Episcopal Prison Ministry – The Church of the Transfiguration
A Look Behind Prison Bars
Monthly Service and Banquet
The Church of the Transfiguration at Angola holds a number of services, meetings and other programs during the month. Its principal Eucharist, Rite II, is held on the first Tuesday. There is also a banquet, usually at Christmas, where the bishop celebrates the Eucharist and confirms new members.
Getting to Angola
Hampton, Bob and Michael drive up together to attend the monthly Eucharist. The drive takes about two and a half hours, but it is enjoyable because of the camaraderie and the discussion on the way. Father Beazley drives up separately because his work as chaplain at St. Andrew’s School requires him to remain there until mid-afternoon. Hampton and Michael have been doing this some twenty years; Bob joined several years ago.
Entering the Prison
When we enter the prison, we pass through a metal detector and are required to turn in our cell phones which we retrieve when we leave. The prisoners treat us with the utmost courtesy because, I think, they realize that we are there to share an experience beneficial to both of us. They appreciate our being there. The guards are polite as well. I have never felt afraid upon entering Angola.
Before and After the Service
We arrive at the Angola gate by about 5:30 p.m. and join others from a number of diocesan churches. We try to be at the chapel by 6:00 p.m. Usually there is about 20 minutes of conversation between the “outmates” and the “inmates,” then the service begins. Thereafter, the inmates and the outmates continue their conversations until the prison guard decides, usually after about forty-five minutes, to require us all to leave. This time is particularly important because the inmates do not get much contact with persons from the outside except for prison employees. The topics of conversation range widely. An unwritten rule, however, is that the outmates do not inquire about the offense for which a prisoner may have been incarcerated unless the prisoner himself brings up the topic.
For the most part the sermons at Angola are good. We are thankful that Father Beazley is now one of the celebrants. Passing the peace is quite important at Angola. Most everybody speaks to everybody else.
Training and Prison Rules
Before a person is permitted to enter Angola, that person must attend one training session per year in Baton Rouge (about 90 minutes). Four are offered every year. A list of the training dates will be provided. Frankly, the training could be accomplished much more easily if the prison instead simply handed out written rules. That we are required to go to training, however, is a minor inconvenience and is one of the small prices outmates must pay in order to be permitted inside the prison for services.
Except during the service, the prison rules prohibit direct communication between outmates and inmates by correspondence or otherwise. Outmates are not supposed to “do things” for prisoners or their families. Many of us would prefer not to be bound by the rules, but we simply must follow them.
Parole and Reentry
We have helped a number of prisoners in connection with their applications for parole and in some instances, commutation of sentence. The prison apparently does not object to this sort of help. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, New Orleans, has an active prison ministry doing much of the same work and more and especially helping parolees in their adjustment to outside life.
The Content of Our Services
Most of the convicted persons entering Angola tend to be evangelical Christians. Many are Baptist. We think that most of the people who come to our services appreciate a structured liturgical service emphasizing, like most Episcopal Eucharists, confession, forgiveness, joy, divine love, concern for others, and salvation.
The Baptist Bible College
Our Baptist friends, especially from the New Orleans Seminary, run the “Baptist Bible College,” which grants degrees to prisoners. The Bible College teaches not only scripture and religion, but also the basics which are taught in any college. The teaching at the Baptist Bible College is not perfunctory. Many prisoners benefit from it, with respect to increased reading and writing ability and other skills of an educated person. Angola is an ecumenical place. Many of our members are attending or have graduated from the Baptist Bible College, including Fabian Harper.
Juvenile Lifers – Fabian Harper
Most convicts at Angola are lifers without possibility of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. Recent court cases and legislation have, however, meant that a number of inmates who formerly were not eligible for parole may become eligible. The primary example is “juvenile lifers.” These are men who committed a crime while a juvenile, under 18, but were sentenced to life imprisonment. Under new court cases and legislation, a juvenile lifer, after serving 25 years, is now entitled to be resentenced. The court may amend the original sentence to permit the juvenile lifer to apply to the parole board for parole or it may reimpose the life without parole sentence. If the sentence is modified to permit parole, the juvenile lifer must then apply to the parole board which may or may not grant parole.
The Church of the Transfiguration has a number of juvenile lifers who have spent their entire adult life in prison and are now at least middle aged. Our members have helped a number of them navigate both the court resentencing and the application and hearing before the parole board. One of our number who has recently been paroled is Fabian Harper. While in prison he wrote a book, “Life Behind Bars,” which was sponsored by the Episcopal Church and edited by the late John Cooke, head of the English Department at UNO who drove to Angola with us. John’s wife, Jan, typed the book. It has been published and can be obtained from Amazon. I will have at least one copy of the book at our meeting. It covers the nitty gritty of life at prison and is not for the faint of heart.
Fabian will discuss his experience as an inmate member of The Church of the Transfiguration, his parole, and his reentry into outside life which is quite difficult after being in prison for more than 25 years.
The Four Services and the Need for More Outmates and Clergy
There are a number of separate “camps” at Angola. The largest is Main Prison. Until a few years ago, the prison bussed inmates who wanted to attend our services from the outer camps to the Main Prison. Several years ago, the prison decided to stop providing this bussing. As a result, the church has had to conduct services at four different places. Priests from a number of churches in south Louisiana join to supply the necessary clergy for the four different services. The Reverend Peggy Scott, Rector of St. Paul’s Holy Trinity Church in New Roads, is the priest in charge of The Church of the Transfiguration. We very much need more outmates and clergy. We are all unpaid, clergy and lay alike.
Developing friendship with the prisoners is extremely important. It is made more difficult by the restrictions imposed about communication with prisoners outside of the services. Especially considering that the services ordinarily occur only once a month, it is especially important that the outmates make reasonable efforts to attend regularly.
The Dignity of the Inmates
Although some prisoners such as juvenile lifers now have realistic hope of release before death; many others will spend the rest of their lives at Angola. Many are old. As we outmates can see, their lives are filled with dignity. They have learned, and their example teaches, that life is valuable regardless of circumstances.