Tag Archives: Prison

Women in Prison: On the Glory Road

by Lavanne Humphries

“Do the time, don’t let the time do you.” These are words I often hear from the women I visit each week at the local jail, a detention center for people awaiting trial. Those who participate with me in Bible study are the ones who have chosen to believe that this is the beginning of an experience that can have profound meaning in their lives.

They are open to the possibility that God is trying to get to them and they are willing to let go and let that happen. Some are further along in the journey than others, but all share in seeing that jail can be a womb of transformation.

Every Monday, when I open the Bible study session at two different PODs (places of domicile – sections of the jail, a large, circular structure with from ten to forty prisoners per POD), I begin by suggesting to the women that they see the cup half full rather than half empty because even in jail some good events can happen in their lives. They share their statements of gratitude with the group. More often than not some will say, “I’m grateful for being here,” “I thank God that he put me here,” “I’m glad I’m away from (the drug dealer, the abusive husband, the battles with family members, addictions, prostitution).” Many have come to see jail as “time out” – a space in their lives enabling them to begin moving in a different direction.

The women who come to Bible study are only a small percentage of the women incarcerated; of the two hundred locked up, five to ten percent get involved. They are of every age and condition – teenagers, pregnant women, grandmothers, many just coming off addictions. With few exceptions, all are in jail on drug-related charges.

The first POD houses women on short-term felony charges such as violating parole, prostitution, burglary, assault, or shoplifting. The average stay is short – seventeen days – but some are held for weeks or months. The other unit houses women charged with violent crimes – in a few cases murder. Some are held for up to two or three years while their cases are being prepared by overworked public defenders.

Due to our weekly encounters, I develop close relationships with many women, in some cases corresponding with them after they leave. I’ve seen several of these women grow and mature in amazing ways as we’ve shared love of Scripture, prayer and their deepest concerns.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)
I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)

The lessons I offer to both groups address several major themes presented in various ways using different scriptural references. We talk about prayer, how much they are loved by God, forgiveness, deification, suffering as it relates to life in Christ, and a strong emphasis on getting into a church when they leave. I always make the Orthodox option known to them – a part of Christianity many never knew about. I bring in icons of the feast days and give every woman I encounter an icon of Christ with a scripture verse on the back: “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” (Isa. 41:10)

Above: I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)

The lessons always begin with a Psalm (I encourage them to read a Psalm every day). I include six or seven scripture texts relating to the theme as well as several readings from either contemporary sources or Church or Desert Fathers on the subject. We start with a prayer and end with all of us praying together, each woman voicing her special request to God, each one sharing concern for the others. They begin to see that incarceration is an opportunity to grow in prayer. The women with separate cells – those regarded as “high risk” – may follow the Desert Fathers, who say: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” I urge them to pray for each other, their families, the guards, the judges, their victims, their enemies.

As we close the session, I ask them to tell me one thing they want me to pray for and I will pray for them each day when I pray for my own children. Some of their prayer requests include: “Pray that my little children will remember me when I get out.” “I want to be given wisdom to see my role in life and what God wants me to do when I leave here.” (This came from a woman whose child was murdered.) “Protect me from negative influences in my life.” “Ask God to protect and nourish me.” “More than anything, I want to do God’s will.’‘ “Pray that I won’t give birth to my baby in jail.”

In my four years of jail ministry, two women stand out as particularly open to God’s healing love. Here, in their own words, are their accounts of their experiences while incarcerated.

Helen’s story:

As a young mother of three children, I was thrown into prison on some serious charges. I was heartbroken and suicidal at the thought of leaving behind my young children. I was placed on suicide watch for eight long excruciating weeks. [The prisoner is stripped, given a blanket, locked in a cell and isolated, except for being checked by another prisoner to report if she is engaging in head banging or other types of destructive behavior.] I lost all hope in life and simply gave up. Even when I moved upstairs with the other girls in my classification, I was still depressed. I stayed that way for six months until I was introduced to Bible study. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church but strayed. I finally decided to trust in the Lord with all my heart. I started gaining my hope back and it was enough to get me through .

I’ve suffered many losses while incarcerated which brought me to my knees. I prayed non-stop for my children’s father to change his negative ways. I didn’t want to lose my children to strangers. The more I stayed in the Word, the more I saw myself grow. My outlook on life changed dramatically. I can finally see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. I’ve regained all hope again and I have tremendous joy in my heart. I’m able to see the good in all things and learn lessons that come along the way. I’m so thankful that the Lord has given me another chance and not given up on me. He’s been coming through for me time after time. After a year and a half of consistent prayer, my children’s father is finally doing what he’s supposed to do for our children. As long as everything continues this way, he’ll get them back from the state for good. It’s a huge relief for me. The Lord continues to prove that he can indeed move mountains for those who believe. I’m proud to say that I love the good Lord with all my heart and soul. I try every day to apply his words to my life. I notice that as I move closer to him my perspective has changed as well as my desires. I’m able to handle situations a lot better and I strive to be sin free. Although I still mess up I know that my loving Father in heaven will forgive me. He’s helped me put the pieces back together and now I know that it’s not over. I’ll be released when God says I’m ready.

Helen is an extremely bright, lively woman, very articulate and more than eager to change. She wanted to learn, and stood out as a candidate for rich spiritual growth in that constricted environment. In Bible study, she was always taking an active role, sharing reflectively on the passages and questions. She was eager to know how to pray. As she grew over the months, she became very committed to keeping peace among the “little community” in the POD and would ask for prayers that they could live together in harmony.

As Helen mentioned, she grew up in the Catholic Church. Recently another woman came into the POD, also Catholic though having attended no services since she was five. I asked if either of them had ever prayed the Rosary. They remembered it from years ago and asked if I could get rosaries and teach them how to use it. We spent the hour I was there that day looking up all the scriptural bases for the Glorious, Sorrowful and Joyful Mysteries. I was describing to them my understanding of the Dormition of the Mother of God, showing them the icon. “Oh, could you bring us a copy of that icon? And can you please pray that we can forgive each other when we have disagreements so we can live in peace?”

A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands by Jim Forest
A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands
by Jim Forest

Above: A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands

After two years of incarceration, Helen asked if I could arrange for a priest to come so they could make their confession and receive communion. The priest visited them just before my last visit, and Helen was ecstatic that she could begin her confession and take communion for the first time in many years.

Louise was another prisoner I encountered who showed such remarkable growth while in jail. I knew her for about a year and half during her time in the high risk POD. She was moved to a women’s prison across the state over a year ago. We still correspond.

This is what she wrote to me in a letter sent just after arriving at prison:

Well, I’m finally here … it is beautiful. We’re in the middle of a 300 acre wildlife sanctuary. There are trees and grass, flowers and birds everywhere. And that beautiful sky! My heart sings, it is full of the beauty of God’s creation around me! [I wrote to you about how] God is now in my heart, but not where he took me from. Like the violent life that I had been living riddled with drugs and alcohol, the life of owning things and working two jobs to have it “all” and yet didn’t own a Bible! How I had gone from being a freshly saved teenager, wanting to be in the ministry – into a downward spiral over a period of 40 years to end up in prison for stabbing another human being in a drunken blackout! That’s where I came from. Here’s where I am today, with the joy of Jesus in my heart and it all started with prayer!… I look at this time of incarceration as an opportunity to magnify and glorify the Father and his Son Jesus.

I am (and always will be, until I join the Father) a work in progress. My life only gets better with each day as I meditate on God’s word. In surrendering my will to Him I have the greatest peace in my spirit and love for all in my heart. I can’t imagine ever living any other way than in obedience to the Lord and living in His light! One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received other than salvation is learning how to pray, because prayer is the answer to everything. Whenever anyone comes to me with a problem, my answer is always – “let’s pray.” I know that there is no problem too large or too small for my God. All we need to do is talk to Him. Prayer – that is the answer! I give Him all the praise and glory for all the changes He’s made in me and my life. I was once a prisoner of sin, but now I am set free! Praise God!

My encounter with Louise in the high-risk POD revealed a very responsive person, always eager for the Bible study and instructions on how to pray. I always pass out a sheet of instructions on how to do contemplative prayer – 10 to 20 minutes morning and evening using a word – Jesus, love, peace – to calm the mind and to allow God to take over. I’ve not heard responses from many on doing this, but Louise took to it like a duck to water. She reported to me after having done it for several months how it had changed her. She was becoming more forgiving and also realizing the pain her offense had caused others. She felt laid on her heart the need to pray for her victim and the victim’s family. When she left the high-risk POD unit and was moved to another and found there was no Bible study there, she wrote both to the chaplain and to me. “We have to have Bible study here,” she said. “Send someone to do Bible study!” I arranged to go to her POD rather than another one I was visiting at the time.

We went through the nine fruits of the Spirit, spending an hour each week on each of them. Always prepared, having read about and pondered the next lesson, she co-taught this with me. As we concluded the study, she informed me that she had been sentenced and was on the way to the women’s prison across the state. Eager to get there, she told me, “I have a ministry to share God’s word with others. I always wanted to do prison ministry, but didn’t realize I’d have to be sentenced to prison to be able to do it!”

Not all the women who attend Bible study and appear to respond maintain their growth after they leave. If they go back to the same environment they left, they will find drug dealers waiting on their doorstep, the abusive spouse, the poverty, the lack of jobs, homelessness, the loss of children. Many return to jail – recidivism is sixty to seventy percent. However, seeds have been planted by those of us who study the Bible with them and our Lord has promised that his Word will not return to him void. We have faith that what we have offered will not be in vain.

To truly be with these women, I must practice being with God in my own life. In fact, it took twenty years of setting apart time during my day to practice silence and the Jesus prayer to develop in my heart a compassion for these prisoners, the “least of these.” To continue the silence and the “listening” enables me to listen to them and to their deepest needs, to be consistent with weekly visits, and also to set boundaries, as one can easily be manipulated in this work. Consistency in being there is important. Several women have said, “Lavanne, it’s not so much what you teach us as it is your coming out here every Monday, week after and week and ‘being’ with us.”

Prayer in the context of the Orthodox Church led me there, gives me strength to be there, keeps me going back and prompts me to hold my sisters up to God in intercessory prayer for mercy for us all, bound together in the Spirit and the love of Christ.

I sometimes sense that I’m entering the real world out there, a world of real people who have hit bottom, who admit they’ve done wrong, who face it, who own it, who are willing and eager to grow. Real people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. When I leave the jail to head home, I encounter all around me the chimera of addiction, denial, falseness, materialism. The unholy drive for total satiety of the senses this culture demands makes me wonder: who are the real prisoners?

Two primary realities have impressed me – at times overwhelmed me – in these four years of jail ministry: first, the power of God to lift up the fallen, to put within them a hunger and thirst for righteousness and a desire for real change; and second, the resiliency, courage, faith and hope of these women to welcome and embrace that change despite their having come from the most circumscribed, negative, demeaning circumstances where they have been betrayed by friends, abused by family members, treated poorly (at times unjustly) by the courts, and imprisoned for the sickness of addiction, instead of enrolled in rehabilitation. In spite of all this, some manifest an acceptance, serenity and determination with God’s help to move forward toward the Light. They are truly women on the glory road!

There was one beautiful soul I encountered several years ago whose inner tranquility I will never forget. Sexually abused during childhood by the men in her family, she became a prostitute at fourteen (probably to support a drug habit) and was gang-raped by a group of boys the day before she was sent to jail. She sat there with the most peaceful look on her face, her eyes calm. As she told me her story, her well-worn Bible in front of her, she said to me in a voice filled with confidence and trust, “And I’ve given it all to God.”

Would that we all could follow the example of this terribly wounded young woman who surrendered her suffering to the Great Healer and gained peace. Certainly, her witness gave to me a new meaning to our Lord’s words, “the last shall be first and the first last.” (Matt. 20:16)

Lavanne Humphries (nom de plume) is a retired college chaplain who has been involved in jail ministry for four years. She joined the Orthodox Church in 1982 and is currently active in Bible study and the parish choir. Names have been changed to preserve privacy.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Doing Justice, Loving Mercy

by Catherine Brockenborough

The great eighteenth-century English jurist Sir William Blackstone said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” Blackstone based this opinion on his understanding of the exchange between God and Abraham regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 18:20-33.

On May 11, 2007, some 250 years after Blackstone wrote his Commentaries, Curtis McCarty was released from an Oklahoma prison, becoming the 124th exonerated death row inmate in the United States since the modern era of capital punishment began in 1976. Of the 204 wrongfully convicted who have been exonerated after conviction as a result of DNA evidence, fifteen had been sentenced to death.

The remaining exonerations have primarily been the result of newly discovered evidence, including evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and state malfeasance. These numbers suggest that many more wrongfully convicted persons remain incarcerated and on death row. The numbers also give flesh to an underlying fear in our death penalty system – the execution of an innocent person. Indeed, substantial evidence exists that at least nine innocent people have been executed in the United States, since 1976; in 2005, Georgia issued a posthumous pardon for a woman executed in 1945.

The number of exonerated is but one of many reasons why so many Americans have come to oppose today’s system of capital punishment. Other reasons run the ideological gamut and include frustration with the length of the appeals process, the disproportionate number of black, poor and mentally ill inmates on death row, critique of “Big Government’s” ability or need to be involved in certain aspects of life, skepticism that any death penalty scheme can be fair, onerous financial costs, and disquiet with a double standard in which the democratic history and rhetoric of the United States confront the country’s membership in a club that includes the three nations of the so-called “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

In the end, these reasons are secular in nature – that is, opposition to the death penalty based on any of these reasons does not require any particular theology. I am interested in whether support of capital punishment is compatible with the Christian faith. Does belief in Christianity – specifically in Orthodox Christianity – provide a reason to oppose the death penalty that is above all theological in nature? Suppose we had a system that guaranteed no execution of innocents, that was fiscally sustainable, and that was truly free of all forms of bias – in other words, a system where all the secular concerns with capital punishment have been resolved. Is support of such a system consistent with our Faith?

This is no theoretical question. It goes to the very heart of Christianity, involves the Orthodox understanding of the natures of God and man and implicates our very salvation. As Orthodox Christians living in a world in which the death penalty is imposed and carried out, I submit that wrestling with this issue is a necessary part of our theosis. Ultimately, I believe we will discover that the most fundamental core principles of the Faith impel Orthodox Christians to reject capital punishment in any form.

Man: Icon of God: “Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26a.) The knowledge that man was made in the image of God lies at the very heart of Christian belief side by side with the knowledge that the Fall warped and tarnished that image while the Incarnation and Resurrection provided for its restoration. I wonder whether the very pervasiveness and elemental nature of this teaching may diminish our appreciation of its awesomeness. You have been made in the image of God. You are an icon of God Incarnate, of our Lord Jesus Christ. Recognizing this reality, St. Seraphim of Sarov greeted all whom he met with the exclamation “My joy!” Had he encountered you, he would have greeted you thus, as well.

Do you believe this of yourself? Do you believe this of others? Regardless of our belief, the truth is that everyone has been created in God’s image. While all of creation is iconic, we know from scripture that man was set apart. The presence of a soul, of the nous, makes man unique amongst God’s creations. Does it not follow that if a person is an icon of our Creator, the destruction of that person is iconoclastic? If we support such destruction by failing to oppose capital punishment, are we then not guilty of iconoclasm ourselves?

This formulation, while valid, softens the case just a bit, in that it calls to mind icons in the sense of hand-crafted pictorial

representations. But icons on wood are not living beings, even though they help us to contemplate the divine, and act as windows on heaven. Moreover, every part of creation can be seen as an “icon” in that sense, but we are able to treat plants, at least, and sometimes animals, differently than we do humans. We do not, for example, sacrifice a person at Pascha, but we may sacrifice a lamb for the feast.


Encounters with Christ: Theology relies on experience while philosophy relies on logic. Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us: “Just as the three Divine Persons live in and for each other, so man – being made in the Trinitarian image – becomes a real person by seeing the world through others’ eyes, by making others’ joys and sorrows his own.”

Russian theologian and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev warns us that the “politico-social aspect of religion distorts the spirit, subordinates the infinite to the finite, makes the relative absolute, and leads away from the sources of revelation, from living spiritual experience…. Personality must be God-human, whereas society must be human.”

Experience reveals theological truths. It is through our encounters with others that we work out our salvation. In the context of capital punishment, we can only perceive the theological implications through experience. Debating the social pros and cons – even if invoking religious authority – can distract us from the essence of what is at stake in deciding what stand to take as Christians.

Tamara Chikunova is an Uzbek Orthodox Christian and founder of “Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture,” an association working for the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan. Through her work with the condemned – the “children of God” as she calls them – she has seen first hand how “the death penalty creates evil and violates the most important and inalienable human right: the right to life.” She asserts: “I am a believer. I am an Orthodox Christian and I help those who are on death row because life is God’s most important gift to us.”

In my work representing death row inmates in Tennessee, I have seen how the system of capital punishment is ultimately soul-destroying for all involved. The system encourages a categorical view of humanity and the person that is alien to Orthodoxy. It encourages and brings forth the worst in fallen man: anger, a thirst for vengeance, self-righteousness. It thwarts forgiveness and reconciliation.

Earlier this year, when several events brought the issue of capital punishment to the fore in the media, The Tennessean newspaper published a letter to the editor from a local rabbi opposed to capital punishment. He wrote that his concern over the darkness the death penalty encouraged in him was the main reason for his opposition.

I have seen this darkness in my work, but I have encountered so much more light. I have witnessed the miracle of family healing, I have observed astounding courage as witnesses shared their stories of pain and I have discovered surprising generosity among people of all types and in all roles. Most importantly, I have met my death-sentenced clients – a representative collection of all the worst and best we humans have to offer. Akil amazes me with his commitment to listening to the Holy Spirit. Derek impresses me with his sensitivity. David can drive me crazy with his neediness. James S. and I discuss Shakespeare’s plays and the Masons. Roy’s stubbornness rivals my own. Tyrone’s insights are as wise as they are unexpected. I don’t understand Lee at all. James D. is an unassuming straight-talker. Kennath and Tim are talented artists. For Byron, every day is better than the day before. Glen is a wheeler-dealer while mentally retarded Gus takes pride in “treating me like a lady.” And Christa – well, Christa is simply one of my dearest friends.

Some of my clients are innocent. Some are guilty of taking another’s life in a particularly brutal way. All are precious children of God. Each of them has taught me lessons in what it means to love. That each of their lives is sacred is uncontestable. I shudder when I contemplate the evil involved in the act of killing any of them just as I shudder at the evil of the murders that brought my clients to death row. For Christians, there is no relativity when determining the sanctity of a life.

The Greatest Gift: In 1989, the Ninth All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America passed a resolution on the death penalty, noting the call for Orthodox Christians to “recognize and address the deeper moral, ethical, and religious questions of the supreme value of human life in a manner consistent with our opposition to abortion and mercy killing, and in all such questions involving life and death the Church must always champion life.”

Clearly, all human life is sacred and precious, and this sacredness and preciousness are unchanging. There never comes a point in time when a person’s life loses its sanctity. When we condemn a person to die, we are telling him “You are not worthy of living. Your life has no meaning.” It seems that most of us find it easier to appreciate the depravity of killing an “innocent” in utero than to see the same depravity in the killing of a “guilty” adult, but the potential for theosis exists in the condemned and the unborn alike. The death penalty is irreconcilable with Orthodoxy’s absolute reverence for life. How are we to answer the call to appreciate the supreme value of human life, consistently and in all situations?

The answer is love, the most basic and central of all Christian tenets, yet the most difficult to embrace and live. In Matthew 5:44, Our Lord declares: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…” These are not suggestions. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12.) Jesus’ love for us is the standard of measure for how we are to love others. We are to “pursue love.” (1 Cor. 14:1). Without love, our actions signify nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Indeed, if we do not love our brothers we are “not of God” (1 John 3: 10b) and we “abide in death.” (1 John 3:14b.) This love must encompass all people, friend and foe alike. (Matt. 5:46-48, Luke 6:32-36.)

Mother Gavrilia was a Greek nun who fell asleep in the Lord on March 28, 1992. The Ascetic of Love, written by one of Mother Gavrilia’s spiritual daughters, contains her life story and a collection of her teachings. The pervasive, singularly constant theme is love. As we consider those under a death sentence and the issue of capital punishment, let us reflect on the following from Mother Gavrilia:

The strange thing is that while Man often looks for Divine Inspiration in old and ruined Temples, he fails to find it in human ruins…What a pity!… I understood that there is much more to wonder at, to rescue and to love in the ruins of Man than in the most magnificent ruins of stone. . . .Courage, faith, patience, endurance and, above all, hope and joy can take root and blossom in the human heart, if it is given Opportunity, if it is given Love. The Ascetic of Love, pp. 56-57.

Catherine Brockenborough lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a native of Washington, D.C., an animal lover and a bibliophile. She is also an attorney and mitigation specialist. Catherine discovered the Orthodox Church while in law school of all places and was chrismated at Pascha in 1996, one month before her graduation and move to Nashville. She is a member of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Mission in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.



Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. IV, c. 27, page 352.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court decided three cases – referred to collectively as Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 – in which a plurality of the Court held the death penalty statutes in effect at the time to be unconstitutional. In response, state legislatures revised their capital punishment statutes to address the concerns discussed in Furman. Following a four-year suspension of the death penalty, the Court issued another group of opinions in 1976 – Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, Proffitt v. Florida 428 U.S. 242, Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 242, and Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 – setting out constitutionally acceptable parameters for an American death penalty and ruling which types of post-Furman statutes passed constitutional muster. So began the modern era of the death penalty in the United States.

See www.innocenceproject.org for more information.


See www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?&did=2238

For a complete list of retentionist, abolitionist and abolitionist-in-practice countries, go to www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=30&did=140.



As quoted in The Ascetic of Love, by Nun Gavrilia (Athens: Eptalofos 2000), p. 127.


Nicolas Berdyaev, “Personality,” from Slavery and Freedom (Scribner’s 1944), tr. in W. Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians (New York: Doubleday 1958), p. 129.




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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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