Chapel of Grace, Prayers from Prison

July 30, 2009 1:27:55 AM PDT
It's a first of its kind in the state of California. Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla will one day be home to the first free standing, privately funded chapel on a state prison campus.                           |   Visit the Chapel of Grace Website   |

While some detractors will ask why spend money to build a special chapel for prisoners. Supporters of the chapel say one day these offenders could be back in your neighborhood ... and a chapel could be the determining factor in real rehabilitation.

Behind these steel bars and the barbed wire, you leave your identity behind. You are a number ... one among almost four thousand other numbers in the largest women's prison in the world.

For the most part the inmates here at Valley State Prison for Women are tough. But prison chaplain Pete Untelon says they're bleeding on the inside.

Untelon said, "I would venture to say probably 80 percent of the inmates are suffering from post-traumatic stress. They've been abused physically, sexually emotionally"

Some inmates choose to hold it all in ... others seek peace ... once a week ... inside a small chapel. The tiny Chapel of Hope holds 120 inmates. Hundreds more have to be turned away.

One inmate, Virginia Herrera said, "We have to shut the door and it just breaks my heart."

Forty year old Virginia Herrera has been at the prison since 2004. It's her second time around. The first time she killed someone in a drunk driving accident. When she got out she drove drunk again. Guilt and shame constantly hound Herrera. The chapel has been her refuge.

Herrera said, "Sometimes you just need someplace to cry. You need some kind of guidance or hope or encouraging word or a hug."

Another inmate, Cynthia Feagin said, "Sometimes it's so hard to make it through that pain."

Cynthia Feagin has been behind bars since she was 17. The soft-spoken 36 year old woman killed someone. Not a day goes by she doesn't think about what she's done.

Feagin said, "That guilt ... that brokenness ... it's so hard ... and when I started coming to chapel ... that burden began to lift and I began to live again and I began to hope again and I found redemption."

In order to get into the chapel, inmates form a long line. It's first come, first served. Turning away inmates weighed heavily on Pete Untelon's heart until he took a trip to Texas a few years ago. There, he found his solution ... a state prison with a large chapel constructed with private donations.

Untelon said, "Wait a minute ... if they can do that in Texas ... why not in California?"

Prison Warden Tina Hornbeak said, "Something like this can bring nothing but positive for the ladies ... and not just for the ladies ... but our communities."

Warden Hornbeak is 100 percent behind building a new chapel. With the state board of prisons' blessing, plans have been drawn and the fundraising has begun on a 300-plus seat chapel ... the Chapel of Grace.

The chapel will be built in an open space on the prison yard. It will be a free-standing facility with all of the security measures that every other building has. It will have a prayer garden out front and crepe myrtle trees that were specifically requested by the warden.

Tina Hornbeak emphasizes it's the State Department of Corrections and "Rehabilitation" and she believes she is called to help rehabilitate the women in her prison as best as she can.

Pete Untelon asks, "Is rehabilitation possible? Yes it is!"

After nineteen years behind bars ... Cynthia Feagin is ready for parole. She's ready to face the world on the outside. But until the prison door opens and she leaves her number behind, she will find refuge in her faith and the dream of a better and bigger chapel.

Feagin said, "Chapel of grace means so much to us. We need a place where we can fall to our knees and ask for forgiveness."

The Chapel of Grace will be an all-faith, non-denominational quiet refuge for the women at the prison ... and their children when they come to visit. 85 percent of the inmates have children.

The cost of the chapel is estimated at about three million dollars. Organizers are hoping to break ground in the fall of 2011.

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