Finding faith in prison

Students visit Collins Correctional Facility to spread message of love

The Spectrum

From singing "Amazing Grace" to saying the 'Our Father' prayer in front of chain fences and razor wires, Newman Center students offered religious and emotional support to local prisoners this weekend.

Saturday night, students visited the Collins Correctional Facility, a prison located in Collins, N.Y. Working with Collins Christian Ministries, a faith-based organization focused on providing services to prisoners and their families, students stood outside the fences of the prison. They sang to and prayed for the prisoners.

Students attended the holy hour service as soon as they arrived at the prison at 7 p.m. After about 45 minutes, they went into the prison and stayed for almost an hour.

It is not uncommon to find prisoners who turn to, maintain and develop their spiritual lives during incarceration. According to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, more than 73 percent of state prison chaplains say that efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are either very common (31 percent) or somewhat common (43 percent).

April Tarantino, a freshman art major, was nervous about the experience at first - it was her first time participating in the Newman Center's visit to the prison.

"I had no idea what it was going to be or look like," Tarantino said. "When we pulled up, it was like something right out of a movie ... it was very intimidating."

Once she considered why she was there and what they were about to do for the prisoners, her anxiety vanished, replaced by inspiration. She began to feel the power of their message.

"When an inmate signs up for a program like this, I see an inner apprehension in them," Deacon Jack Burke, who works in the prison, said in an email. "They feel they are not worth saving. They feel that they cannot be forgiven. They don't understand the love of God and His desire to have a relationship with them."

When prisoners witness the students singing and praying for them, they often feel a change in themselves, according to Burke, who said he has seen many "grown men cry because they can feel the love and the forgiveness that Christ offers us." The deacon has seen many prisoners released to take their lives in entirely new directions, given "the hope of change" through rejuvenated faith.

"These are those who know that they want more out of life," Burke said.

Tarantino saw these changes taking place in the prisoners firsthand as the students of the Newman Center sang and prayed.

"We were sending them a message, telling them that they may feel alone but they are loved," Tarantino said. "When we read off the names and let them know that we were all praying for them, some of them began to cry. They held their arms out and said 'thank you,' and it was one of the most moving things I have ever been a part of."

Curtis Boyle, an industrial engineering graduate student who went on the trip, has been visiting the Collins Correctional Facility for three years now. Each time he visits, he is struck by how much the prisoners are able to grow and maintain their spiritual lives in such a hostile and toxic environment.

Boyle believes it's important to remember the prisoners' humanity, though some view them only as criminals.

"They're just people," Boyle said. "I think a lot of the time, we focus on the action, that sin that person has undertaken, and not the person as they are. We forget all the intricacies of their lives, all the things they have going on, and the circumstances they were in. That gets lost. There's so much more to a person than just that one action that puts them in prison."

Tarantino said she believes in the importance of seeing people as more than their mistakes.

"I think we all walked away with the gift of giving," Tarantino said of her experience. "It is totally true that in giving, we receive."