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Faith finds place in women's prison

Svann Langford leads a group of women in prayer to start her visit at the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center.
Svann Langford leads a group of women in prayer to start her visit at the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center.
John Bulger, Associated Press

POCATELLO, Idaho — The women walk single file down the hallway, all of them wearing green tunics, gray pants and soft-soled shoes with Velcro fasteners. The green tops signify they are residents of the medium security section of the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center.

They enter the dining room at 7 p.m. Most sit down, but several warmly greet and hug a blond woman before sitting.

"God is good!" the blond woman says. The inmates respond, "God is good!"

"You are. . . ?" the woman asks.

"Mighty women of God!" the assemblage responds.

"Don't ever forget that," the woman says softly. "You don't believe it, just ask me."

Wearing a T-shirt that reads "Worship Junkie," Svann Langford, 40, displays an ease born of having done ministry work at the prison for years. She begins the prayer: "Father, I thank you for all these wonderful women. You know their needs more than they know themselves."

In an environment in which hope can be a precious commodity, numerous ministries volunteer their time with inmates to help them reach and sustain that goal.

Other than Langford's, all of the bowed heads are dark-haired. The prison does not allow women to color their hair, and most have been in the system long enough so that only a few have remnants of tint at the ends.

Langford's husband, Charles, 59, passes out cookies. Ministries are afforded only one opportunity per year to bring treats or presents to the inmates.

There are several songs, then Langford gets to her message for this session. Langford holds a Nerf football, a prop to emphasize her point about receiving God's love. She tells the women they must allow bitterness and unforgiveness to leave them.

"We gotta get rid of the old so we can take in the new," she says and tosses the ball to one of the inmates. "When you receive the ball, think about receiving that gift of God's love."

The women laugh as the catch the toy football and then throw it to other inmates.

Through the hour, some women are intent. Others fidget and talk among themselves. Several women carry 2,000-plus page study Bibles, which they refer to often.

Near the close of the hour, Langford asks the women if they have anything that they wish to share. One women offers a Bible verse that seems appropriate.

Langford asks her to read it again: "In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

A woman near the back offers an insight. Several women ask her to sing a song she wrote. Nearly all the women turn and listen as the women stands and sings in a gentle voice: "No more shackles on my feet . . ." As she finishes, the women applaud and cheer. "God gave me that song," the woman says. Another woman tells the crowd that at Christmas last year, she was in the throes of methadone withdrawal. "Even though I'm locked up, I'm clean and sober," she says. The women clap.

Hal Davison, 52, was regular Army for 24 years. On his retirement, he and his wife moved to Arco. Ten years ago, he began to work at the women's prison. It was a natural segue for him.

"This place is like the Army," Davison says, noting the regimented existence in the prison.

Davison was a corrections officer for five years, then a sergeant at the facility for two. In 2005, he applied for and was awarded the job of overseeing the prison ministries.

"It was a big transition," Davison says. "When I was a sergeant, it was, 'Shut up, put your hands on the wall.' Now it's, 'How can I help you?' "

Davison makes no claims about his ability to intercede successfully when a crisis of faith erupts.

"I answer them the best I can," he says.

Mostly, he refers the inmate to one of the numerous groups that routinely visit the prison as part of the ministries program. At initial intake into the prison population, each woman is asked her religious leaning. Forty-five percent of inmates identify their orientation as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 24 percent as non-Roman Catholic Christian, 10 percent as Catholic, 4 percent as Wiccan, Odinist, Rastafarian or other less-mainstream religion, and 1 percent as Jewish.

Sixteen percent of the women do not list a religious affiliation.

The prison has a chapel, essentially a regular room designated for ministries. It is in constant use. In the past 12 months, 211 inmates have participated in religious activities. There were 216 classes held, with 113 volunteers putting in 454 hours.

"Business is booming," Davison says. "We get a lot of shoppers."

"Shoppers" is the term Davison uses to denote women whose religious dedication is sketchy at best. The lure of songs and treats has likely brought some of the women to the event. It is hard to cast blame on the women.

"They don't want to sit in their cells," Davison says.

The room is at capacity, 20 women from minimum custody in attendance. The rules allow only 10 women if they are medium custody inmates. Those deemed closed custody, the next level, cannot attend religious events, as they are not allowed to leave their unit.

"They can't play. We send the faith to them," Davison explains, noting that the volunteers are allowed to visit closed custody inmates on their unit.

Helping Davison are inmates Shana Parkinson and Merilyn Davis. Parkinson is the clerk this year, cataloging the visitors and inmates who attend. Davis held the position the previous year. She is in charge of humanitarian projects this year.

"I get the ones with longevity," Davison says with a smile.

Davison's remark is light but accurate. Parkinson, 40, is not eligible for parole until 2031, having been convicted in 2005 of stabbing her ex-husband and his girlfriend to death. Davis, 62, convicted of forgery and grand theft convictions out of Ada County, is not eligible for parole until 2014.

Parkinson, 40, notes that not all the women who come to services are seeking spiritual guidance.

"A lot of them find comfort when they can," she says. "Unfortunately, others use it to meet friends."

Parkinson says that most women at the prison with authentic faith do not wear their religious convictions on their sleeves outside of the meetings. It is likely a learned response, a self-protection instinct. She recounts the jokes of the jailers in county lockup who spoke about inmates who found God in jail but quickly lost him again on getting out.

For some like herself, the chapel provides a place of repose and quiet from the general population.

"It's a refuge of peace in here," Parkinson says. "You kind of get a reprieve for an hour."

An inmate can make up to $1.75 per hour in certain prison jobs. Parkinson makes 15 cents per hour working in the chapel.

"I traded it for peace and serenity," she says.

Parkinson does genealogical work for the LDS Church, currently focusing on Oslo, Norway. The data files are brought to the prison because there is no Internet access for inmates where inmates can work on them.

"I'm allowed to come down during the day," she says.

While some women come into services with no pretense of desiring a religious immersion, Parkinson says they still get something from their attendance.

"Even if they're not spiritual, they gravitate toward others who are," she says.

She explains that many of the religious volunteers give off a sense of peace. Also, their benevolence is heartening to the women.

"They care a lot about us. They really do. Any display of kindness is welcome," she says. "Even when they can get us to laugh, it's great. This is a really, really sad place so many girls in just so much pain up here."

Davis shows off some of the items the women have made. These include 350 scarves made for the Special Olympics, which the women had to make to specifications of 50 inches long and 5½ inches wide, in blue and white.

She shows off a large crochet turtle. The women made the items for an orphanage in Japan. The women also have made table decorations for each month of the year for Hillcrest Haven, as well as crocheting lap blankets for the home's residents. They have made caps for newborns at the Portneuf Medical Center and have made bandages for an LDS-funded leper colony in Kenya.

One of the most gratifying projects Davis oversees is the greeting cards collection. Inmates are allowed to send 24 cards a year, allowing them to keep in contact with loved ones by sending birthday or holiday greetings.

Davis acknowledges that many of the women who help with projects come to have something to do. Similarly, she notes that many women who attend service are there simply because it allows them to interact with others. She sees no problem with either, only an opportunity for the women to be of service or to possibly be helped themselves.

"If they get 10 minutes out of that hour, it just might turn them around," she says of the women attending services. "I think it brings community."

One key component of some of the ministries is a support system once the women leave prison.

"There isn't a support system," she says about the corrections system once a woman has done her time and walked out the prison doors. "There's some ladies who don't have anything except what they leave with. They're scared to get out because they've got nothing."

The ministries program gives the women valuable contacts on the outside, she says.

It also gives the women tools to recovery, to help ensure they do not fall back into old addictions upon their release. Faith-based recovery programs such as Heart to Heart and Celebrate Recovery require inmates to do regular course work to stay with the program.

"You've got to do your homework or you're not in it," Davison says.

A typical class starts with 30 women, he notes. At the end, a class might have five who have kept up.

Svann Langford speaks with authority about addiction. She comes to the prison twice a week as a representative of Rocky Mountain Ministries, a local church. Although she has never been sentenced to prison, she has been incarcerated in the past.

"My troubled years started when I was a teenager," she says "I had a really messed-up life. I got started into drugs really young, by the time I was 11. I just got messed up in that whole scene and all that it entails.

"When I was 15 I ended up in the state hospital down in Utah 'cause back then they didn't have all these nice treatment centers. They just locked you up and threw away the key. The rest of my life just followed. I went from one institution to another, one rehab to another until the Lord got me out of all that."She is honest in her travails, noting her struggle with addiction to opiates has been ongoing.

"In the last year I've come off of a 29-year addiction to opiates," she says. "I've gone through a lot in the years I've been ministering up there, but I've never let it stop me from taking the message, because that's what it's all about. It's not about me."

Langford believes that much of her effectiveness as a conduit of the message of God's love and forgiveness comes from her own battles and her forthrightness with the inmates.

"They know my struggles."