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Prison van ministry helps families stay together

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Rebecca Brock (center) visits with van driver Jim Miller (right) and his wife, Judy, before beginning the trip to see her incarcerated daughter.
May 4, 2006

By John Gordon*

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — When Lisa Woods walked into a visitation room at the Tennessee Prison for Women, her 3-year-old niece — whom she hadn’t seen in nearly a year — ran to greet her and jumped into her arms.

“It’s very exciting,” said Woods. “At first, I thought I was going to cry.”

Woods’ niece, nephew, sister and mother went to the Nashville prison for a visit with the help of the prison van ministry at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville. Once a month, volunteers drive church vans on the three-hour trip from Knoxville to Nashville to help keep families connected.

“I wasn’t able to drive myself down,” said Woods’ mother, Phyllis Woods. “I think it’s very special and very good of them to do it.”

Phyllis Woods said visits from family members are important to those in prison.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Going to see her sister, Bridget Woods boards a Concord United Methodist Church van taking visitors to prisons in Nashville.
“I love her much, and in spite of all what’s happened, I still need to keep in touch with her, no matter what,” she said.

Lisa Woods’ niece, Condazia Murphy, recited her ABCs, while her brother, DeaunTray Woods, 8, set up a game of checkers.

“It’s fun to go see my auntie because she thinks of fun things to do,” DeaunTray said.

Lisa Woods is serving two eight-year sentences on drug convictions. She is enrolled in a comprehensive rehabilitation program at the prison and said she is turning her life around.

“Every family has their trials and tribulations,” she said. “But I feel like being able to see my family gives me a drive to keep going on.”

The family spent several hours visiting, eating lunch and playing games.

Lisa Woods’ sister, Bridget Woods, said she enjoyed the visit, even after going through a thorough search at the entrance to the prison.

“It’s kind of them to help people out who can’t come this far,” she said of the church.

The van ministry began nearly 20 years ago at Concord and has ferried hundreds of family members to visit Nashville prisons. Elaine Wynn, the church’s director of adult and family ministries, said the program shut down temporarily when ridership declined but restarted about three years ago.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

The Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville houses more than 700 inmates.
“To me, it’s really important because prisoners — there’s such a stigma involved with being in prison,” Wynn said. “And often they are people who have just made mistakes. They’re sort of forgotten folks, in many ways.”

High gasoline prices have made it even harder for families to make the trips on their own, she added.

“I would like to see the church expand beyond visitation to helping prisoners when they’re discharged, and maybe sponsoring families and helping children with education,” she said.

Jim Miller, a church member and volunteer driver, said entire families are affected when someone goes to prison.

“When an individual that’s related to other individuals goes into one of those institutions,” he said, “everybody goes into one of those institutions who’s related to them and loves them and knows them.”

Another van rider, Rebecca Brock, visited her daughter in the women’s prison. Brock said the van ministry has helped because she can no longer drive herself.

“It’s just been a God’s blessing, really has,” she said. “You can talk to them on the phone and everything, but it’s not like seeing them in person.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Lisa Woods (center), visits her nephew, DeaunTray Woods, 8, and niece, Condazia Murphy, 3.
Meanwhile, Lisa Woods is not bitter about being caught and sent to prison.

“I’m glad that I got caught,” she said. “Because if I wouldn’t have got caught, I would still be out there doing the same things, risking my life, living the wrong life, and would never have gotten to experience this experience and this journey.”

She said her days from morning to night are occupied with the prison’s rehabilitation program. She said the van ministry is important in keeping her family together.

“It keeps us focused on being able to see our family again,” she said. “It gives us faith. It gives us hope.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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