TUCKER A modest chapel that represents new life for hundreds of prisoners now has a new life of its own.
Many men housed at the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Tucker Unit have submerged themselves in a tank of water near the altar of the Island of Hope Chapel, a sacrament celebrating a new spiritual life.
“This building is a silent but powerful symbol for these men,” Warden Stephen Williams said. “The inmates who come here, we see a change in them.”
But for the building itself, water had been a symbolnot of rebirth but of decay, forcing the chapel into an unwanted ritual of dripping ceilings and hallways filling with standing water every time it rained.
That all changed last summer, when workers replaced boards and broken windows with new panes of glass, removed damaged wings of the building, shored up its foundation, gave it a new roof, and covered its walls, floors and pews with fresh finishes.
About $175,000 worth of work made the 42-year-old building, thought by prison officials to be the first freestanding prison chapel in the South, new again.
The cinder block building, with a sharply sloping ceiling, fills with natural light at midday and features a fauxleaded window made from plexiglass behind its altar.
The building was dedicated in November 1969 after an extensive fundraising campaign that drew $80,000 from donors around the country, including country music star Johnny Cash.
It became a symbol of then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s campaign for change at the state’s prisons, particularly the Tucker Unit, where prisoners awoke to the sounds of beatings with leather straps. The unit, run largely by sometimes corrupt favored convicts called “trusties,” gained nationalattention for its “Tucker Telephone,” a device used to shock inmates.
To Rockefeller, the chapel represented plans to use prisons as places of rehabilitation and growth rather than strictly harsh punishment, said Dwight Linkous, 71, the last surviving member of a fundraising team who traveled the country to build the structure.
“This was a place of inhumanity toward humanity,” he said. “A lot of those criminals would leave worse than they were when they came in.”
A group of community leaders, ministers and prison officials gathered Friday to celebrate the completion of the project. At the service, they sang along with praise songs led by a band of prisoners who had found or recommitted to their faith within the prison’s walls.
It was a day some thought they wouldn’t see.
The chapel, dedicated in November 1969, had fallen into disrepair with rotting wood, a leaking roof and a courtyard prone to flooding.
The Arkansas Board of Corrections voted in June 2009 to raze the structure rather than financing costly repairs, which totaled an estimated $400,000.
This troubled Linkous.
The team gave the Correction Department the building, built by volunteers and inmates, with the understanding that the department would maintain it “into perpetuity,” he said.
Linkous was informed of the building’s fate in a letter from a former Tucker Unit inmate who had “gotten saved” in a program at the chapel and returned to volunteer there after he was released.
Linkous quickly scheduled a trip to the prison to see the building.
“When I saw it, it was just heartbreaking,” he said.
Linkous and Benny Magness, chairman of the Corrections Board, visited the chapel, revising building plans to fit the project within a smaller budget, and the board rescinded its original vote. The repairs were financed with a bond issue and fees from the inmate telephone system.
The establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution would prohibit the Correction Department from financing a new building for religious purposes, spokesman Shea Wilson said. But the group’s agreement to maintain the structure allowed it to financerepairs and maintenance, she said.
The original building was the brainchild of inmate James Dean Walker, serving a life sentence at the Tucker Unit for the slaying of a North Little Rock patrolman.
Walker, who had converted to Christianity in prison, traveled with Linkous, guarded only by a prison chaplain as he made his fundraising pitch at churches throughout the state.
Some congregations collected hefty offerings, while others gathered less than $20, Linkous said. One elderly woman approached him after a service and placed two quarters in his hand for the project.
Efforts gained momentum when televangelist Rex Humbard asked his 18 million viewers to consider mailing $1 to the state Capitol for the chapel.
“In one day, we received over 10,000 envelopes,” Linkous said.
Arkansas-born Cash, returning to his home state to perform at Cummins Prison, gave $5,000.
Walker later escaped while on furlough, won a new trial, pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge and was sentenced to time served.
Linkous, who calls himself “a strict law-and-order man,” said it’s important for inmates to have a sanctuary on the prison grounds, a place to focus on bettering themselves before re-entering society.
“What we believed as a committee was that the greatest rehabilitation that could ever be in a person’s life is if they had a relationship with Christ in their life,” he said. “Our hope was that through that chapel, that those that attended would come out a better person, a better husband, a better employee and a useful member of society.”
National groups, like Watergate offender Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship International, link participation in prison ministries to a reduction in recidivism rates.
Linkous said he is glad the Island of Hope Chapel still exists, better after a few modifications and a fresh coat of paint.
The prison population has changed, adding more inmates from religions other than Christianity.
A group of Muslim inmates meets weekly in the chapel for prayers led by a fellow convict, Chaplain Joshua Mayfield said. It also plays host to Catholic Masses, Church of Christ prayer services and Assemblies of God programs.
Community volunteers use the chapel for faith-based classes on subjects like addiction recovery and parenting techniques.
“We have a lot of men coming through here who are trying to figure out how to be a good father for a child they haven’t seen for quite a few years,” Mayfield said. “They want to know ‘how do I teach my son or daughter to do as I say and not as I have done?’”
Men attend voluntary services on Sundays, take part in baptisms and contribute to a modest offering by signing vouchers to transfer money from their accounts in the inmate banking system.
The inmates themselves, shuffling to polish pews and install monitors in their white jumpsuits earlier this month, told of the difference spiritual commitment made in their lives.
Inmate Guy Boone, 46, of El Dorado started serving a life sentence at the Tucker Unit in 1998 after being convicted of first-degree murder.
Boone, who will likely never leave the grounds of the Tucker Unit, is finishing correspondence courses to earn a degree in ministry, the capstone of a transformation that began when he volunteered in the chapel’s library.
“It actually was a training ground for me,” he said of counseling conversations he had with other men in the building. “This isn’t just jailhouse religion.”
The message of forgiveness that is central to the life of Jesus Christ is especially meaningful to men grappling with terrible decisions in their pasts, Boone said.
“If the Bible was true then, I believe it’s true now,” he said. “It doesn’t negate the fact that there was a crime committed, but that crime does not identify me.”
Boone centers his life on Isaiah chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners ...”
“Whether it was through the streets or through their families, you’ve got to be hardened to do what some of these men have done,” he said. “But I’ve seen some of those men come here and get broken.”
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 05/14/2011
Print Headline: Water again seen sacred at repaired prison chapel