DAYTON, TEXAS - As the heat of a late summer sky quickly melts away the morning, it’s another day on the job at the Plane State Jail in Dayton. But just as true as the sky is blue, padlocks and razor wire make it clear, this is not just any day, and certainly not just any job.
Women who’ve committed crimes, are sent to the jail to serve time. Over the sound of locking gates and the sight of frequent pat downs, we discovered this is a place where names are replaced with numbers. And over an officer’s watchful eye, everyone wears white.
For many of the women, ages 18 to 80, this is a place of fear. But in one tiny building on the prison grounds, many have found a place of faith.
As soon as you walk through the door, you hear Chaplain Debbie Dunn shout, “Can I get a witness up in here?” The resounding applause would suggest yes.
It wasn’t even Sunday, but Chaplain Dunn was holding church.
“We’ve thrown away too many days, too many days away from the children, too many days away from your life,” she told the women. “Now it’s time to focus and go really live.”
At the state prison chapel, Chaplain Dunn and her team hope to help female inmates trade a troubled past for a more peaceful future.
She loves her job and the women who come through the prison.
“I believe that’s why they’re open with me,” Dunn said. “I believe that’s why they bare the heart to me.”
But for a prison chaplain, God’s work is not just about spreading the “good news.” In prison, there’s plenty of bad. The day we visited was no exception.
Even for people hardened by the chains of confinement, bad news from home hits hard. Dunn had to break the news to one inmate that her grandmother had died.
“It’s OK to mourn. It’s OK to weep, Dunn told the woman. She offered her a phone call home.
But for the inmate who still has time to serve, the news brought the realization that life behind bars is just another day lost. For the woman whose heart was breaking, there was only one place to turn.
Chaplain Dunn grabbed the inmate’s shaking hands and offered a word of prayer.
“Father I just thank you God, that today you’re going to be the Prince of Peace.”
The Chaplain has given peace to many here, like inmate Selena Enriquez the chapel librarian. Her story could fill a book or two; a book filled with surprising twists and turns.
“This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” Selena told us. “I was more in a prison outside these walls than I have been in here. I found freedom in here.”
Selena was a surgical nurse with three children. She’s serving time for theft for writing hot checks.
On the outside she was convicted – judge and jury. But at Plane State, it’s a different story.
“They don’t judge us, they just love us for who we are,” she said.
Was she nervous when she came in?
“Scared to death!” Selena admitted. “But then you come to this chapel, and it’s just peace. Sometimes when we’re in here we don’t feel like we’re in prison. We feel like we’re humans here.”
When I met Selena she had two days left on her sentence, but ironically, had mixed emotions about going home and leaving Chaplain Dunn.
She broke into sobs when asked if she would miss her.
“More than you know. She’s a rock! She always has a way of looking into our eyes and telling us it’s going to be okay.”
Words of comfort are not what most would expect behind bars. And not the reality at every prison. However, they’re words that can be found on paintings adorning the once barren chapel walls. The pieces of art were purchased by Chaplain Dunn. Four pieces of canvas, painted by men doing hard time at another state prison. Each piece containing one word, Faith, Hope, Love, and Integrity.
It’s just the encouragement many of these offenders need, and it’s the kind of compassion they’re finding from their faithful friends who work here.
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