Josprel's Articles of Faith - Maximum Security

Writer Author  Josprel (Joseph Perrello)
Christian Column : Inspirational  - Fiction  No

Christian Author Writer Alone, I began the long stroll down the main corridor of the Attica Correctional Facility. Intermittently, my progress was blocked by a series of security gates, some controlled by turnkeys, others by officers protected inside barred, bulletproof, glass cages. Each gate opened heavily to my approach, closing behind me with an ominous metallic clang.

As I turned into adjoining passages, at times, unguarded inmates walked toward me. Each invariably edged the far wall to put as much distance between us as possible. All passed silently without regarding my naive salutations.

"Oh, well, The Lord is with me; He'll protect me," I assured myself, but, I was unconvinced.

The previous week, I had made this trek for the first time in accompanied by a watch lieutenant. "Remember the way, Reverend," he exhorted, "After this, you'll be alone!"

Undeniably, I felt alone.

Arriving at my destination, I turned into a spacious room. Waiting expectantly, a small cadre of unguarded inmates formed the nucleus of the only inmate organized Bible study group at the facility; the reason for my being there!

I first heard of the Attica Correctional Facility in September of 1971, during the infamous bloody uprising which claimed forty-three lives. The widest stretch of my imagination would not have encompassed the thought that, one year later, my wife, Marie, and I would be asked by our New York district superintendent to minister in Attica township, or that, with our two young sons, we would be residing a mile from the facility.

Bitter hurt still permeated the town. And, as our congregation grew, the families of several facility employees began attending services. Other new families lived in very close proximity to the prison, at least three on a street bordering the highly publicized facility recreation yard, where much bloodshed occurred. There hostages had been guarded by assigned inmate executioners! From a high hill behind their homes, these families observed directly into the yard; and the gruesome scenes described to me strengthened an already unfavorable view of prison ministry.

Despite the negative impact of the uprising, several persons from the congregation began visiting inmates. I never inquired, but perhaps this fact impelled the Protestant chaplain, a few weeks previous to that lonely stroll, to request that I visit his office. After a cordial welcome, he asked, "Reverend Perrello, would you be willing to oversee a three hour Bible study each Friday night, from six till nine? Security will want you here an hour before."

He explained that several inmates had organized and were promoting a Bible study class. Without a qualified civilian sponsor, they could not assemble. "Will you sponsor them?"

I had never set foot on the grounds of a maximum security prison before. Nor had I inclination to do so; much less this one, so recently devastated by one of the nation's bloodiest prison uprisings, during which hostages were taken and many lives lost! Apparently lacking the fortitude of martyrs, I was apprehensive about being alone with inmates, even those claiming salvation. It had taken time for the family to become acclimated to living near the prison, though we no longer thought anything of it. Our first night's sleep in Attica was disrupted by the wail of a loud siren. Marie and I jumped from bed fearful that there had been a prison break. Instead, we learned, the fire department alarm on the next street had sounded. We eventually accepted living near hundreds of high-risk inmates walled up in a high security facility; as long as they remained inside the wall, and we were outside.

I requested a week to consider the chaplain's proposal. Marie and I made it a matter of prayer. I sought her input and that of trusted friends. Most of Attica's clergy had been through the uprising. Often, at meetings, conversation focused on counseling problems it had generated. This did not incline me toward the class. However, despite my negative feelings, I desired God's will and, by week's end, I understood that rejecting the opportunity would be a neglect of duty.

From the beginning, the inmates were hungry for truth. Classes began with a fervency of prayer seldom equaled by "outside" congregations. They prayed for their families, salvation of inmates, courage to witness, strength to be examples, officers, administrators, personal needs and, often laying hands on me, for my church, asking God to prosper us.

Afterward, choruses were sung and the study began. The format was totally Bible-centered, the first segment being given over to concentrated Bible study, verse by verse, with questions permitted. The second segment was discussion oriented, encompassing subjects pertinent to "inside" living. Content was initiated by the students: Bible answers for avoiding temptations; Bible discussions about celibate living; the advantages of possessing the Holy Spirit's baptism; a Christian inmate's attitude toward officers, a serious concern since the uprising; a Christian inmate's witness to his family; witnessing to Moslems, who were numerous at the facility; Biblical teachings on the homosexual lifestyle, and many other concerns.

By efforts of the students themselves, the class grew steadily and, by year's end, about thirty students were attending. In the second year, the class grew to at least forty-five members. By the end of the third year, the room was packed to overflowing and still more wished to attend. But Moslems charged discrimination. They threatened to infiltrate the class to create havoc. When I asked the class inmate leader if he saw Moslems in attendance, he responded affirmatively, but there were no problems.

The administration took the threats seriously, moving to defuse, what it considered, a potentially dangerous situation. Before the threats, the only requirement for an inmate to attend the class was for him to make an advance request of at least two days. Afterward, screening required a two week notice. The practical result limited attendance almost to those already enrolled, though some newcomers trickled in.

The church enjoyed continual growth, requiring a building program. With all the added demands, I began to feel the weight of the class. Unless I was away, each Friday evening I left for the facility in time to arrive at five, and did not return until almost ten. In addition to these hours, each session required preparation. Including prison visits, I often gave ten to fifteen hours weekly to prison ministry. The security checks required for each visit were time-consuming. After a visitor passed to the waiting room, it often required another long wait to locate the inmate and bring him in, especially for an unexpected visit; and, to be effective, the visits could not be rushed. The need to lighten the load seemed compelling.

After prayerful consideration I reluctantly notified the chaplain of my decision. A Baptist minister friend from another town gladly accepted sponsorship and was present at my last session with the class. It was an emotional time; at its conclusion, the students surrounded and laid their on hands on us. They prayed with such fervor that an officer at the far end of the long corridor became concerned and came running. We informed him Informed the class was in prayer, he left with smile.

I surrendered the class, but not contact with the facility. The inmates learned of the undefeated status of our church softball team, so they issued a challenge for us to play against them. Two young ladies were members of our team. The facility usually prohibited women from entering the recreation yard where such games were played; nonetheless, our women team mates received a special dispensation from the warden and were permitted to play. To our team's chagrin, the inmates had their own interpretation of softball rules, often instantly inventing new ones. But it was all in a spirit of fun

At times, the facility requested practical assistance, as well. Late one Saturday night, I received a call from the warden asking if we could provide overnight accommodations for approximately thirty visitors from New York City, while mechanics repaired their bus. The fellowship area and Sunday school rooms were made available, and the facility brought food, cots and bedding. When the visitors left early Sunday morning, their quarters were left spotless and on the pulpit, just before service, I found a note signed by them; it read, "Thank you for trusting us in your beautiful new church." The children, too, made drawings, also with little thank you messages.

Occasionally, individual visitors, including the prodigal teen-age daughter of an evangelical pastor, temporarily were stranded and slept at our home. Each received a witness, and a few visited our services.

The facility responded to this openness. As its first project, its new woodwork shop presented our church with a rare gift. Using the scarce expensive wood of the black walnut tree, the inmates fashioned, for the inside front of our sanctuary, a beautiful large cross. And, upon its receipt, we thanked them for a gift unique in both material and the craftsmen who produced it.

When we first moved to Attica, I was dubious regarding the motives of inmates claiming to be Christians. Confirming this attitude were warnings I received, from knowledgeable individuals, to not permit the inmates to "con" me for their own purposes. The warnings were appropriate. For, indeed, there were several times when this was tried, though never by a believer! And, when we left Attica, almost ten years later, I had learned that true Christians also are found in the most unexpected of environments, even in fearsome maximum security prisons that are prone to violence. There, too, the God grants those who believe in Jesus Christ an everlasting maximum security.

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