Associated Press, Mar. 10, 2003
NIANTIC, Conn. — The Rev. Laurie Etter doesn’t call God by one name. Neither does her congregation of female prisoners.
Some of them say God. Or Allah. They say Creator and Goddess.
The 23-year chaplain of York Correctional Institution believes that recognizing a God of any name might keep women from returning to jail. She’s testing that theory with a six-month interfaith program that requires the 32 participants to live in the same dormitory.
It has its challenges.
“Sometimes I get a little tongue-tied around pronouns,” she said. “I end up saying a lot of ‘God-slash-Creator-slash-Allah-slash-Goddess-slash-God of your understanding.”‘
Women from five different faith groups – Protestant, Catholic, Native American, Wiccan and Muslim – signed up for the trial run, which ends in June. Many are abuse victims, or have a history of drug use or mental illness.
The participants attend group discussion and individually meet with community volunteers who serve as mentors.
Dubbed “Chrysalis” – the last stage in a butterfly’s development – the program was created by Etter for her thesis project at Hartford Seminary as an alternative to traditional residential programs taught from a Christian perspective.
“It just seemed like we could do it better than that,” Etter said.
Etter said she wanted to offer something that would appeal to the general prison population and could deal with issues unique to female prisoners, such as motherhood and surviving abuse.
“What happened in most faith-based programs was basically Christian,” said the Rev. Anthony Bruno, director of Religious Services for the state Department of Correction. “To have something that expands to the true minority religions, and have them participate, that’s the breakthrough.”
The participants are nearing their release dates. Their re-entry into society means dealing with family and trying to atone for the crimes they’ve committed.
The hope is that by showing them a faith community that exists outside prison walls, it will keep inmates away from their old lifestyles – and out of prison for another crime.
“I preach over, and over, and over again, ‘Go to Church,”‘ Etter said. “If they have that community system all set up, and they know they’re well accustomed, that helps to make all the difference.”
The residents moved into a ward in a newly refinished building in mid-February. The rules there are the same as in the other dormitories, but there are subtle differences.
There is time for meditation built into the daily routine. Inmates don’t lock their dressers – and trust that roommates won’t take what’s inside. There’s no swearing allowed, and inmates say the rule is enforced, unlike in other prison dorms.
“The negativity runs rampant in a place like this,” said Kim Schiappa, 44, a Catholic woman serving a 15-year sentence for a manslaughter conviction. “But the setting here, it’s positive in a negative place.”
For others, it’s a way to worship in an understanding community. The women aren’t allowed to encourage conversion, but they are encouraged to ask questions and learn about the other faiths.
“I’ve had roommates before that used to call me devil worshipper. They would sing gospel to me, offer to lay their hands on me,” said Christine “Crystal” Gonsalves, 37, a Native American Wiccan serving time on a manslaughter charge. “That used to really annoy me.”
The program is one in an emerging national trend toward interfaith residential programs. The Florida Department of Correction announced in August it would sponsor interfaith dormitories in seven prisons.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is also sponsoring a similar program in five federal prisons, spokesman Dan Dunne said.
Dunne and Connecticut officials said they believe their programs are constitutionally sound. A Christian fundamentalist residential program run in an Iowa prison was recently sued by an advocacy group on allegations the program violated separation of church and state.
Christina Polce, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said that because Etter’s program was multi-faith and open to all prisonersat York, prison officials did not believe it would be subject to litigation.
She also said the trial program did not require any additional funding, because supplies were donated and Etter’s salary was already worked into the department’s budget.
The only evidence prison officials have about the impact of religion on recidivism is anecdotal, Etter said. If it is successful, the program could eventually be expanded to the men’s facilities.
For now, the proof is in the women’s willingness to listen.
“This will get my foundation real strong,” said Grace Owens, a 37-year-old Protestant serving a five-year sentence for robbery and drug charges. “I want people to look at me and say, ‘She’s a model.’ I want my obituary to say, ‘a loving mother, a beautiful person.”‘