Behind the Wire at Ohio Reformatory for Women

Blog by Associate Shelby Fleck
Blog by Associate Shelby Fleck, OPA

On April 14, I went behind the razor wire at the Ohio Reformatory for Women to be the hands and feet of Christ…and to deliver 4,000 dozen cookies. It’s a big task but one that God makes possible twice a year in prisons across the country with faithful servants and outstanding community support. I’m sure the Kairos Prison ministry is one of many that bring Christ to the incarcerated, but since it’s my experience, I will share that.

Our team of 50 volunteers met for six weeks to prepare for the mission. We were formed for different roles and, like the body parts referenced in the New Testament, one was not more important than the other. When the 42 reformatory residents entered the chapel retreat center on Thursday evening, they heard applause when they were introduced by name, certainly for the first in a long time and maybe the first time ever.

Each “guest,” as we call them, has a volunteer assigned to welcome and sit with her that first evening and ease her into this transition to the larger group. The next morning when she returns from her cell to the center, she is introduced to her new table family where the real healing of the weekend begins. Let me share a few of the personal moments when I felt God’s glory break through.

Each service area team on the weekend includes “angels.” Residents who have already made their Kairos volunteer to come back and serve their sisters. It is a prayed for privilege since hundreds are eligible to apply and only 15 are chosen by the chaplain. Our Cookie Team had three angels ranging in age from 32 to 49. Each was as different from one another as the three team volunteers assigned this role, but each was coming to serve with her heart and soul. Over the next four days as we prepared beautiful cookie trays for the table families, counted cookies, prepped cookie bags to be taken back to their cells each night by the attendees and moved boxes for distribution to the general population, they opened their hearts and welcomed us into their lives and their stories. They all have stories…. WE all have stories. Sometimes as the stories unfolded, we realized how similar our stories were. “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Each day our cookie team  had opportunity for prayer and sharing, the real gift of the weekend. The angels brought their daily devotionals to open each day and their praise music to keep our toes tapping. We prayed over the cookie trays each day before distribution. When I asked them to stop at the door so I could make the sign of the cross over the platters, they asked me about the “x prayer” – “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and  of the Holy Spirit” I shared. We had great conversations about their questions regarding some Catholic traditions, and one shared from her Native American background. God was so very present in our laughter and our tears.

As a member of the Cookie Team I had two extraordinary opportunities. On Saturday Kairos distributes cookies to each of the nearly 2,800 incarcerated women individually, as well as every staff member and guard. The majority of them are called to the chapel by their dorm unit and enter a room divided alphabetically by last name. As they come forward to receive a dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies made by volunteers across Ohio, they show their prison ID. The ladies are only ever identified by their last name and serial number. To be able to hand them cookies with a sincere heart and say “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” with their first name, ask about their day, or offer any other small kindness brought some to tears and smiles to all. They felt acknowledged and encouraged. They felt cared for. They felt human. They told us how much it means to know a Kairos weekend is coming up because, even if they aren’t chosen to participate, they know the cookies and the prayers are coming.

Following the general distribution, a corrections officer and our angels escorted us further into the center of the institution. Here I saw the barred doors and the waist high slots below a viewing window for sliding food though. I was warned not to bend down near the opening. We visited the infirmary, the psychiatric unit, the drug and alcohol treatment unit, the intake unit where women are arriving on a weekly basis from across the state. And we visited a woman currently on death row. Words really aren’t adequate for the sadness and desperation I saw in the eyes of some of the women I handed cookies to. Some were unable or unwilling to look us in the eyes, but I tried to engage them and show them respect. I was so grateful to bring the light of Christ into the darkness. I pray each person saw Him smile and bless them. Our angels truly felt like guardians watching over us. I had no fear walking though the compound because I knew by their words and their actions they had grown to love us and felt very protective for our well-being.

On the final evening of Kairos there is a forgiveness ceremony for team and residents alike. The 42 participating for the first time enter the chapel with the table “families” they have created over the retreat, and the rest of the team can organize whatever service they’d like. Our angels asked if our cookie team might hold our own. They planned it. There in a prison classroom, they each read a scripture or reflections about forgiveness, and we sang together. We wrote the names of those we needed to forgive on a piece of paper that dissolved in the living water we had blessed with our presence. The ladies shared that their own name was at the top of the list. Then we passed the peace of Jesus to one another with a hug.  When my newest friend who had literally become my guardian angel hugged me, I caught my breath at her words. “Please remember me,” she whispered in my ear. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of the crucifixion scene brought to life.  Not because of her crime or my role, but because we all call out “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I will not forget her. I cannot forget her. The Kairos regulations prevent me from writing or visiting her outside Kairos functions. But you can bet that the monthly reunions when we can visit will be a high priority on my calendar. And I teased her that she better be there because I know where she lives if I have to come looking for her.

Prison ministry is life giving. In this Year of Mercy it is essential. If anyone would like to know more about opportunities for Sisters and Associates, just let me know. Christ is counting on us, and we are saving lives – one cookie at a time.

Posted in Associate Blog

24 responses to “Behind the Wire at Ohio Reformatory for Women

  1. This was a very good story of a “giving ministry”. Thanks for sharing wonderful insights and details about the women who served and those you went to visit in prison.

    1. It is a blessing to me to be a part of this ministry. i’m grateful for the prayerful support of my Dominican family.

  2. I am so grateful for your open heart to hear and feel the women’s stories. The works of mercy continue … may we all have the courage to do what we can and be who we are.

    1. It was such a privilege to spend 4 days with them. I look forward to being in relationship and support of our angels the months to come.

  3. Some of my most touching moments have been behind that wire. Thank you for putting it into words. Thank you for reminding me. Bless you for your dedication. xoxo

  4. Thank you, Shelby, for your wonderful ministry and this blog. I look forward to hearing more about your experieces at our next Associates meeting.

    1. I wanted to offer these insights in thanks for the love and support of my Dominican family. God shows up in the most amazing ways in dark places.

  5. Shelby, You are a preacher of the Gospel in an area so many of us do not have the courage to enter. Thank you for you ministry. Prayers are what makes your ministry fruitful; cookies too. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. I’m SO grateful of the prayers and support of my Dominican family. The prayers are felt! by team and residents!

  6. God bless you for sharing some of the things of your Kairos experience, and working with so many women who need all the love we can share with them in any way. Thanks so much for sharing that with us today! Peace!

    1. You are so very welcome. The story is a gift from God…i wrote it w/o lifting pen from paper. I am so grateful to my Dominican family for their prayerful support.

  7. What an example of reaching the hidden, wounded, hurting and in many way helpless. Keep up your Holy Presence Preaching.

  8. Dear Shelby,

    Thank you so much for the beautiful reflection on your prison ministry. You are both the giver and receiver during a Kairos Weekend and you certainly captured that in your reflection.

    Carol Ann

    1. We ar blessed to be a blessing aren’t we. I am so grateful for my Dominican family’s support and prayers and the beautiful example of so many in the mission fields of life.

  9. Thank you, Shelby, for that beautiful sharing about your recent experience at Marysville. Kairos prison ministry is such a blessing to those who are able to serve God in prison communities. But you are right. There are many opportunities to assist Kairos weekends without stepping into a prison. God bless you for shining your light behind the dark walls of ORW!

    1. You are so right Judy. And you have experienced that first hand. The prayers, support, and cookies add up to a powerful weekend where God gifts us with a glimpse of Heaven on earth. It’s a privilege to be a part of that.

  10. Thank you so much for this beautiful blog and ministry.
    You truly were the presence of Our Loving God to our incarcerated sisters.

    1. it’s a privilege to serve and an opportunity for growth in my own faith. I am so blessed in my life and the women that are part of the team AND the residents are a gift.

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