Stop and Go Light Directs Prison Inmates

by Ann Dayan

Few of us expect that God will have red and green traffic lights directing our way. Yet in His love, there are times when God's signals to us are just as tangible.

Karen experienced her Heavenly Father's loving "stop light" for seven long months - from September 1997 to February 1998 - after her husband was caught holding drugs in their home for a friend. "He's mister good guy; he does for everybody else," Karen says. "This time he did for the wrong person." Karen and Bob had been married 25 years without even a traffic ticket.

When Bob was arrested for drug possession, their two children, then 9 and 12 were devastated. Karen recommitted her life to Christ after calling a friend for prayer. A few weeks later, although her lawyer doubted it would happen, Karen found herself in prison with a two-year sentence. After 65 days in the Justice Center, Karen was transferred to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, OH. While most new inmates arrive in Admissions for their first 60-90 days, Karen remained in Admissions for just 35 days, sitting on her bunk with little to do, and only one half-hour a day out in the yard. Karen was then fortunate to be admitted to "Boot Camp," a "shock incarceration" program designed for non-violent offenders with terms of under 5 years. An intensive military-style disciplinary program of classes and work activity, Boot Camp is designed to bring early release through good behavior, discipline and hard work. Boot Camp has a separate dorm (40 bunks all in one large room), and inmates wear special military style uniforms. Boot Camp inmates may participate in the prison's Sunday worship services, but are kept separated from contact with the general prison population.

At 44, Karen was in Boot Camp with many women half her age. Because of her re-committed reliance upon God, Karen found she could smile through the camp's rigorous physical training. "The other girls who came in were so lost; they used to come up to me and ask why I smiled. It was because I knew the Lord was with me. If I felt lonely, I knew I was alone with God. I told them He wouldn't let us fall in the lonely places in our life - we can trust Him. God really carried me through this time. It was as if I saw guardian angels at work time after time, as other inmates were drawn into conversation with me."

But Karen's experience was not easy. "I really held onto every ministry that came in to help and encourage us, from the beautiful choirs to the Bible studies, and any special events. There was a good mixture of Bible studies and testimony and music, both at the Justice Center and Marysville, and there were small groups of ministry that came in with testimony and praise, which was very strengthening for us. Every Sunday we had a regular sermon with the general population's own choir. The two pastor/chaplains there were very busy most of the time, and so they often brought in other ministries for our encouragement, especially during holidays, when our families were heaviest on our minds."

"The contributions of prison ministry volunteers were very important to us; and very uplifting," says Karen. "In Boot Camp, our days were very constructed. We wanted to grasp all the ministry we could, because it was the only time we could let loose and praise the Lord. We passed rolls of toilet paper around instead of tissues for the tears that would flow at such times!"

When asked how volunteer ministries for inmates could be improved, Karen answered, "Just more of them, I think! The praising, singing and testimonies were wonderful, and made us know 'it's not just me' - we all fall short in all walks of life. We had anger management and self esteem classes, etc., which helped, but we all need the Lord to get through the tough times in life. To someone who would consider volunteering, I'd say, if they touched just one person, it's worth it. There are so many lost people there, and if just one new person says the right thing, it makes the difference for one inmate. I know I was grasping all of God that I could, but some inmates sat back and observed, until someone else's words would touch them. Many just didn't know how to trust God. But once they did trust Him, I told them, 'You can't turn your back on Him once He helps you through this, and it's behind you.' "

Karen sees the greatest need for ministry now in halfway houses. From Boot Camp, she went into one where she saw no ministry at all. "This is a time when you can't go to church, and there's no one to talk to about Christ. Some girls just fall apart at this stage, and go right back to the world that got them into trouble before. They are scared, and they don't know what to expect when they get back home." Karen hasn't seen her husband in 1H yrs. now. "We could write each other when I was in Boot Camp, which was a work of God. I got such despairing letters from Bob; blaming himself for all that had happened to us. I was concerned about how despondent he was becoming. He said, 'If only I could just hear your voice.' He was at an honor work camp. He couldn't receive much ministry there, since he had to work all the hours they ran, and chaplains were often at another site. Yet somehow we were actually permitted a phone call, and I know that was an act of God's mercy!"

In all of her trials through this difficult experience, Karen says she continually saw the hand of the Lord. "It's hard to turn everything over to the Lord and leave it there," she states, "But He's so faithful, we can thank God that He has a stop and go signal for each of us. We've got to stop, be still, and listen when it's red. In His mercy, He knows sometimes we won't listen any other way!"C