Beyond Bars

Guided by one determined minister, these inmates serve others while serving time.

At Mark Luttrell Correctional Center, Reverend Diane Harrison leads inmates in worship.

photograph by Amie Vanderford

On a Tuesday evening in the chapel at Mark Luttrell Correctional Center, eight women sit around a table chatting, laughing, and stitching away. Some are crocheting prayer shawls for people in need. Others are making sleeping mats of plarn —  recycled plastic bags torn into strips like yarn — for a local homeless shelter. As the needles fly, one young woman named Kris announces, “I have a confession. You know that book we’re reading in book club? I’ve already finished it.” She laughs as the others groan. Across the table the talk is about crocheted angels, which a woman named Sarah has been making for years. One voice pipes up, “Sarah has created more angels than the good Lord.” More laughter and groans. 

Welcome to the Touch of Grace Crochet Group, held at this medium-security prison for women near I-40 and Sycamore View. It’s one of several programs started by Reverend Diane Harrison, an ordained Methodist pastor who believes a prison ministry should do more than provide a preacher once a week. So in 2007 she started Grace Place, a nonprofit organization that not only holds worship services on weekend nights, it also offers a book club, exercise class, Bible study, and a choir, as well as programs that reach out to others, including the prayer shawl and mat ministry. Harrison credits an inmate named Lena for the idea of making mats. “I read about the need in a newspaper article,” says Lena, “and I thought it would be good for us to touch others on the outside.” 

Harrison agrees, saying, “That’s how we become the body of Christ at work. So many people just want to preach to these women. ‘Are you saved? Have you been baptized?’ Kind of like they’re way up there and the women are down here. Just because people are in prison doesn’t mean they don’t know God, or that they aren’t capable and have nothing to give. These women have plenty to give.”

The Memphis women’s prison — one of only two in Tennessee (the other is in a maximum-security facility in Nashville) — houses about 450 inmates whose convictions range from embezzlement to first-degree murder. About 120 women participate in Grace Place worship or activities. While most activities are open to all, the crochet group is limited to inmates serving 20 years or more. 

Among them is Doll, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder — about which she simply says, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Aside from working various prison jobs, Doll stayed in her room, “until Diane came here.” Now she helps lead worship services, has taught other women to crochet, and heads the Inside Council, which, with the warden’s approval,  oversees plans and policies for Grace Place. 

At another table in the chapel, Sharon — who will be released soon, after serving her second-degree murder sentence — is sorting birthday, sympathy, and get-well cards that will be sent to inmates or family members. Though she has often attended services held by various churches at the prison, “these are different,” she says. “I’d come to Grace Place if I had to crawl.” 

"So many people just want to preach to these women. 'Are you saved? Have you been baptized?' Kind of like they're way up there and the women are down here." — Reverend Diane Harrison

The 57-year-old Harrison was moved to act after attending Kairos Prison Ministry, a program designed to teach Christianity to inmates. “It emphasized how important the church is,” she recalls, “yet there’s no church in the prisons.” The chaplain, she explains, “doesn’t hold services. That’s more of an administrative role. People come out to hold study groups or worship, and they’re wonderful. But what I wanted was to start a church here.” The United Methodist Conference allowed her to start Grace Place as a nonprofit organization but does not fund it. Instead, Harrison’s efforts are supported by a handful of individuals, congregations, and some of her family members. Several volunteers provide hands-on assistance.

Call it what you will, she says, “This is my church. This is where I’m appointed. But I’ve learned we make too make much of preachers. I tell the women here all the time, ‘You’re the ministers of Grace Place.’”

 Growing up in the Berclair neighborhood, Harrison was always active in church and recalls her parents as “two remarkable people.” Her father was a Memphis police officer who “started a camp for troubled boys,” she says, “and was always helping somebody. If people were in a bad situation they’d turn to him. My mother just tried to live the life God called her to live, quietly. She would always pull for the underdog and she wouldn’t tolerate racism for five minutes.”

Though drawn to the ministry in her twenties, Harrison took a few detours, first becoming a registered nurse, then a high-school teacher. “One day, I was driving to school, and I knew my life wasn’t going to be right unless I followed my calling,” she says. She graduated from seminary in 1998 and held several associate pastor appointments before she realized who needed her most.

At first, misgivings nearly held her back. “When I started, I thought, ‘How could anybody as naïve as I am do this? How will I know what to say to these women?’” But her ease with them has allowed both inmates and pastor to share, grow, and learn. Indeed, Harrison has a list of “seven things I learned in prison.” Among them: We’re not born to a level playing field. “I had nothing to do with the family I was born into,” she says. “I always had security. If not for certain things in my life, I might be in the prison and one of those women could be standing before you. Some of us will always have it harder than others. Some will make wrong decisions. You hear people say about a crime, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible!’ I want to tell them, ‘Well, honey, instead of sitting around in your nice house, get up and do something about it.’”

 Harrison doesn’t fear the inmates. But she does fear being trapped inside the prison: “I can’t help but think of the six metal gates we pass through, and each one locks behind us.” Now and then “little incidents” with prison officers may escalate. When they do, she quells her own fears and calms the people. “And I think later, I’m glad this happened to me. That’s the kind of thing they have to live with every day.”

One former inmate — who served 15 years for gang-related kidnapping and attempted murder and was one of the highest-ranking women in the Gangster Disciples — found such love and acceptance through Grace Place she stays in touch now that she's free.

Looking ahead, Harrison says she’d like to concentrate on planning more programs for the inmates and providing additional help to the indigent. Struggling financially, Grace Place tries to buy shoes, eyeglasses, battery-powered candles, communion supplies, quality hygiene items, books, and other materials. “We’d also like to have a portable microphone and a DVD player,” she says.“We’d like to do these things without blood, sweat, and tears each month.” Meanwhile, she’s at the prison several days each week, making her way through those sets of clanging doors. 

At a recent worship service, a group of about 30 women sit reverently as the song “This Is the Air I Breathe,” drifts through the chapel. Some quietly sing along or sway in their seats. Harrison has urged them to look inward, to focus on God, “who breathed life into us.” Toward the end of the service, she tells the group that some people don’t believe that God loves them. “It’s like they carry around this backpack, a burden of guilt or worry. They think the promise of his love can’t possibly apply to them. Drop the backpack,” she urges. “Drop it and believe.”

One former inmate — who served 15 years for gang-related kidnapping and attempted murder and was one of the highest-ranking women in the Gangster Disciples — found such love and acceptance through Grace Place she stays in touch now that she’s free. “I was Muslim before,” says Nadia Coffer, who was released in February. “I had no church background till I went to prison. The minute I met Miss Diane I knew I was home, I was safe. I saw God in that woman. She’s the most real person I’ve ever known.” 

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