Ruminations from Three Days in Rural Alabama, Mississippi


Mike Freeman holds up a quilt made by offenders at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Evansville, Indiana. Prison officials at Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama liked the idea. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Remote is a good word to describe the Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution, a prison for women located in rural Alabama.

Some 55 miles west of Tuscaloosa and 35 miles east of Columbus, Mississippi, the prison is almost on the Alabama-Mississippi line. It houses approximately 1,400 women. A large percentage speak Spanish as their first language.

When the prison was announced six years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons projected that it would have a $35 million economic impact locally and regionally.

Aliceville and rural Alabama are still waiting for the positive economic impact. No new hotels have been built. No new restaurants have been opened. Few homes have been purchased. Few locals have been hired at the prison. And the only county restaurant open in the evenings is cutting back its hours.

Gary Farley, director of missions for Pickens Baptist Association, said the prison had had little positive economic impact on the county.

Bob Little, pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Panola, across the Pickens County line, offered the same observation. Little economic impact.

Pastor Little's church was one of the churches burned down in 2006 when boys from Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham were setting fire to nine rural churches—for fun.

Charlie Wilson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Aliceville, observed that he had seen little economic benefit from the prison that the Aliceville community expected.

It would appear that prison officials live in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Columbus. They drive into the county to work. Their economic impact may indeed be outside Pickens County.

Paradoxically, many county residents must drive outside the county for their jobs.

What Farley, Little and Wilson shared was one of several unexpected findings that Cliff Vaughn, media producer for EthicsDaily.com, and I encountered as we began working on a new documentary about faith and prisons.

The cultural narrative that building prisons builds up the local economy may be true elsewhere. But that narrative doesn't appear to apply to Pickens County.

Another finding—really a clarification—was the role EthicsDaily.com played in the beginning of a quilting program at the prison.

After the prison opened in December 2012, Farley sent a copy of an EthicsDaily.com editorial to the warden. It was an editorial about a quilting program at the state prison in Carlisle, Indiana, which is one of the stories in "Through the Door."

Farley suggested a similar program at Aliceville. Prison officials liked the idea.

Farley, then, enlisted a Mennonite woman to teach quilting. She, in turn, enlisted others from the community of Mennonites in Mississippi.

Ten Mennonite women taught 60 residents of the prison to quilt over a three-month period during the spring, with another class expected to start in the fall.

Another unexpected finding happened when we visited a Mennonite home.

We learned that a Mennonite catfish farmer monitors the oxygen level of his ponds from his home computer. His operation yields some 700,000 pounds of catfish annually—that's a lot of catfish that need the right amount of oxygen.

He also shared that one of his sons monitors the soil moisture of their row crops from his smartphone. The same program allows them to turn on their irrigation when needed.

Computer programs, GPS and smartphones aren't what one expects to find on a Mennonite farm.

Or then again, perhaps our cultural narrative about Mennonites requires a much needed upgrading.

A third unexpected finding contained multiple twists.

Only a few years ago, Alabama passed one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country, causing many Hispanics to leave the state.

Now, the federal government is shipping undocumented women back to the state where they await likely deportation.

Pastor Wilson told us that before the law passed, Aliceville had a thriving Hispanic congregation. Now, the only Spanish worship service is at the prison.

While language is a worship-service challenge, the barrier of language appears to have little negative impact on the quilting class that many of the undocumented women took.

Turns out that several of the Mennonite women speak Spanish, having served as missionaries in Mexico and Guatemala.

One cultural narrative about rural Alabama and Mississippi was confirmed—the ice tea was sweet and the people were gracious.

Everyone practiced Southern hospitality from the freshly baked Mennonite cookies to the offer to stay at a lake house, from the invitation to visit again the Mennonite farm to the gratitude of an African-American Baptist congregation in Panola, from the willingness of Aliceville's pastor to adjust to our fluid schedule to the associational office's abundant help.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Editorial Note: To order "Through the Door," our documentary on faith and prison, click here. "Gospel Without Borders," our documentary on faith and immigration, can be ordered here.

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Tags: Prison Ministry, Robert Parham, Through the Door


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