I went to church in a prison: Part 1

The Salvation Army Midland Division’s communications department recently visited Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Ill., in an effort to learn more about the Army’s services offered to prisoners. This is the first post in a two-part series about what they learned from their experience, and it is written by Content Specialist Ashley Kuenstler.

I visited a state prison for the first time Sunday, and I have to say, watching The Shawshank Redemption a million times was no help in preparing me for what I would experience while there.

Photo: Salvation Army Midland Division

I admit I was more than a little apprehensive as I approached Graham Correctional Center. The drive from my St. Louis office to the Hillsboro, Ill., facility provided more than enough time for my naïve sensibilities to play out every possible negative scenario. I was half-heartedly expecting to be led down a hallway of prison cells, dodging derogatory comments left and right. I expected an overall feeling of fear and a constantly erratic heartbeat. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone; I had two coworkers in tow who seemed pretty confident and self-assured that everything would be just fine.

When I entered the prison’s chapel, I was greeted by three men dressed in blue. One was incarcerated for burning his wife’s house down – not knowing his stepson was asleep inside; another for inciting an altercation with police; and a third for killing a man and attempting to kill a woman. According to every example Hollywood has given me, I should have been “shaking in my boots” to be in their presence. But there wasn’t an ounce of fear in my bones.

Sitting just 10 feet from me and unrestrained, the inmates were kind, respectful, and above all – remorseful. They had all resigned the arrogant and selfish mentalities that landed them in prison and replaced them with a strong sense of empathy, humility, and faith.

After hearing their stories (which I’ll share in a subsequent blog post later next week), my colleagues and I were led to the area of the chapel where Sunday worship took place. We sat quietly in the back of the room, among more than 200 prisoners. The praise band started to play and the prisoners filled the room with song. The room resembled a church sanctuary; the voices were jubilant, bibles were in every hand, and everyone’s feet were keeping the beat – including those of my coworkers. Men had their hands raised, eyes closed, and sang as if their lives depended on it; and for some of them, maybe that was true. If God hadn’t heard them before, he was certainly hearing them in that moment.

I looked out across the room and saw the weathered faces of men who had seen and endured enough hardship to embed permanent creases across their brow. And, surprisingly, the fear I had struggled with leading up to this visit was quickly replaced with my own humility.

These men were not monsters like Hollywood led me to believe. They were men who made life-altering mistakes for whatever reason and were desperate for forgiveness, to turn their misguided lives over to someone who could show them how to be the type of men mothers envision their sons to be.

At the end of the service, Major Jack Holloway – The Salvation Army’s Correctional Services Secretary – asked for any man being released that week to come forward for prayer. Two men walked confidently to the front of the room and were later joined by a third.

“Are you going home, too?” Major Holloway asked the third man.

“No,” he answered. “I just wanted to stand beside my brother and pray with him.”

And as the prisoners prayed together, it was obvious they were not in that chapel for something to do to pass the time. They were there because they knew that’s where they belonged, that this was the way to find the path to redemption they were so desperately searching for.

No one said a single mean-spirited comment to me while I was there. I wasn’t on the receiving end of any cross looks and I didn’t get shanked. But I was introduced to a population served by The Salvation Army that not many people know about. These men have lost everything and they realize it’s a consequence of their actions. But they’re ready to try again. And I can’t express how proud I am to be part of an organization that not only recognizes them, but does everything in its power to ensure they succeed this time around.

Even The Shawshank Redemption had a happy ending. And I have no doubt these men have one in their future, too.

5 Comments on “I went to church in a prison: Part 1

  1. There. Hope. People to. Chance. Their. Life. For. Good. They. Look. For. God. And. They. Go. To. Church. To. Listen. To. The message. And. Gospel. Music. And. Read. The. Bible. And. Give. The. Faith. And. Happiness

  2. There is often a fallacious, generally accepted attitude that states: A person incarcerated, a prisoner is undeserving of consideration in our socio-economic system. Yet while these men are incarcerated, they fight our fires; they make our license plates; they work for little or nothing in industry fo optimize profits for businesses.

    Yet when they are released, their services are no “longer required.” They are given unrealistic restrictions that make failure at parole a near certainty. Attemps at employment are met with jaded rejection. Licensing and certification is sorely restricted or denied. Where is one to go to support one’s self and one’s family. To deny assimilation into our kaleidoscopic neighborhoods is tantamount to forcing a person to revert to less desireable forms of survival techniques. Many of us say, in many different ways, “NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard.”

    What are we to do ?: create outcast towns in the same way lepers were ostracized during Bible times? I guess, in time, those would be reclaimed as nuisance value, as well… There are good men and women in prisons throughout our country… approximately 2/3 of inmates do not belong in prison. They end up their at the behest of self-serving prosecutors who manipulate judges for political ambition and personal engrandisement. Let one of their family members be caught in the systems gears, and watch the back-pedaling.

    Our courts, correctional and rehabilitation systems, and after release programs (These are often insurmountable and endless appointments , which inhibit becoming productive members of the workplace.) are sorely inadequate and illogical to the needs of creating productive lives from those who have been incarcerated. and labeled as misdeameanants or felons Lets get on track. These are human lives and not theoretical diuspositions. I came across one participant in an after release program who was waiting in the security line to attend his class with three others in the same clas. The people ahead of them were in wheelchairs which the security agents decided to disassemble to search. Not being able to enter, these men were late for their class, not allowed entry to the class, and subsequently, their program coordinators brought them before the judge for missing the class, which they had no control over and being defensive about the court staff refusing to listen to the reasons for not attending. Their programs were extended and community service was ordered.

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