Volunteers reach out to women in prison.
While the Amachi program's focus is on children, other outreach groups support their incarcerated parents. One is the international prayer group, Kairos, which meets regularly at the Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis. Its purpose is to listen and to establish a safe place for the 30 women who join them in a weekend retreat of faith sharing. "We never discuss our differences," says one of its members, Brenda Kindelan. "We give talks about choices. We go in as peers. We talk about the bad choices we've made."
Kindelan admits it's not easy walking past the barbed wire, hearing the door clang shut behind her. Like other visitors to Luttrell, Kairos members can't bring anything personal with them -- not even lipstick, which, if lost, could be bartered as money. "But we do bring cookies," says Kindelan, "enough for the inmates, the janitors, and the guards."
Because they seldom have contact with their children, separation weighs heavily on the women. Not only do they long to see their son or daughter, they worry about regaining custody.
Many also seek pardon. Kindelan recalls an open-mic session when one woman asked to be forgiven. She said she had committed a crime and the taxpayers were shouldering the cost. She was conscious of being a burden to the state.
In response, Kindelan told all the women they first must forgive themselves. And because many had been raped or abused, they were asked to think of others who need forgiveness too. Then, in a sort of ceremony, Kindelan gave them each a sheet of paper, and the inmates wrote down names -- of the fathers who raped them, of anyone they had anger toward. The information was written in red ink and when placed in water, the ink dissolved.
Church Women United (CWU) is another group with a strong prison ministry. Besides visiting inmates, they have taken children to Nashville to see their incarcerated parents and have pressed prison authorities for more child-parent visits. Thanks to their efforts, children now have visitation days three times a year, around the holidays of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Astrid Braganza, a CWU volunteer, says that most women land in prison because their boyfriends are involved in criminal activity "Many of them have never looked at themselves as persons," she says. "When we can work with these women on a one-to-one basis, a whole new world opens up for them."
When Braganza started volunteering in prison ministry in 1969, women were receiving only two meals a day, usually gruel and stale bologna. Beverly Nicholson, another long-time CWU volunteer, remembers that former Sheriff A.C. Gillis wouldn't let the inmates have fresh apples because he was afraid the women would make liquor.
Today both volunteers have high praise for Sheriff Mark Luttrell. Says Braganza, "He encourages programs and realizes that women's needs are different from those of men."
Regarding prison visitation, Nicholson sums it up this way: "We don't ask what inmates did. We could be sitting next to a murderer. For us, [reaching out to these women] is a calling."