Keith Norman, Forum Communications Co., Published December 24 2010
Volunteers spread Christmas message at jailJAMESTOWN, N.D. – This Christmas Eve, as on every Christmas Eve for the past eight years, the Christmas message will be heard and hymns of the season song at the Stutsman County Law Enforcement Center jail.
The program is led by two volunteers, Larry and Robin Phillips, who have made it their own way of marking the season.
“A few years back Sunday was Christmas Eve, and we held our normal Sunday morning service at the jail,” Larry Phillips said. “At the end, some of the prisoners asked us to come back to do a Christmas Eve evening service that night. We had no other plans, so we and one of the other Gideons came back and did a service to the biggest group of prisoners ever there.”
The late Jack Miller, former director of the LEC, had started the Gideon ministry at the LEC. At that time it was housed in the jail library and served as many as 50 prisoners each Sunday.
“We gave our message, and we sang some hymn, and we ended the evening with everyone singing Silent Night,” Larry Phillips said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house among inmates, guards or us. It was discernible they didn’t want to be there, but they had a need to be at this type of service. Robin and I were hooked.”
They expanded the idea of a service to include gift bags for the prisoners.
“We started with small bags of muffins and other treats but they had access to those types of things,” said Robin Phillips. “Now we give inspirational books and the Bible in a bag.”
The books and the Bible are arranged through the Mustard Seed book store. This year, as a nod to the aging population, the Bible is a large-print edition. The Phillips, along with friends and family, prepare 90 bags with English language books and 10 with Spanish language books.
Also this year, the Phillipses will be joined by the Salvation Army in the service.
“It means a lot to the prisoners,” said Tracy Trapp, director of the LEC. “It’s hard enough being away from family in the first place and the holidays compounds it.”
Over the years, the jail library has been converted to prisoner housing, and the Sunday morning Gideon services have moved to Thursday evenings but the Christmas Eve service remains as the largest gathering of the prisoners allowed.
“We hold the Christmas Eve service in the Recreation Room,” Larry Phillips said. “They’ll be sitting on everything from sawhorses to weight benches to the floor.”
Trapp said the current population of the jail is 70 inmates. He doesn’t anticipate seeing the normal weekend increase of prisoners serving weekend sentences.
“Because of the holidays most have made arrangements to be with family this weekend,” he said. “But there are always those who have a little too much holiday cheer so the number we house through the weekend will go up with new arrests.”
Trapp said the Christmas Eve service offers a normal part of the holidays the prisoners would miss otherwise. The jail will operate its normal visiting hours Saturday and Sunday afternoon but many prisoners are still alone through the holiday.
Keith Norman writes for The Jamestown Sun