Group works to expand number of prison chapels in La.
While Louisiana may lead the world with the highest per capita rate of incarceration, state officials say Louisiana also leads the nation with the number of interfaith chapels inside its state prisons.
On any day around 40,000 felony offenders are serving sentences in Louisiana, with about half of them in local jails and the rest in state prisons, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Most of the 20,000 state prison inmates, however, can visit one of 13 interfaith chapels built in the last decade at 10 of the state’s 12 prisons.
Cindy Mann, executive director of the nonprofit Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation Inc., said she knows of no other state that offers a similar number of prison chapels that can — and do — benefit thousands of male and female inmates on a regular basis.
Ground was broken this week for a 14th chapel, which will go up at the State Police Barracks at Zachary.
Mann keeps a votive candle burning on her desk to signify the importance of the chapels.
“The candle is a container that holds all the brokenness of everyone’s lives,” Mann said. “It is a vigil over that brokenness.
“That chapel is a container,” Mann said, pointing to an architectural drawing of the prototype chapel on a shelf in her office. “The chapel is a tangible image that God is there holding all their brokenness even as their lives go on. He holds them, he holds their families, he holds the victims, he holds their families.”
The foundation, formed in 1996 at the behest of several prison chaplains, has a motto that reads, “Changing hearts and lives by building chapels in Louisiana’s prisons.”
Mann said she believes the chapels, which range from 5,000 to 7,000 square feet, are an integral part of a healing process that must occur for everyone involved in a crime.
“The big gaping hole in a victim family’s lives is the hardest one to deal with — the inmate — the offender,” Mann said.
The inmate’s “restoration is a huge part of the whole restoration process for the victims and their families and for an offender’s family.
“As a society we want to forget that component, but you can’t,” Mann said. “Restoration has to be a complete (process). Forgiveness is complete when all the parts are restored. The chapels are a tangible sign of that full restoration for everyone and a place to hold vigil over the brokenness as it comes to restoration.”
What Mann calls “restoration,” Angola Warden Burl Cain calls “moral rehabilitation,” a concept he credits with dramatically changing what was “America’s bloodiest prison” to a model of positive change for prisons across the nation during his tenure which began in 1995. This summer, he is receiving a national award for his program.
Located about 140 miles up the river from New Orleans, the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison is enclosed by razor-ribbed fences, watched by armed guards, and patrolled at night by hybrid wolf-dogs.
Six camps house 5,326 offenders — 3,992 of those serving life sentences — and four of those camps have an inmate-built chapel, according to the state. Prison chaplains estimate 1,200 to 1,500 are Christians.
State records show inmate assaults on other inmates and staff have dropped nearly 70 percent on Cain’s watch, from 262 in 1995 to 77 in 2011. The last murder was in 2004.
“Prison chapels are essential for moral rehabilitation, thus there are less victims of violent crime,” Cain said in an email. “Chapel is God’s house not man’s house; therefore, it should draw you like a magnet.”
According to the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, results of a three-year study indicated that when offenders are involved in an effective prison ministry, the percentage of those rearrested drops dramatically from 41 percent to 14 percent.
“There is no doubt that the efforts of past and present members of the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation have had a profound impact on thousands of individuals since the first chapel was completed more than a decade ago,” said James M. LeBlanc, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. “While the (department) works to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, the chapels provide both a physical and symbolic structure for individuals voluntarily seeking to reconnect with their faith or spiritual beliefs or those seeking such guiding moral principles for the first time.
“The chapels’ presence in state correctional environments have afforded peace, comfort and direction to those individuals seeking it,” LeBlanc said in a written statement.
The first five chapels were built “turn-key” by a contractor in 2001 and 2002, Mann said, but Warden Cain suggested applying the moral rehabilitation concept and allowing offenders to volunteer their time and labor.
“What they began to see is that when you invite more people to be a part of it — the inmates, the institution, we even became more involved — the relationship among these entities got deeper,” Mann said. “And that is what God is all about — relationships.”
At the Rayburn Correctional Center, located at Angie, Mann said, “when that chapel began to take shape and they could see their handiwork, they started adding landscaping and tables outside where visitors can come to sit and visit, where the staff can eat lunch. They all gather in the shadow of the chapel.”
Another unintended benefit of volunteer inmate labor, Mann added, is “there are a lot of guys who know what (the inmate volunteers) are doing.”
Checo Yancy is president of Louisiana Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, and was incarcerated at Angola for 20 years. Since his 2003 release he’s worked closely with the chapels. He’s also the Kairos prison ministry liaison to the Angola administration.
“The chapels give everybody a chance to have their own freedom to worship and allow guests to come in to worship with the men,” Yancy, 67, said. “There are thousands of guys like me who have been transformed in prison. Their thinking is different. It is based on Romans 12: 1-2; they are transforming their minds.
“I saw two guys at a service one night, and both of these guys are what I would call real gangsters, but they were at a church service with their Bibles in their hands,” he said. “Now they have gotten out and they are ministers on the streets.”
Although the chapels are all similar, based on a Grace & Hebert AIA Architects design, some are larger than the standard 5,000 square feet and include additional rooms so more than one group can meet at a time, Mann said. They all include a steeple, but without a Christian cross, since such other faith groups as Muslims and Buddhists also use them.
The chapels are paid for by the Foundation and no state or government money is involved, Mann said. More than $6.5 million has been donated so far.
Once completed, the chapels are given to the state with the promise it will always be a chapel and not turned into an office building or other state facility, Mann said.
Many of the chapels are funded by small donors. “At Rayburn, hundreds of people were giving $10 to $100,” Mann said.
Some are built with one donation such as the Ruth Graham Chapel at Camp F at Angola, completed in 2006. “Franklin Graham has been a very good friend of the Foundation,” Mann said.
In 2008, the Nancy Ree Foreman Freedom Chapel was completed at the Dixon Correctional Institute at Jackson, mostly paid for by her son, former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman.
Inside the chapel, everything else, such as the chairs, sound systems and musical instruments, are also donated, Mann said. Nationally known gospel singer George Beverly Shea donated, on his own, an expensive organ to the Main Chapel at Angola in October 2009.
An additional $160,000 is needed for the State Police Barracks chapel at Zachary, and $400,000 for another planned chapel at Allen Correctional Center at Kinder, Mann said.
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