The Christmas season can mean depression, despair, or sometimes redemption for the inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Waymart.
There’s a community in Wayne County with some pretty surprising demographics. Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims coexist there in equal numbers with very little hostility. The preferred holiday gift is a state-approved gourmet meat sampler. And don’t even get started on the male to female ratio. But perhaps the most singular feature of this community is the fact that its 1,400 residents cannot leave. This community is, of course, the State Correctional Institution in Waymart, and ministering to the spiritual needs of these men are Glenn J. Biagi, Chaplain of the Catholic Community, and William Gagas, Facility Program Chaplaincy Director. Along with Terry Fazio, Public Information Officer, and Imam Hakim Ali, these men use ingenuity, a shoestring budget, and their own deep wellsprings of faith to provide a joyful holiday season under very stressful circumstances.
“As an example, St. John’s Episcopal Church or St. Rose’s Church will send volunteers in to conduct a worship service in the prison Chapel,” explains Gagas. “We want to make sure people of all faiths are represented.”
To accomplish this feat, a carefully planned timetable including more than a dozen services celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid al-Adha are provided by volunteers from far and near.
“Our Muslim cleric comes from Binghamton, New York,” explains Fazio. “He drives down here to minister to our Muslim prisoner’s needs.”
The needs of these prisoners, and indeed prisoners of all faiths, become more acute this time of year. For many inmates at state facilities, the Christmas season will be spent apart from families and loved ones, with not even a present to liven the festivities.
“The first year (in prison) is the hardest, usually,” says Biagi. “It’s when it sinks in, when anger and depression can really take hold.”
Sometimes this depression ends in tragedy. In early December, the prison staff mourned the first successful suicide at the facility in years, that of Christopher Blevins, who was serving a 5-year sentence for corruption of minors. But even for hardened criminals, the holidays can take an emotional toll.
“We have people here serving 25-year sentences, and after the first few years...the families don’t always come around as much,” says Fazio.
So the staff members do the best they can with what they have, which isn’t always much.
“The menu on holidays is set across the state; we can’t change it. The inmates get turkey on Thanksgiving, turkey on Christmas, and roast pork on New Year’s,” says Fazio. “As far as activities go, we’ll set up movie nights, where the prisoners can watch movies every day. Entertainment will also come in to the prison, weather permitting. We had two bands that were supposed to play but they had to cancel because of the snow. There’s also an inmate Glee Club, who sing for the prisoners.”
All of these activities are paid for from the IGWF, or Inmate General Welfare Fund. The inmates chip into this fund and prison officials use the money to plan their activities. No recreational activities are financed using taxpayer’s money. Tournaments are another popular holiday activity; Bingo, Scrabble, and card games are perennial favorites.
Beyond that, though...there’s very little. No carolers, no surprise gifts; even decorations on the wall are prohibited due to fire safety concerns. Whatever holiday spirit can be generated in these bleak conditions comes from the hearts of the men, and the selfless efforts of Chaplains Biagi and Gagas. The work can be arduous, and even seems thankless at times. But both have persevered for years, and the emotional satisfaction they derive from ministering to these troubled souls is truly touching to behold.
“We take their focus off the darkness in which they live, even if that darkness is self-inflicted,” says Biagi. “I’ve witnessed a few transformations in my time here that I think could only have come from above. I had one man who would come to services, and you could feel the anger in his heart. He went to one of our Metanoia services and you can tell...he’s found peace. He’s accepted responsibility for his actions and it’s set him free. When we had some Christmas volunteers come in, he spoke to them and they couldn’t believe his story. He told them that he may not be free from bars, but that he was free in his heart.”