Incarcerated women of faith inside Central Mississippi Correctional Facility have struggled to find a reliable worship space for years, but that will soon change.
The prison in Pearl, the only state prison that holds females, hosted a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for a new church that will primarily cater to those women.
Torri Sanders has been incarcerated at CMCF for about 21 years, and said she was struggling to contain her excitement. She said worship for groups of women usually takes place in a dining hall or another space where it is often interrupted.
"This is the best thing that this administration has brought," Sanders said. "When they kicked down the doors and brought the church, they brought Christ in. I'm just grateful that it is something good because people are always reporting the negative from out here."
Tara Lyle, an incarcerated person, led the group in prayer during the groundbreaking. Lyle said it is important for women to have their own space to worship.
"It involves more people, more women so that everyone has a place," Lyle said.
The 6,400-square-foot building will serve people of multiple faiths, and will be able to hold up to 300 incarcerated people at a time. According to a Mississippi Department of Corrections Press Release, about half of the prisoners at CMCF practice a faith. There are incarcerated Jewish people, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christians, both protestant and Catholic, confined within the facility.
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Nathan "Burl" Cain became commissioner of MDOC in 2020, and he has encouraged incarcerated people to become faith leaders through prison seminary programs. He said they can significantly decrease violence and gang activities within prisons.
"We replace the gangs with positive gangs," Cain said. "If we get more and more preachers, we get less and less gangs because everyone wants to be a part of something."
CMCF Superintendent Derrick Chambers said in addition to giving them a positive community to be a part of, faith has shown to change people's morality.
"If you can take a person that's been in a cell block for 20 years and take them to church, it can change their morality," Chambers said.
Glenn Conley is an incarcerated person who also pastors to a group of fellow prisoners. Male field ministers, like Conley, will also perform their work at the new building, but it will primarily serve women as it is located in an area of the facility that is being transitioned into a predominantly female area. Conley agreed with Chambers on the power that faith can have in morality.
"As rehabilitation, there's a lot to it, but a big part is moral rehabilitation," Conley said.
MDOC officials said construction on the church is expected to be completed by February 2023. It was funded through donations, and will not cost MDOC or taxpayers. David McNair is president of the Mississippi Prison Chapel Foundation, one of the charities that put forward money to build the church.
"It's from a combination of the Inmate Welfare Fund and the Mississippi Prison Chapel Foundation," McNair said.
McNair and many of the other non-incarcerated people of faith who regularly participate in prison ministries at CMCF said they were excited for the church, but also to be getting back into their work. For some, the groundbreaking was the first time they had been to the facility since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Kairos Prison Ministry has its first post-pandemic event at the facility planned for October.
Rowland Hall, a pastor at nearby Broadmoor Baptist Church, said he was excited to get "reengaged post-COVID." He also thanked Cain for bringing faith leaders further into the prison system.
"The drive and the vision that Mr. Cain has brought has been catalytic," Hall said.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Ground broken on church for incarcerated women within Pearl prison