Prisoners at Fort Stockton’s Lynaugh Unit could benefit from Prison Chapels project

It was 105 degrees outside when 120 men gathered for a service at the James Lynaugh Unit gymnasium outside Fort Stockton.

Whether it was the heat of the day or the dedication of the new chapel at the Ruben Torres Unit in the Texas city of Hondo in 2019, interest in building a chapel in the Lynaugh Unit began. There are only 18 chapels in the 99 state prisons in Texas. Everything has to be financed privately. Chaplain Velia Edwards of the Lynaugh Unit began speaking to volunteers about the possibility of building a chapel for Lynaugh.

I’m one of those volunteers from the Kairos Department of Corrections and I’ve started looking into the Texas Department of Justice’s (TDCJ) requirements for building a chapel in a prison. I found that navigating state requirements is no easy process and requires compliance with hundreds of pages of building specifications and multiple permits.

The pieces came together when Chaplain Edwards met Ryan B. Tinch at a Reconcilers Prison Ministry weekend at Lynaugh Unit. Tinch is a Reconcilers Ministry volunteer and commercial real estate developer in Dallas. His passion is prison chaplaincy and his experience is commercial building construction. Tinch met with TDCJ officials in Huntsville to go through their requirements and received their approval to move the project forward. Another point came to mind when I contacted T. Drew Cauthorn, a San Antonio attorney. Cauthorn led the funding effort for Torres Chapel. He became a valuable counselor and prayer partner for the Lynaugh Chapel team.

The Lynaugh Unit Overseer introduced the team to Pastor Larry Miles of Trinity Fellowship in Amarillo. He was involved in financing and building three chapels in the Panhandle. Pastor Miles is also a member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. He gives valuable advice and support. Tim Baum recently joined the group. He is in the real estate development business and has many years of prison chaplaincy experience across the country. Together we formed the committee necessary to begin the vast endeavor known as Prison Chapels.

I was asked about my experience in prison chaplaincy and why I am involved in this project.

My answer is simple. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 25 that as Christians we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. This is an important project to spread the gospel and minister to the incarcerated men of the James Lynaugh Unit. I have been active in prison chaplaincy at Lynaugh Unit for seven years. A few years ago I became a certified Volunteer Minister with TDCJ. You learned a lot about life in the process. The men in prison made terrible decisions, hurting many people and earning their way into prison. They are lonely men who do not forgive themselves or others and who are taken advantage of in prison if they behave weakly. At the same time, they are people with families and loved ones, just like you and me. Luckily, God never gives up on us. These men need to hear the good news. For some it will be the first time they learn about Jesus.

Incarceration is also a generational issue. Many imprisoned men grew up in single-parent families because one parent was imprisoned. Now another family is being raised by a single parent. The probability that these children will end up in prison is high. It’s a repeating cycle. Prison bands can host life skills programs that transform the life course of individuals and generations to come. The chapel not only serves the current inmates, but also carries them on to future generations. Many of these men are returning to our community. This investment not only serves the inmates, but also benefits our own community by reducing recidivism rates.

Currently, faith and training programs compete for places at Lynaugh Grammar School. As a gym, basketball, handball and similar events may only be held there. The biggest obstacle to offering more programs is the lack of available space. Christian programs are currently being moved or canceled when space is needed for other programs. One of the classes I teach has to take place in one of the residential units, as there is no other space available. The common areas in the accommodations are not set up for classes and there is no possibility to use a projector which is needed for some classes. The best we can do is bring a portable speaker and hope people can hear it. We canceled Kairos events because another group needed the gym. There are often several courses taking place in the gym at the same time. I was teaching at the gym while a neo-pagan group was meeting at the same time. In April many services were suspended due to Ramadan. A chapel would have enabled Christian programs to continue.

Chaplain David Busby said the new chapel at Torres Unit is a constant visual reminder of God’s presence. The number of pastoral care programs has multiplied enormously. Entering the chapel is like entering the “free world” and the inmates can find rest and respite from the “prison” environment.

Prison Chapels is the non-profit group formed to raise funds to build a Worship and Educational Center in Lynaugh – a place of peace, safety and comfort for men of all faiths and those of no faith. The chapel will seat 200 people and allow for an exponential increase in the number of inmates who can be reached and the quality of the programs offered. The new chapel will have meeting rooms, a serving kitchen, rest rooms, offices for the chaplain, the volunteers and a library and storage space. And it will be available seven days a week. It will be a room where sound and music equipment can remain set up. A space where chairs and tables don’t have to be moved around for each event.

As construction costs mount, Cooper Construction’s John Cooper IV estimated the project cost at $2.5 million. The Lynaugh unit is remotely located outside of Fort Stockton. The state requires 90 percent of the funds to be raised before we can begin construction. Inflation is a problem and we need to raise the money as soon as possible. We will work with the architect and contractor to look for ways to reduce costs. Prison Chapels seeks financial support from churches, individuals, foundations and other groups interested in this ministry.

There is a website with some great prisoner testimonies and additional information about the chapel project — Prison Chapels is a 501(c)3 Texas corporation formed to raise funds to build interfaith chapels in Texas. A donation to Prison Chapels is a charitable donation for federal income tax purposes. (Tax number 26-3724048). Prison Chapels’ long-term goal is to build more chapels across the state.

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