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Photo by Ron Hass

Forgiven, not forgotten

Hope Award | North Carolina ministry seeks to build ties between prisoners and their children

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

MAURY, N.C.-Along the back roads of eastern North Carolina, the 1,500 residents of Maury barely outnumber the population of the tiny town's largest residential facility: the Maury Correctional Institution, a close-security prison holding nearly 1,000 men facing long, hard time. Just around a secluded bend, the prison's concrete walls and barbed wire tower over the surrounding acres of green fields brimming with short, leafy tobacco.

Even if inmates' families make the trek to Maury, visitation is a sterile affair: Inmates sit across from visitors at small, square tables, and rules are strict-one hug on arrival, one hug when leaving, and no other physical contact. The regulations are understandable: Many of these men are serving time for violent crimes, including murder. Whatever the crime, the sentences are often long, averaging 20 years to life.

None of that seems to bother Scottie Barnes. The founder of the Taylorsville, N.C.--based Forgiven Ministry-a Christian ministry for inmates and their families-is familiar with visiting days: Her father began spending long stretches of time in prison when Barnes was 4 years old. He died in a Kentucky jail when Barnes was 42. Her life-long desire to reconcile with her father happened after he embraced Christianity, shortly before his death.

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Barnes hopes to narrow that gap for other children. That's why she's in a conference room at the Maury prison on a Thursday evening, training local volunteers for a program that will reunite a handful of inmates with their children for an entire day. The program-called One Day With God-is particularly striking at a prison like this one where visitation rules are tight. Officials have agreed to allow carefully selected inmates to interact with their children in ways they normally couldn't: playing games, holding hands, sharing a meal, making crafts, lots of hugs.

Over a small sound system, Barnes tells a dozen volunteers why organizing one day of interaction is worth so much effort: "Just because that daddy's behind these walls doesn't mean he's not a father."

That's a theme the ministry has repeated at more than 15 camps this year, serving more than 1,100 inmates, children, and caregivers. Barnes plans to conduct 14 more camps in five states before the end of the year with the help of two other full-time staff members, including her husband, Jack, and a cadre of unpaid board members and volunteers. Each place they visit, the message is the same: Be a responsible father. Ask God to help you do it.

The message extends to the ministry's other programs too: For example, an 18-week re-entry program led by volunteer mentors teaches life skills to inmates nearing the end of their sentences at minimum-security jails. Monthly Bible studies encourage inmates to stay connected to their children. Some programs cater specifically to children: Volunteers staff the ministry's Ezekiel Room at another prison, allowing children to hear Bible stories and interact with each other during otherwise long visits in confined quarters.

But the ministry's centerpiece is the two-day camp at prisons, which usually begins like the weekend in Maury: On an early Friday morning, inmates-17 when I visited-in white T-shirts, tan pants, and white tennis shoes begin trickling into a windowless visitation room. Each man has one or more children he hopes will visit on Saturday. The prison chaplain and other officials have selected inmates who must meet certain criteria: no sex offenders or pedophiles; each participant must remain infraction-free for at least 90 days before the camp.

Barnes, assistant Karen Strickland, a Bible teacher, and a handful of volunteers spend Friday helping the fathers prepare. The day is mostly devoted to biblical teaching about fatherhood, with an emphasis on the gospel. The fathers prepare in other ways too as they gather around small tables set with white tablecloths and a cluster of gifts for each inmate: crackers, Moon Pies, peanuts, bottles of juice, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, a tract, a devotional book, and a Bible-based parenting booklet.

Before the teaching begins, Barnes tries to break the ice, but these dads are quiet. She finally asks: "How many of you are nervous?" Every hand goes up. Barnes pauses to pray for the men and then assures them: "Your kids aren't looking at you in any other way than as a daddy tomorrow."

The men line up at a long table for their first project: decorating wooden picture frames for their children. A photographer will snap a photo of each inmate and his child on Saturday, and the dads will give their children the hand-­decorated frames to display the pictures. They'll also write a message on the back with a black pen.

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