I walked into Greensville Correctional Center feeling like a piece of fresh, red meat in a cage full of hungry lions; some men had been imprisoned for life, others for a season. My counseling schedule filled up in minutes with men eager to speak to their new chaplain — a “breath of fresh air” as my clerk called me.
These counseling encounters were poignant: fathers filling out angel tree forms to send their children Christmas gifts; young men sharing news about a relative’s cancer diagnosis — feeling helpless they could not be there to hold their loved one’s hand as they die; older men disappointed they will not have family members waiting for them when they are finally released; young fathers missing graduations, birthdays and other milestones of their children; husbands receiving divorce notices as their spouses move on. Nothing could be done to ease their pain. Absolutely nothing. So, with clasped hands and bowed heads, we prayed.
This was my first experience working in a prison in America. I had grown up listening to my grandfather’s stories about working with juveniles in the prison system in India, stories that transported us to the felt reality of incarcerated men, women and children. A global reality. I started in prison ministry after turning 40, a newly single mom learning to navigate the work world after parenting from home for a decade. The prison system was wide open for a broken one like me. My child had survived stage 4 high-risk cancer — my marriage did not survive. I knew the shock of receiving a debilitating medical diagnosis for a loved one. I understood the joys of parenthood and the sadness of living with disappointments, a life that you never planned. I found ways to wake up each day, to find strength and inspiration in prison.
Each morning, I went into prison feeling empty, having lost much in my personal life. After listening to inmate stories of grief and loss interspersed with stories of courage and strength, I walked out of prison grateful for all the gifts I do have, counting them one by one: a large soft bed to sleep in, food I choose to eat by taste and desire, vacations to plan, phone calls to freely make, having access to reading literature, and loved ones to hold. And most of all, meaningful work in prison.
The volunteers I met in prison also inspired me; people who loved teaching the Bible, people willing to listen and be present, reminding the incarcerated men they were more than a number in the system, that each had a remarkable story to share. These volunteers affirmed my call to prison ministry. They took their experiences in the prison back to their church each week and moved committees and budgets to name me a “missionary to the prison.”
During exhausting moments at work, as the heavy prison doors close behind me, memories of my grandfather return. My little brother and I sat on his lap every day listening to his stories. We knew our grandfather had retired as a warden having served many prisons. We also knew my grandfather appointed my grandmother to work alongside him in prison. We did not know our grandmother retired as the deputy director of social welfare and correctional institutions of the state.
I currently work as the institutional chaplain at Fluvanna Correctional Center, the largest maximum-security prison for women in Virginia, serving 1,200 inmates. This work did not begin with me. Seeds were sown by my ancestors and countless others so one day I would carry their spirit of grace and healing into prison. Intergenerational incarceration is a reality. So is intergenerational healing.
Kings Grant Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach sponsors Jerusha’s contract position as the State Institutional Chaplain with the Department of Corrections, through the nonprofit GraceInside (which supplies prison chaplains for the state of Virginia due to the separation of church and state). She serves Fluvanna Correctional Center, the largest maximum security women’s facility in Virginia.