PARCHMAN PRISON, Miss.– Cutthroats to conmen – the Mississippi State Penitentiary has seen ‘em all, but these days they’re trying something new in the Mississippi prison system.
And as we discovered, it seems to be working on the population and making a difference in life behind bars.
Parchman is the biggest, baddest bully, on the Mississippi hard time block. It’s earned its reputation honestly – housing the most violent inmates in the state.
The sun rises on Parchman Prison like it does anywhere else, but some are hoping this is the dawn of a new day.
A new beginning that rests in no small part on the shoulders of Ruth Graham who’s following in the footsteps of America’s pastor Billy Graham.
She is Graham’s third child and youngest daughter.
Her father traveled the world, ministering to the masses. Now, Ruth is pastoring prisoners in Mississippi and delivering a message called Miracle of Forgiveness.
Inmate Tiffini Martin questioned if Ruth could understand what they were going through considering her background.
”My first thing was… that she’s Billy Graham’s daughter. She’s had this perfect holier than thou religious life. And then with the very first meeting, like when she tells us that she has a tattoo on her back and some of her struggles, it’s just like, oh, she’s a real person, too,” Martin said.
But Ruth said she had to learn some difficult lessons herself.
“I also had to forgive myself for repeated sin because I’ve been married and divorced four times. And I wondered what was wrong with me. I wondered… was I even saved,” she said.
Now, in the 7th year of a 15 year sentence, Martin has had plenty of time to reflect on the past and is now paying the price of wrong doing.
”My crime was aggravated DUI,” Martin said. ”I want to do right. It’s easier to do right for me because there’s a peace of mind that comes with doing right. I struggled more to do wrong than to do right.”
And other inmates seem to be embracing transformation too.
Similar to Martin, Tara Regina Lyle’s life changed forever in 2002.
She was living in Memphis when she found out her husband of 14 years was cheating. She tracked him to Columbus, Mississippi and shot him once in the neck and twice in the back.
Lyle is positively embracing a hope for forgiveness while serving life in prison for murder.
”I feel like once you get here, there are two decisions you can make. We can make the decision to either continue down our destructive path, or we can make a decision to work on self and to be a positive force in this environment,” she said. ”Wherever Jesus leads us, I surrender that to him.”
Every week during the summer when the lights come up on a video conference, Ruth Graham was focusing less on rehabilitation and more on transformation.
”I know they’ve made huge mistakes. I don’t want to minimize the victims at all because I know that they’re serious crimes. But I do think that these people have been transformed by the Lord Jesus,” she said.
The people in charge at Parchman like Beth Masters have learned it might be the key to “keeping the peace.”
“We’ve seen up at Parchmen… I believe it was a 60% drop in our violence,” she said. ”…A 60% drop in our violence over a year of using former graduates of the seminary as field ministers going on doing Ministry among the inmates and the residents in the zones.”
Ron Olivier is one of those field ministers. He killed a man 30 years ago and served hard time. But he discovered the soft heart of redemption when the mother of his victim offered forgiveness.
”It was like handcuffs and shackles came off of me…it didn’t really matter what happened in court after that,” he said. ”It’s very liberating. There’s nothing like being forgiven… for something you know you’ve done. But in order for that to happen… you have to own what you’ve done.”
Now, he’s hoping to save other inmates which is why he goes back behind bars serving others.
The program has worked so well, Parchman has even built a prison yard church. It hasn’t opened yet, but there’s hope it will soon be the next step in this revival.