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Effective Compassion: Loving the ones left behind - S3.E7

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Loving the ones left behind - S3.E7

Prisoners’ families, especially children, are the often-overlooked victims of crime


In the kitchen and around the table is where visiting families open up to each other and McCammon about life with an incarcerated family member. Its where much of her ministry to the families takes place. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

NICOLE: I was devastated. That was the hardest time.

JONATHAN: That was almost like, that was almost like a breaking point.

NICOLE: It was definitely not almost - it was the breaking point.

That’s Nicole and Jonathan Smith. Jonathan is a graduate of the Prison Fellowship Academy. You met him in Episode 5.

Just as he thought he was ready for parole, Jonathan found out he had to go through the 18-month program first. For Nicole, the delay in Jonathan’s release could not have come at a more difficult time.

NICOLE: So, during that 18 months, my child had, you know, a very, very horrendous accident. Almost lost her life. My mom was fighting for her life. At that time.

Her mom and daughter survived. But Nicole struggled through the ordeal practically alone—cut off from programs inside the prison and unaware of support systems outside.

NICOLE: My faith wavered the entire time. [54:03 -] It just it wavered. I had no [LONG PAUSE] strength …

For every one inmate there are countless family members abandoned and left to hold together what’s left of their broken lives.

Providing families with incarcerated loved ones the personal and spiritual essentials of Effective Compassion is fairly straightforward. But how does a ministry challenge people who are already challenged—fighting to maintain relationships with inmates.

Giving up would be so easy.

As it turns out, selflessly giving personal and spiritual care goes a long way in encouraging—or challenging—families to stay the course. Showing them that God, who created the family, cares about theirs and they are not serving time on the outside alone.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Bonnie Pritchett.

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Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

Jonathan and Nicole Smith met while he was an inmate. She was a college student working as a correctional officer. She quit her job when she realized Jonathan had become more than a friend.

Jonathan Smith and his wife, Nicole, at their home in North Houston.

Jonathan Smith and his wife, Nicole, at their home in North Houston. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

They married while he was still behind bars and counted the days until they could be together. In the meantime, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice revoked her visitation rights without explanation. After repeated appeals failed, they gave up trying.

So, for five years, Nicole could not visit her husband.

JONATHAN: She’d drive by the window. I could wave. And see her while we’re talking on the phone. She would drive by. I’d say ‘Hi… Sometimes she would drive by and I didn't even know. She would tell me later. Why weren't you in the window?

NICOLE: Three or four times a week. Yeah. I would do it a lot. You’re going to make me cry. I would do it a lot…

Just when Jonathan’s release seemed so close, his enrollment into the Prison Fellowship Academy pushed it off another 18 months. While Jonathan eventually recognized his need for the program, he grieved not being able to be with Nicole when she needed him the most.

JONATHAN: And I found myself many times, having conversations with God asking Him, “Why? What's going on? Clear my thoughts. So, I can see whatever it is, you're trying to show me because in and of myself, I can't see it…

What God showed him was a band of praying brothers.

NICOLE: Because he had everybody praying. [ JON OFF MIC Oh, yeah.] Everyone praying for for us. And I definitely felt it. I will tell that to anyone that will listen, I felt it. Because I remember feeling like I could not pray. I couldn't even talk to God. And I was I had gotten that low.

Those prayers helped carry the couple through to Jonathan’s release on parole in 2017. He’ll remain on parole until 2027. He works as a safety professional at a natural gas liquids plant and is pursuing an MBA in project management. The couple is doing well now, but the difficulty of those five years apart remains a painful memory.

Nicole Smith knew—or at least had an idea of—what she was getting into when she married someone in prison. But most families are thrown into the situation with little to no warning.

REPORTER: ABC 13 Eyewitness News tonight. Now, breaking news. Now at 10, police lead on another chance…

Behind the crimes on the evening news are so many untold stories. Like La Tonya Burkett’s.

She was busy at work on June 13, 2012 when she received a frantic call from a close family friend.

LATONYA BURKETT: Mine basically started with CPS. I was called by the mother at the time…

CPS is Child Protective Services, the state agency that investigates cases of child neglect and abuse.

BURKETT: I'm like, wait, till I get off work. When I get off work. I come to you. So, I go to her and I pick her up. I take her to my house. We sit there and talk about everything for two hours. And then all of a sudden, her phone rings and she's like “I'm here.” And like why she's saying I'm here. And then next thing I know is she was like “The man from CPS.” “The man from CPS?” Like, I didn't know anything. I would like to say I didn't know. I was caught off guard.

CPS showed up at Burkett’s home to determine if she was willing and eligible to care for the mother’s 6-year-old. The boy’s father had been arrested. And his mom couldn’t care for him or his three younger siblings.

BURKETT: So, when she came to me, I was like, “My baby.” Cuz he'd been knowing me since he was born. I've been nanny his whole life. So, I was like, my baby's not going anywhere with any strangers. I will take them.

That was nine years ago. He’s 15 now and still lives with Burkett. And while those years have had moments of joy, they’ve also brought plenty of challenges.

Women who participate in Angel Tree Year Round at Second Baytown, Texas. On the couch (L-R): Roberta Harris Langley, Monica Pierre, and Laquesha St. Jules. Standing (L - R) Program director Melinda Garcia, Tamika McKenzie, and LaTonya  Burkette.

Women who participate in Angel Tree Year Round at Second Baytown, Texas. On the couch (L-R): Roberta Harris Langley, Monica Pierre, and Laquesha St. Jules. Standing (L - R) Program director Melinda Garcia, Tamika McKenzie, and LaTonya Burkette. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

On a Friday evening last October Burkett met with four other women at Second Church Baytown, east of Houston, to discuss the tumultuous effect of a relative's incarceration.

LAQUESHA ST. JULES: It really did turn their lives upside down, especially my oldest…

That’s Laquesha St. Jules. Her father played an important role in her life, and that of her children. They took his arrest and incarceration especially hard.

ST. JULES: And that broke my household entirely seeing him leave and knowing that what he had the potential to be in to see him go down that road…

Her oldest daughter had trouble forgiving him.

That’s a common theme—for kids and parents.

The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program at Baytown Second Church brought these families together. Melinda Garcia coordinates the program for the church.

GARCIA: And so, we have been a host church for Christmas outreach, I would say probably going on 15 years…

Most people are familiar with Angel Tree for the gifts it collects for inmates’ children at Christmas. But Garcia says her church’s annual project became more than a one-and-done present distribution campaign.

GARCIA: And so, we not only now do just the Christmas event, but we go beyond Christmas now. And so we felt a need and a calling to reach out to the families all year round. And so we have now a program called Angel Tree Year Round and that's where we have special events throughout the year and we minister to the families on a monthly basis.

The program’s been going strong for seven years. Monthly meetings include Bible study and fellowship for the adults and Bible-based activities for the kids.

While the women appreciate the biblical teaching material, they said much of what their kids learn isn’t found in books. Roberta Langley who took in her incarcerated son’s seven children explains.

LANGLEY: So, with the kids, we have men roles, and, you know, more role models in here. And my boys look up to them. You know, we got Mr. Floyd, Mr. Mike, Mr. Rowland. I mean, we got role models in here that my boys look up to. My girls, they got teachers in here that teach them because they are growing up to be ladies. you see what I'm saying?..

Melinda Garcia is a social worker who began her career assisting victims of violent crime. She witnessed the trauma these families endured. That work spurred her passion to prevent similar crimes.

GARCIA: So, then I worked in the field of prevention, because, you know, I wanted to see how many people we could protect, before it ever got to, you know, to an incident…

Her Angel Tree kids are some of the victims of those incidents.

GARCIA: And so, our focus in Angel Tree is really the children. Our focus is to really to try to break those generational curses of into you know, of constant generations dealing with incarceration over and over again. So we believe that by faith that it once individuals and families come in contact with Christ, that it it is impactful, and that it does change lives and behaviors. And, you know, and they do start new lives. And so and that has been our hope with, you know, these women's children has is a testament to how God can intervene and break those cycles…

The women nod in agreement.

They were introduced to the Angel Tree program by friends, family members or even incarcerated family members. Most of them willingly signed up to participate.

Tamika McKenzie was skeptical. Her daughter’s incarcerated father was involved in the ministry in prison and wanted McKenzie and their daughter to participate.

MCKENZIE: And then all of a sudden, he reaches out to me concerning this Angel Tree thing. And I'm like, what is what is this about? Or I'm thinking? Is he trying to scam me for something…

I didn't want to do it at first. I was hesitant. And I'm like, I don't I don't know what this is. And I don't want people feeling sorry for me. We don't need any handouts. We're fine. We're fine…

She signed up … but with one condition. If she didn’t feel a pull in her heart for the program, she was out.

MCKENZIE: So, I came to the very first meeting, my child was snatched out of my arms by Mr. Mike, but we love Mr. Mike. He took care of her the entire meeting that I was here, so I don't have to worry about my baby. My two older children were being loved on and taken care of. I was being ministered to. And just from that one meeting, I know that we were hooked and we had to keep coming back…

The moms weren’t the only ones hesitant to attend. McKenzie’s daughter, Makiyla, didn’t want people feeling sorry for her because her dad was in prison.

Monica Pierre’s daughter felt the same.

PIERRE: And I was going through the same thing that she was going through when her daughter didn't want to open up. And my son's father is incarcerated still...

A friend urged her to attend. The kids might open up. They might like it.

PIERRE: And we went from there. And I've been coming. Cedric's he's 22. And he's in Boston, [OFF MIC in college], in college.

[OFF MIC: He’s in school to do what?]

PIERRE: A doctor.

GARCIA: And he still checks in on us when he's in town. He comes and checks in with volunteers.

A doctor. The son of an inmate is going to college to become a doctor.

Tamika McKenzie’s daughter joined the Navy. She shipped out for the first time, the day of our meeting.

These children’s lives are a testimony to the fact that they’re not doomed to repeat the sins of their parents. But the emotional and economic struggles unique to inmates’ children make it harder to keep them from that path.

McKenzie’s daughter Mikayla, learned that years ago. She was just 2 and a half when her father went to jail. Through the years her relationship with her dad grew in fits and starts.

Eventually, she discovered the key to reconciliation and told her mom.

MCKENZIE: I think I'm ready to forgive Dad. I think I'm ready to have a conversation with my father. And I have a long list of questions that I want to ask him. So that right there proved that Angel Tree has to be doing something because Mommy's here and can talk to you all day long and it'll go in your left ear and come out of your right. But you're here with other children your age, some of the volunteers are also close to her age. And now she wants to have a relationship with her father. And you could not tell that she's not a daddy's girl. Like you would think that he's been there since birth...

Phone calls help keep them in touch. But because phone use in prison is regulated, communication is not as timely as father and daughter would like. So, Mom acts as the go-between. That was especially true in the days leading up to Mikayla’s deployment.

MCKENZIE: They're tag teaming me. He's calling me while I'm in the Angel Tree meeting, wanting to know about his daughter. And because she shipped out or she was about to ship out, she shipped out today. And then she's texting me. Hey, Mom, have you heard from my dad? The tag team me! I'm the middleman. I'm just here. Yeah, I'm just here. But he wants to know, yeah, he wants to know how his daughter's doing what she's doing. Mama, have you heard from my dad? I haven't talked to dad. He hasn't called me. Your father's fine. I'm in a meeting. Your daughter's fine. I'm in a meeting. But I mean, Angel Tree. They did it. They were the glue.

Mending broken relationships between inmates and the families they hurt is hindered by the fact that some families can’t or won’t discuss the incarcerated family member. Shame keeps the truth stuffed deep down inside.

Michelle Edwards knows how that feels. She also knows it eats away on the inside.

EDWARDS: Women, we don't talk about it. And I had the same thing that happened with my brother when he was inside. We didn't talk about it. The family didn't ask. We they never asked how he was. It, you just don't talk about it. I've met mothers who ... How many children do you have? Oh, I have I have one son? Well, no, you have two sons. Remember the other ones serving life in prison and you don't talk about him? But you learned to cover up and you learn to be quiet. So, you lie by omission…

Helping women share their stories and move beyond the shame of guilt-by-association is the work of Kairos Outside. It’s part of Kairos International, a ministry serving prisoners and their families. Like ministries featured in Episode 5, Kairos programs equip volunteers from the prison’s surrounding churches to serve inmates and their families. They facilitate a 3-day introductory course to Christianity and long-term, weekly discipleship programs that help inmates live out their faith in prison and upon release.

Edwards is state director for Kairos of Texas Outside, a weekend retreat for women.

EDWARDS: But we do some special things with them. To make them feel like they are queens, like they are they are royalty. And we treat them like they are fragile, delicate beings in that we want to help - not fragile as in a mindset - but fragile as in we want to handle you with care. We want to love on you. We want to show you what the love of Jesus Christ looks like.

That’s most important because many of the women who attend the Kairos Outside retreats have been hurt by the church.

Edwards understands that. A committed Christian raised in the church, she felt the sting of judgment after her husband of 20 years left her and their two children.

Then she met and married Craig Edwards, an inmate. He was released in 2016 only to be immediately extradited to Oregon to serve time for an unrelated crime. As of January, he won’t be up for parole review for another five years.

That’s not a story she readily shared. At least not at first.

EDWARDS: And what was unique about my situation, at least I thought it was unique but I learned it wasn't unique, was I was married for two years and I did not tell a single solitary soul other than my children who knew. My mother knew. And my brother who was incarcerated at that time knew. So, four people knew my secret for two years. And remember, I was a church-going Christian, and like keeping that lie was literally destroying my mental status…

The Kairos weekend retreats revolve around small-group conversations prompted by Bible-based presentations.

Prayer chains hang from the ceiling at a Kairos Outside event.

Prayer chains hang from the ceiling at a Kairos Outside event. Courtesy photo

The event is covered in prayer. A paper chain—each link with a written prayer—is strung around the meeting hall.

EDWARDS: And it's like you just walk in and like it takes your breath away when they see these hundreds, if not 1000s of prayer chains that come together. And what we do is all the white ones are from someone who's inside our prison unit. And the colored ones are from people all over the world… And they're going wow, like, yeah, all these people are praying for you…

Some women are dealing with anger. They resent having to raise the grandchildren they love because mom or dad is in prison. At one point during the retreat, organizers take the chains down from the walls and drape them over the women as a physical reminder of the power of prayer and God’s love.

Kairos Outside participants are encouraged to join a SWAP accountability group—that stands for Share, Witness, Accountability in Prayer. They can meet via zoom or in person. Edward’s group meets once a month in her home.

EDWARDS: And we do that, we share, we witness how God's God worked in our life that we were held accountable. Well, last time you said that you were going to do this. So how's that going for you? And we pray together.

Caring for families includes maintaining or in some instances establishing relationships between children and their incarcerated parents. That’s the idea behind Day with Dad, a two-day event that brings together kids and their fathers on the grounds of the Memorial maximum-security prison in Southwest Houston.

The evening before the main Day with Dad event, volunteers and  inmate-dads gather for prayer and some parental advice. Many of the dads have  had few if any conversations with their children. The volunteers guide them in how  to talk with their kids about all areas of life.

The evening before the main Day with Dad event, volunteers and inmate-dads gather for prayer and some parental advice. Many of the dads have had few if any conversations with their children. The volunteers guide them in how to talk with their kids about all areas of life. Courtesy photo

Sugar Creek Baptist Church pastor Gary Hill heads up the multi-church effort. You also met him in Episode 5, when he explained how his encounter with a desperate inmate drew him and, ultimately, his church into ongoing ministry at Memorial.

GARY HILL: And then they the day with Dad is the same way. We've got eight or nine churches that all pitch in and help fund and bring a total of 175 volunteers for that two-day event to the unit…

Once an inmate meets the participation standards, he is allowed to invite his children.

HILL: It's highly coveted, to be able to get involved because the entire unit talks about it all year long, and how well it's conducted and the benefits that they get from them and their kids…

Due to space limitations, only 40 men are accepted into the program.

On the day the kids arrive, well, get out the tissues.

HILL: You cry the whole day on Saturday, just seeing, you know, the kids. I mean, there's all kinds of stories where, you know, dads who maybe have been sending letters to their kids, but they weren't allowed to visit them, to physically see them…

That can be intimidating for a dad who hasn’t had much, if any, experience parenting.

HILL: But, you know, we try to train them on Friday, the dads trained them on Friday of what to expect and what to do. Here's some things you can say, here are some questions you can ask your children to get them talking.

Day with Dad organizers make a big deal of reuniting  dads and kids. Participants and volunteers encircle the gym court and watch as  each dad is called to the center and reunited with his kids.

Day with Dad organizers make a big deal of reuniting dads and kids. Participants and volunteers encircle the gym court and watch as each dad is called to the center and reunited with his kids. Courtesy photo

For some dads the day is especially memorable.

HILL: One man who got approval for their child to come in, he had never met his child. The child was born as he was being incarcerated. And the child, I believe was 8 or 9 years old, never met the child who's a little girl. She came in, it was very emotional…

Mingled in with the goofy games and father daughter dances are times for the dads and kids to just sit and talk. And hug. There’s lots of hugging.

Day with Dad is just one out of several ministries that introduce the inmates to Christ, disciple them and hold them accountable to God in all areas of their lives—even as fathers. Some men may never be released from prison, but Hill said that does not release them from their responsibility as a parent.

HILL: Every child from birth to 99 wants the approval of their dad, whether you hate your dad or you hadn’t seen your dad in forever, you still have that God-given desire for approval, and acceptance. And so that's a time for them to demonstrate that, to show that you love your child, you tell them that you're proud of them, that they're doing great, you're encouraging them, you're telling them how God's working in your life as as their father, and the door just swings wide open. And those children are ready to receive that because they want to receive that.

Part of what makes Day with Dad participation possible is that it’s free. Families pay nothing. Those who travel from out of town are put up in a hotel. The ministry also helps pay gas or bus fare.

Hospitality House in Huntsville, Texas serves the “other victims of crime” –  inmates’ families. They can stay overnight at no cost when visiting their  incarcerated family member.

Hospitality House in Huntsville, Texas serves the “other victims of crime” – inmates’ families. They can stay overnight at no cost when visiting their incarcerated family member. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

And that’s a vital need for families who want to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Texas covers almost 270,000 square miles, and the state prisons are scattered across that expanse. A mom in Brownsville wanting to visit her son in an Amarillo prison would have to travel 800 miles—about 13 hours—one way.

That’s just not in the budget for many families.

PEOPLE TALKING: Thank you. Love y’all. Be careful

That’s Debra McCammon. She manages Hospitality House, a place for prisoner’s families to stay, for free, when they visit.

DEBRA MCCAMMON: Alright. Be safe.

MITZI WOOD: Yes, mam!

[SOUND: DOOR SLAM]

DANNY WOOD: Tell Joe good-bye.

MCCAMMON: I will. I'll tell him. Sorry he had to run off [PEOPLE TALKING OVER EACH OTHER] I'll tell him you called him a rascal. Sorry he had to run off so early for work this morning. But glad y'all got to see him last night…

Today’s she’s helping Miztie and Danny Wood pack their car for their drive home to Divine, Texas. It’s five hours from McCammon’s place in Huntsville.

Mitzie Wood is already planning their next visit.

MITZI WOOD: I need to make plans just to come up and say okay, come to the house here. And we may see Jeff or we may not - depends on what we're doing. [MCCAMMON: There you go.] Just travel during the day.

MCCAMMON: Just come on out and we'll play 42.

ALL TALKING: Sounds good, you guys. Thank you all to be safe. Okay, be safe. Thanks for putting up with her…

CAR PULLING AWAY

The Woods and McCammon talk like old friends. But it’s not the Woods’ relationship with McCammon that draws them to Huntsville every few weeks. It’s their son, Jeff. He lives in the Polunsky Unit about 45 minutes east of Huntsville.

Before they left for home, Mitzie Wood told me his story.

MITZI WOOD: His name is Jeffrey Wood. He is on death row. And he's been there – that's what we're trying to determine last night - he's been there 23 years on death row… Jeffrey was involved in a shooting… He was the driver of the vehicle but he didn't have a gun. He didn't have anything. But his passenger went in to pay for the gas and killed the guy. So long and short. He got got the same sentence as the one that did the shooting…

And for most of those 23 years the Woods have been staying at Hospitality House when they visit their son. The non-profit ministry serves as a respite for families visiting inmates incarcerated in one of the nine East Texas prisons. Similar, independent houses serve other units across the state.

The stay is free. And some morning and evening meals are included. Weekends are the busiest. All the guests who stay overnight live more than two hours from the prison they are visiting.

McCammon deferred the expense of transforming the drab,  institutional white bedrooms rooms by asking churches to adopt a room. Using the  Texas-themed motif, each church created their own unique space.

McCammon deferred the expense of transforming the drab, institutional white bedrooms rooms by asking churches to adopt a room. Using the Texas-themed motif, each church created their own unique space. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

McCammon says women and children make up the majority of her guests visiting the all-male units.

DEBRA MCCAMMON: We house women and children, to keep them from sleeping in their cars, and that's why the house was built. Men in the local Baptist churches had begun hearing about the women sleeping in the cars. Children, families, digging in dumpsters for food, putting knives and guns in their laps in case someone should break in. Mothers for fear of their life and their family, But they wanted to make a visit but they can’t afford the hotels here in town… In fact, a recent lady who just started coming, she's been sleeping in her car for months...

She had been visiting her son. He read about Texas Hospitality Houses in the prison newspaper and told his mom.

MCCAMMON: So, she came walking in that night. She said my son told me about this. Can I really sleep here for free? I've been sleeping in my car for months. And so she is now regular. We see her every other weekend. And she's come four times now. She loves cleaning the kitchen. She won't let me wash a dish. I do cooking but just say Miss Debra, you sit down you sit down. I got this…

Albert and Yolanda Balditt express their gratitude in the same way.

ALBERT BALDITT: We'd like to give back. Also not just, you know, not just take or be here. You know, we want to want to help around too.

MCCAMMON: Albert’s is an amazing help. He always asks my husband, Mr. Joe, what can I do to help?

For 30 years, the couple has traveled from San Antonio to Hospitality House to visit Yolanda’s brother.

MCCAMMON: The majority of our families, in fact all the families, are hourly wage earners. We don't have any that are salaried or have jobs that are like a salary. So, if they take off, it's all okay. When they take off, they miss work, they lose money…

Even with four washing machines, cleaning linens after a full house of  weekend guests takes a day or two.

Even with four washing machines, cleaning linens after a full house of weekend guests takes a day or two. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

The help from guests and a regular volunteer crew is much appreciated. Three staff and a small band of volunteers help run the 7000-square-foot, 17-room home. It can accommodate 64 guests. McCammon’s husband, Joe, is a retired pastor-turned-public-school-teacher and helps where he can.

MCCAMMON: Pre-COVID we were feeding about 50 to 60 people per night on Friday, Saturday nights…

A tour of the house begins at its heart—the combined kitchen and dining area. Specifically, the table.

MCCAMMON: A lot of it takes place around the kitchen table, when we’re eating a meal. That's when they're most relaxed. So I've always told my volunteer group, sit down with them, listen to their stories. They really just want someone who will listen to them. Don't judge them… And then when they're talking about the challenges of jobs or life or children or worrying about their sons, I'll just say, Can we pray with you? You know, we're sitting around the table, and everybody'll go, Can I join? Can I join, it will have people on the far table or up in the kitchen getting food and let's say just a minute, just a minute. And they'll come over and we join hands…

Her prayers of intercession are filled with the gospel. And she takes the opportunities God gives to share it with the guests in the short time they have together. Guests are also invited to participate in a Friday evening Bible study in the small chapel.

A small chapel serves a s place for prayer. On Friday evenings,  Hospitality guests are invited to participate in a Bible study.

A small chapel serves a s place for prayer. On Friday evenings, Hospitality guests are invited to participate in a Bible study. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

While McCammon does not judge her guests for the sins of their loved ones, she readily acknowledges the men are in prison for a reason. They violated the laws of man—and God—and are paying the price.

But so, too, are their families.

MCCAMMON: So, there's a lot of hurt and anxiety there that these families go through. Which is why we say we're sharing God's grace with the other victims of crime. They're on the other side of the crime. No, their home wasn't burgled. No, they didn't have a family member murdered. But because of the crime that their loved one did, the choice he made - an adult choice that he made - then their family will suffer from now on even once he's out, you know. That lingers and stays on. That stigma does…

The kids are especially affected by their parents’ criminal behavior.

MCCAMMON: And this is our Art Against the Odds building… [42:48 – 42:55 keys in a door]

Recognizing that the children of offenders were struggling emotionally from their circumstances, Hospitality House added a special element to the ministry, just for them—art therapy each Saturday evening.

MCCAMMON: We have an art professor from Sam Houston who's been with us nine years. And she teaches the children how to paint, express their feelings through clay, rolling paper… allowing them to express their anger, their frustration, that bitterness at having a father in prison, brother in prison…

One artistic expression lingers with McCammon.

MCCAMMON: You know, one of our young people that drew a picture of a hand, almost touching the other hand, and it was black all around it, she had Joe lay his hand down and had her brother lay his hand down. But they weren't quite touching. And she just started scribbling everything black around it. And we were asking her…what is going on? You know, tell me about your painting, you know, tell me about your picture. And, and she saw this as my hand and and this is my dad's hand. And we've not been able to touch in three years. I haven't been able to hold his hand, I haven't gotten a hug. And then she just launched into full blown anger...

No hugs. No hand holding. No contact. Never.

At least not for the most serious offenders. About an inch of plexiglass separates inmates from family during the no-contact visits. They talk over a two-way phone.

Death row inmates never have contact visits. Mitzie and Danny Wood haven’t touched their son Jeffrey in 23 years.

That barrier is removed only after the offender is released. Or after he is executed.

MCAMMON: And then the same chaplains will escort them then to view his body where it's been taken to a site here in town, a local church where they're able to view his body for one last time before it's taken to the funeral home…[They can touch him then?] They can touch them then. They can lay down on them, can hug them. They can give them final kisses. They can do all that they can hold their hand. According to the families, the body is still warm… I’ve now been here for, I don't know, 130-something executions in these 12 years…

Those are the hardest days at Hospitality House.

The inmate requests who he wants to witness his execution. Those who agree, must stay at Hospitality House. That’s the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s rule. Not McCammon’s.

The days leading up to the execution and, especially the day of, are tightly scripted by prison officials. Chaplains explain the entire process and remain with the family the day of the execution.

That day is an emotional rollercoaster.

Some families are calm and cling to hope of a last-minute stay of execution. For others, the turmoil is too much.

MCCAMMON: Others come in and we've had mothers have panic attacks, I had one start having a heart attack. We had to call an ambulance. We've had other women, sisters and cousins, who I found hidden in the bedrooms, in a corner crying. I found one under a bed, one under the puzzle table crying her heart out…

And all of that is before the execution.

One mother didn’t want to watch her son die but knew he wanted her to be there.

MCAMMON: I saw her when they pulled the car back up. And as she got out of the car, she was just staggering up our ramp holding the rails and just weeping and crying. So, I jumped up from the chair and got to the front door just as she got to the door and she fell into my arms as I opened the door. And as her head hit my shoulder and just weeping and crying. She said, Debra, I know what he did was wrong, but he's still my baby…

McCammon has also witnessed the mark of profound faith.

MCCAMMON: Then also remember another lady and her two sisters there for the execution of her son… [1:56:49 -] And they were just they love Jesus. And man, they talked about Jesus the whole time they were here. And they were praising the Lord and talking about him. And, and, yeah, he's going to stay and they just had such faith and such hope that everything was going to be okay…

There was no stay.

MCCAMMON: But then after the execution, watching them come back in, more quiet of spirit, and more resigned to what went on. But it hadn't hindered their faith. And he had said he was ready to go, he would rather go sit at the feet of Jesus, then continue to be in prison. And that was so healing and helpful for his mom and those aunts, to hear him say he was okay with it. He was at peace with it. And he'd rather do that, you know, then stay in prison, and stay in a small cell. And so watching their response afterwards was really powerful.

The shared Christian faith of a mother and son transcends prison walls. And even death itself.

Most prison ministries focus on the inmates themselves. But the families they leave behind need Christ just as much. Some are facing a forever separation. But others are waiting expectantly for their loved one’s release.

Ministering to inmates’ families, and healing broken relationships, helps lay the groundwork for a smooth transition to life on the outside. Every year, more than 600,000 men and women will be released from U.S. prisons. Without extra support, as many as two-thirds of them will end up back behind bars.

Next week, we’ll meet Christians who are doing everything they can to keep that from happening.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Bonnie Pritchett. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.



WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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