tennessee. He spent the next seven years working through the ranks before making a temporary career change in 2001 when he joined the military — a move that was inspired by the events of 9/11.
“I was 29 years old when that happened, and I decided at that point in my life that I felt like I needed to do something bigger for my country,” he said. “I was married, I had a one-year-old son, and I took a leave of absence from the police department and joined the Marine Corps at 29 years old. When I went through bootcamp, I was older than two of my drill instructors.”
After completing his training, Thomas returned to the police force in 2002, where he was assigned to the narcotics unit — a position he held for 12 years. (He jointly served in the Marine Corps reserve unit out of Memphis for six years).
In 2014, Thomas felt a calling from the Lord. Not to join the ministry, but to run for Gibson County sheriff.
“I’d never run for any kind of office in my life,” he said. “I wasn’t a political person, but I felt like the Sheriff’s office at the time wasn’t the best it could be.”
When he first started the process of running for sheriff, Thomas said he felt the Lord was leading him to run as an independent. His friends, however, advised against that, and Thomas initially decided to register with the county’s election commission office as a Republican candidate.
But as the election drew closer, Thomas never felt at peace with his decision. Just days before the election, he changed his mind and registered to run as an independent.
“We have 28 voting polls in my county,” said Thomas. “I stayed in last place for 27 polls. Every time a poll would report, there was my name — in last place.”
Thomas remembered he was trailing by 258 votes prior to the final poll of the night. At that point, he felt his chances of winning were small. “I told my wife, ‘Well, we ran a good race,’ ” he said. “And I did what I was led to do.”
Thomas said he reminded his wife — and himself, too — that even without being elected sheriff, he still had a job with the drug task force. “I’m going to go to work tomorrow morning, just like I always do,” he said.
Turns out, Thomas was about to get a new job.
When the final poll came in, he won the election — by 25 votes.
“I honestly believe, and I will always believe until I am in the grave, that God left me in last place all night to see if I was going to be angry at Him,” Thomas said. “But when I made the comment to my wife — that I was content because we had done what we were supposed to do in following Him — that’s when He revealed to me that I had won.”
When Thomas ran for re-election in 2018, he didn’t have to sweat it out. He set a record in Gibson County by winning 87 percent of the votes against two other opponents.
He continues to use his position to be a godly influence and a godly voice in the community. He said he is open to any idea the Lord is calling him to pursue.
“I always use the analogy that even the largest oak tree was just an acorn at one point,” he said. “But somebody planted that seed and they watered it, they loved on it, they nurtured it, and now it casts this huge shadow. That’s what we want to do. Help people grow.” B&R