For 10 weeks last summer, I drove the 30 miles from my Durham home to Raleigh and joined dozens of state employees in the same morning ritual: locking our valuables — purses, wallets, and cell phones — in our car trunks or glove compartments.
Taking only our car keys and identification, we walked through the gatehouse of the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW). There, for the next nine hours, we were sealed off from the rest of the world with 1,240 women convicted of offenses ranging from financial fraud to first-degree murder.
NCCIW is the state’s major correctional facility for women. It is also the site of women’s death row. In addition to the general inmate population, it supports the state’s six other female prisons. Dozens of inmates arrive daily for the medical and mental health units, educational services, and vocational programs. The prison’s diagnostic unit is the point of entry for all women sentenced as felons. There, all newly-sentenced offenders undergo substance abuse screening and educational/health evaluations to determine their prison assignments.
Mirroring most prison systems in the nation, North Carolina’s female offenders have higher rates of psychiatric disorders and substance abuse than do male offenders. Moreover, women’s roles as mothers lend an additional layer of complexity to life at NCCIW. Last year, 220 women entered the prison pregnant and 92 of them gave birth there. A staff of social workers helps these and other women navigate custody issues and provides parenting education classes.
Over the course of the summer, I learned that the role of prison chaplain is unique. Prisons exist for the purpose of punishment. Chaplains emphasize the possibility of redemption, stressing pastoral care and spiritual formation where others focus upon security and safety.
Prison chaplains are called to be visionaries, discerning and anticipating the spiritual needs of their congregants, and developing programs to meet those needs. At NCCIW, these programs include weekly worship services, Catholic mass, Bible studies (seven for the general population and three for death row inmates), and Islamic worship services.
As I prepared my first sermon for the inmates, the pressure to deliver relevant, meaningful preaching was particularly salient. A congregation behind bars demands a life-giving Word.
During my first few weeks, I struggled with the appropriate way to say goodbye at the end of each day to those whom I had come to know and care about. “Have a good evening” was no longer just a farewell; it was a benediction.
Pastoral care also took on a qualitatively different aspect. Within prison walls, time grinds to a halt. Yet life continues at its normal pace for the loved ones of inmates on the outside. In addition to sitting with an inmate grieving the death of her grandmother, I had to explain that permission to attend the funeral had been denied.
And while walking in the confidence of Christ, I worked against the backdrop of fear that is a constant when working with those convicted of transgressing society’s laws. Each day I entered the prison gatehouse expecting a safe environment, but fully knowing that safety could never be taken for granted.
Most prisoners spend their days working — as janitors in the complex, at the adjoining license tag and duplicating plant, or in the dental lab, laundry or dining hall. They live in single-story, concrete-block dorms arranged in quads — four large rooms with 30 bunks, open showers and toilets, and a small recreation space with a few tables and a television.
There is no air conditioning in these quarters, and during the summer it’s often hotter inside than out in the sun in the prison yard, the only other space where prisoners can spend their leisure time. There is little comfort and absolutely no privacy.
In the midst of this, prisoners must cope with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, health problems, loss of friends and family, and feelings of guilt, isolation and abandonment.
The shortage of funding for rehabilitation reflects society’s emphasis upon punishment and the control of offenders. Mental health services are often available for only the most severe cases. And even a judge’s order does not guarantee access to one of the prison’s drug treatment programs.
Even churches seem to have a “not wanted” policy toward ex-offenders. With a prison in nearly every North Carolina county, almost every church has a correctional institution in its backyard. Yet often divinity students serving field education placements find no opportunity for prison ministry.
Despite Christ’s command to his disciples to visit the imprisoned, few churches have ministries that reach out to these men and women. Fewer still have support services for ex-offenders as they transition back to society.
Chaplain Gloria Aghogah explains, “Everyone wants to come to the prison to preach salvation to these women. But afterwards, they’re saying, ‘We don’t know if we want you in our church.’”
The N.C. Department of Corrections offers many opportunities for ministry. For more information, contact the chaplain of the local correctional institution. To find out how to become involved in transition efforts, contact Roshanna Parker, director of the DOC Office of Transition Services, at 919-716-3080.