March 15, 2010

Seeking salvation behind bars

By DENNIS HOEY Staff Writer

— By DENNIS HOEY

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Pastor Wally Staples with the portable baptistry in the medical room at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset on August 18, 2008. Staples uses the portable baptistry to baptize inmates at the jail.

Tim Greenway

Staff Writer

ISCASSET — Two Bridges Regional Jail offers inmates a spiritual option not found at any other correctional facility in the state -- baptism through immersion.

The Rev. Wally Staples, jail chaplain, has baptized several inmates this year by immersing them in a special tub known as a baptistry.

A hand-carved sign on the oak baptistry reads ''Repent and Be Baptized.'' That's the sentiment expressed by Shelly Powlesland, 36, who was baptized this spring.

''Jesus came into my life,'' Powles-land said. ''When I get out of prison, I am going to turn my life around.''

Powlesland was transferred last month to the Windham Correctional Facility to serve the several months that remain on her sentence.

Baptism is generally known as a Christian spiritual cleansing ritual. State corrections officials say that while some jail chaplains baptize inmates, no one else in the Maine correctional system is immersing prisoners in a tub.

Denise Lord, the associate commissioner for the Department of Corrections, said as long as a prisoner agrees, full-immersion baptisms are fine with the state.

''We respect a person's right to practice their religion,'' said Lord, who is developing a new religious practice policy for the department. For instance, the state currently allows American Indian prisoners to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies.

Leonard R. LeGrand was the jail administrator who approved the idea of full-immersion baptism, and incoming administrator Mark Westrum has said he will continue to support the ritual.

The American Rehabilitation Ministries of Missouri donated the baptistry, and Staples paid shipping costs.

Staples serves as pastor of the Wiscasset Church of the Nazarene. He frequently offers inmates, upon their release from jail, transportation, food, clothing and if necessary, temporary shelter.

LeGrand, the former jail administrator, said Staples found a need and desire among inmates who wanted to be baptized.

''I think the old-school way of thinking was that jails were merely a place to warehouse offenders. But, after 200 years in this country, we know that doesn't work,'' he said. ''For people who are seeking spirituality in their life, this (baptism) could be the key to their recovery.''

The wooden, fiberglass-lined baptistry, which resembles a hot tub, is filled with chlorinated water before each ceremony. A typical ceremony usually involves more than one inmate.

Staples places a washcloth over the person's face, to prevent water from getting into the nose, before fully immersing him or her. Staples then recites the same words to each inmate: ''In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you.''

''I saw a desperate need for people who were forgotten behind these walls,'' Staples said.

He believes the baptisms have ''transformed'' some of the inmates.

''I'm a new person,'' said Yvonne Byram, a 44-year-old mother of four from New Brunswick. ''I feel it was what I needed a spiritual awakening.''

Byram is being held at the jail while she awaits trial at the federal level.

The Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain serves as the chaplain at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland. Though he occasionally performs a baptism, he does not submerge inmates.

McIlwain says he likes what Staples is doing with the baptistry.

''As a chaplain, you are always trying to find ways to reach out,'' he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.comW

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