December 10, 2010

Women Find Religious Freedom in Prison

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Before diplomas were handed out, inmates performed spiritual songs such as 'Temporary Home' by Checotah native Carrie Underwood

Nathan Poppe /Oklahoma Watch

Before diplomas were handed out, inmates performed spiritual songs such as 'Temporary Home' by Checotah native Carrie Underwood

Sitting in her blue graduation robe, Heather Sisson feels freer than she has ever been.

Her new-found freedom might puzzle some at first considering she is one of about 770 female offenders at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft.

Sisson hasn’t had a steak and potato in 14 months and her physical boundaries are defined by barbed wire and a chain link fence.

Video clip:  Graduating with Grace

But the restrictions that come with incarceration haven’t stopped her from working to escape the demons of her past.

On Thursday, Sisson took another step in her recovery process as she and 21 others became the first female offenders in Oklahoma to graduate from the Victory Bible Institute, a faith-based prison ministry program offered by Victory Christian Center in Tulsa.

The women voluntarily started the program in May, attending class Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in a new chapel built by a group of about 40 volunteers from six states.

The 4,800 square-foot building was built using private donations and includes classrooms, a library, computer lab, card shop, offices and a large auditorium with a stage.

Sisson said attending Victory Bible Institute taught her what she didn’t understand as a child.

“When I was little

, growing up, I went to church, but they didn’t make Jesus that real to me,” Sisson said. “He just seemed like a figment of my imagination. I didn’t understand the depth of what God truly is, and how he can free us from bondage.”

Sisson said she was abused as a child for 13 years and had an unstable home life. That instability continued to adulthood, culminating in January 2009 when police came to her home to serve a search warrant and found about 100 ecstasy pills and drug paraphernalia.

Sisson was arrested and charged with drug trafficking, possession of a controlled drug in the presence of a minor and attempting to acquire proceeds from drug activity.

She was sentenced to four years in prison but might serve only a year as she was unanimously recommended for parole at the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Tuesday. To become official, her parole must be approved by Gov. Brad Henry.

“It was God that showed me favor in the parole boardroom,” Sisson said.

Sisson has been able to work through the issues that carried over from childhood, thanks to the Victory Bible Institute and other classes she has taken at Eddie Warrior.

Kathryn McCollum, the chaplain at Eddie Warrior, said the concept of God for some of the women can be hard at first because of issues related to abuse and authority.

“Mentally, they feel that they know that God is real, and that they should love God, but because of the authority figures they may have had because of the high abuse rate and the dysfunctional family that a lot of the (women) come from, they equate God with that authority figure, so there’s a lack of trust there,” McCollum said.

McCollum said the Victory Bible Institute program counteracts that lack of trust by bringing in several authority figures, who offer different perspectives the women can relate to and who gain their trust.

Also, the women can openly talk in their classes about being angry at God for not stopping the abuse and then work through that anger, McCollum said.

“Once they realize that he’s not a harmful God and not an abusive God and wants them good and has a plan for their life, they begin to heal that and they begin to look at him in a different way,” McCollum said. “It gets past the mental realm, really into the heart.”

Nikki Farris, another Victory Bible Institute graduate, did not come from an unstable home life.

Farris said she has had family support her entire life. But as a teen, Farris lashed out and got into the wrong crowd.

When Nikki Farris was 20, she snatched a woman’s purse in Oklahoma City. She was arrested in 2000 for robbery in the first-degree and concealing stolen property.

At first, she was given a 100-year sentence. The next year, her charges – first-degree robbery and concealing stolen property – were reduced to 35 years.

Farris spent the first seven years of her prison sentence an angry person.

“I started out doing my time the wrong way,” she said.

Farris cried herself to sleep every night. For a while, Farris stayed angry.

“And then God got a hold of me,” Farris said.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Farris took a character building class while she was still at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud.

At first, Farris didn’t take it seriously. But after instructors started asking her some tough questions about herself, she decided to finally answer them.

Farris performed well enough that she became a mentor in the program. Because of her good behavior, she was transferred to Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.

The person Farris was when she entered prison – “a spoiled brat” – likely wouldn’t recognize the person she has become.

Now, Farris said she has not only become the person her parents kept telling her she could be but also has become the person God intended her to be.

“I’ve never been at so much peace and gained so much knowledge before,” Farris said. “… I’m just very thankful to be here, where I’m at right now. I’ve accomplished a lot.”

Resources for incarcerated women