During my first week at N.C. Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW), the Rev. Gloria Aghogah D’98, supervisor of chaplaincy services and my field education supervisor, took me to the center of the 30-acre campus-style facility, where a slight elevation provided a bird’s eye view of the entire complex.
The weather was good and most of the inmates seemed to be out on the yard. Looking at the sea of women in their blue, green and tan uniforms—each color denoting custody status—Aghogah asked, “You know what I see when I look out here? A mission field. I’m in the trenches.
“There are hundreds of women here who are in pain, who need healing, who need to be led to God. That’s what chaplains do. We’re here to help point the way to healing.”
Aghogah believes her role is to be a loving and nonjudgmental presence. “I meet inmates where they are and we work from there,” she says. “I’m not concerned about what they’ve done. I want to know … their spiritual needs.”
“Nobody Wants Them”
“What are we supposed to do if nobody wants them?” screamed Yolanda Oxendine, the case manager in the adjacent office. Trying to find housing for a soon-to-be-released inmate with a history of mental illness, Oxendine had met roadblocks at every turn. Telephone numbers of group homes had been disconnected. Halfway houses were full. Not even a temporary placement was available.
Each year, North Carolina’s 70 prisons release more than 22,000 inmates. Without re-entry assistance, more than half will return to the corrections system. Budget cuts require case managers to handle large caseloads, preventing the attention needed to ensure a successful transition for each inmate. High staff turnover doubles the load for case managers. Most inmates, then, are left to fend for themselves when it comes to re-entry.
Linda epitomizes this dilemma. In her mid-40s, she has been in prison most of her adult life, mostly for misdemeanor property offenses related to drug addiction. When we met during the second week of my placement, she was back for her ninth prison term, sentenced to eight months for parole violation. She was desperate.