Resident Participation in Prison Ministries
December 1, 2016 -
While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. After Seychelles, the incarceration rate of the United States of America is the highest in the world.
One of the few bright spots in this dismal picture is an effort by religious communities to improve the lives of prisoners and aid their transition to life “on the outside.” Some Carol Woods residents began participating in such efforts long before coming to North Carolina. Others began their work here. Most are connected with the prisoners at the Orange Correctional Center (OCC), a minimum security prison in Hillsborough. A few of these residents have volunteered to share their experiences.
The two residents who have worked the longest in prison ministries are Gates V. and Hank E. Gates, a Methodist minister, worked in a New Haven jail on field placement from Yale Divinity School in the late 1960s and has continued serving prisoners since that time, often collaborating with other religious denominations. His commitment became more intense and personal when one of his parishioners in Morris, Illinois was sentenced to prison. Gates visited him monthly, officiated at his wedding after his release and remains friends with him and his family today.
After attending a worship group at Sing Sing prison sponsored by the Scarsdale Friends Meeting in 1992, Hank was hooked. He continued attending worship groups, worked with individual prisoners, provided re-entry support for some released men and served as a facilitator in the Alternatives to Violence Project.
Both Hank and Gates became connected with OCC after moving to Chapel Hill in 2004. They are Yokefellows, trained volunteers who gather with prisoners at the OCC Peace Center in the evening for conversation and refreshments. As community volunteer sponsors, they take prisoners out to eat and to social events and religious services in the community. Gates is on the Chaplain Board of the prison. Hank is a member of the pre-release committee which helped organize a mediation program, pre-release education and Parents Days, during which prisoners can reconnect with their children.
Twelve years ago, as a representative of St. Matthews Episcopal church, Ludie W. attended an information luncheon sponsored by the interfaith Alamance Orange Prison Ministry Board and soon found herself on the Board. During her tenure, the Board hired the first Chaplain for OCC and built the Peace Center, a space where the prisoners participate in social events and religious services. She helped form a re-entry team with other religious congregations and (her favorite part) tutored twice a week at OCC for 11 years. Most of the time Ludie worked with one prisoner who had used the Bible to teach himself to read but could not formulate words to write a sentence. After four or five years under Ludie’s tutelage he had completed an autobiography!
Impressed by articles about the difficulties formerly incarcerated men face in finding employment, Jan D. joined the same re-entry team on which Ludie served. At first she was nervous around the prisoners but learned that trust on both sides is accomplished by sharing life experiences. She has written in moving detail about the changes in her own perspective while working with an African-American Muslim who had been determined to overcome a chaotic childhood by joining the marines to assure a path to college. Although doing well in college, he endured prejudice in classes and at work. Unable to support himself adequately, he eventually turned to crime. After release from prison, his determination to remain free stood firm even under difficult circumstances. Jan also wrote of the greater difficulties faced by men incarcerated for violent crimes. Skeptical of their ability to change, society often refuses to give them a chance.
Joyce and Paul M. became connected to the prison ministry at OCC 10 years ago after moving to Chapel Hill. That ministry now absorbs much of their time. Joyce describes their service for a typical week, which includes taking men out into the community or visiting the prison on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings and Wednesday mornings. They also hold a tutoring session at their home on Thursdays. Once, Joyce turned the latter into a birthday celebration for a prisoner complete with cake and candles. On the days Quakers prepare lunch at the community kitchen, Paul always arrives with two inmates who help and have made friends with the Quaker “regulars.”
These residents and others are making a difference for prisoners. They all stress the need for more volunteers, especially men, to serve as sponsors. Gates said, “for someone locked up for many years even a visit to Walmart is a mind-bending experience.”
--Carol Woods Resident Nancy M.