Inmates find healing from inside

Chaplain organizes memorial service for loved ones who died while they were in prison

December 17, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

When his 13-year-old son had heart problems and died three years ago, James Frye couldn't attend the funeral. He was locked up. And Steven Burley aches to be able to comfort his wife, whose mother died in March. But he can't. He's in prison, too.

Those men joined about 100 others for one of three memorial services yesterday inside Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, a medium-security prison with about 1,100 beds. They squeezed their eyes shut and lifted their arms in prayer. They listened to preachers and speakers tell them to let go of their feelings of guilt and to embrace grief.

"This is a prison full of men, so if your mother dies or your child dies, you can't sit around and cry," said Warden Carolyn Watkins, who attended the afternoon service.

So when the prison chaplain proposed a plan for a memorial service, she said she thought it could give prisoners a safe environment to grieve - an outlet for their emotions.

The Rev. Reginald Bellamy said the idea came to him about two months ago, after he told a prisoner that his child had died. It was the third time Bellamy had to break such news to the man. Years earlier, the man's mother had died. Then an aunt. And now this.

Losing a child can be particularly hard for prisoners, Bellamy said, because other relatives might blame them: "This never would have happened if you'd been here."

The chaplain said he felt a duty to give the men a venue for their grief, and he thought of his own recent losses for inspiration. Three years ago, his only grandchildren, ages 6 and 9, died in a fire. Bellamy officiated at their funeral and said he couldn't imagine the pain prisoners must feel by not being able to attend such events.

Atkins said some prisoners had been allowed to attend funerals in years past, but that practice was stopped because of public safety concerns. With emotions already running high, grieving loved ones sometimes could not bear the sight of a person in shackles at the casket.

Men in their blue "D.O.C"-stamped light-blue shirts filed into yesterday's afternoon service in the yellow-lit entryway of the prison school building. Some knelt in prayer before taking their seats. Some held Bibles.

"Forget about yourselves," Bellamy said in his opening sermon. "Forget about what happened to you, and concentrate on Him."

Michael Maybin, visiting from Transformation Church of Jesus Christ in Baltimore gave a sermon, reminding the men again and again that their loved ones might have left their bodies, but that they live on in eternity.

He urged them to live upright, godly lives so that they could rejoin their departed relatives in the afterlife. Burley, 42, said he planned to keep attending Bellamy's services in an attempt to do just that. A South Baltimore resident, Burley is serving a six-year sentence for drug dealing.

Frye, 56, nodded emphatically throughout the sermon, occasionally tapping a tambourine for emphasis. The Hagerstown resident has been in Jessup since February and is serving a 10-year sentence for drug distribution.

When his child died in 2004, Frye was behind bars for a probation violation on a 1997 drug-dealing conviction. He was released a few months after his son died, he said, but he never dealt with his grief. Instead, he said, he turned to drugs.

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