|Laura Smith, above, is working to rebuild her life after serving a four year sentence at the Tennessee Prison for Women. She is pictured here at home in Tullahoma with her 4-year-old daughter Haylee. Photos by Theresa Laurence
Laura Smith sits in her living room, her leg involuntarily bouncing, her attention darting between her 4-year-old daughter, her smartphone, and her conversation with a reporter. She apologizes for being easily distracted and anxious; she’s still getting used to managing her time, making decisions for herself, and caring for her daughter, luxuries that were denied while she served a recent four-year prison sentence.
“Sometimes it’s just too much,” she said, sounding overwhelmed with the task of rebuilding her life after prison. Then she reminds herself, “Everything’s OK. I’m OK with the struggle.”
When Smith walked through the guarded gate at the Tennessee Prison for Women last summer, she stepped into a new life as a free woman, a life she hadn’t known in four years.
As she exited the prison, Smith was greeted by St. Matthew parishioners Luci Garten and Frances Regan, who had served as her spiritual mentors while she was incarcerated. The women had met many times during the last two years in the prison chapel, but they were now together for the first time on the outside.
|At right, Laura’s grandmother Carolyn Smith snuggles with Haylee, whom she helped raise while Laura was in prison.
The women’s relationship, which began through St. Matthew’s prison ministry program, has since shifted to fall under the umbrella of a new statewide initiative called Take One, launched last year by the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
The program pairs individual churches and nonprofits throughout the state with one inmate whom they mentor for about a year before he or she is released from prison. The support and guidance continue for another year afterward to help former inmates and their families as they strive to become healthy, productive members of society. Officials hope it will lead to supportive friendships for life and a reduction in offenders returning to the state’s prisons.
St. Matthew Catholic Church in Franklin is among the first churches in the state to participate in the Take One initiative, corrections officials say. Statewide, there are about 100 such pairings.
‘A total God thing’
Three months after Smith’s release, she and the St. Matthew community are learning how difficult it can be for a former inmate to transition back to a stable life in the community.
Upon her release, Smith returned to her hometown of Tullahoma, where she could be reunited with her daughter Haylee, and be close to her grandmother, who had provided essential support while she was in prison.
“I don’t want to re-root in Tullahoma,” she said, but her plans to move to Nashville and find a job have been put on hold while she attempts to get some medical issues under control and strategize how to re-connect with her two other children, sons age 12 and 14 who are in foster care in other parts of the state. She hopes if she can re-unite her children “it will take away some loneliness” that they’ve all felt in recent years.
|Laura is pictured with her St. Matthew mentors Frances Regan, left, and Luci Garten, on the day of her release. St. Matthew is aiding Smith as part of the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ Take One initiative. Photo by Margaret Cook
“I have very much complicated my life to where it couldn’t get more complicated,” Smith says.
Smith, 35, was pregnant when she was sentenced on a drug charge; she was shuttled from prison to the hospital only briefly to give birth before going back. “I picked up the baby from the hospital and didn’t even get to see Laura,” said her grandmother Carolyn Smith. For years, Carolyn would bring Haylee to visit her mother in prison whenever she could.
Being separated from her children, quitting smoking, and spending time in solitary confinement were just some of the trials Smith endured in prison. But as she spent time fasting and praying, her prison sentence became a time of death and resurrection, rebirth into a new life committed to God, and to leaving her unhealthy choices behind. She likes to say the good things that have happened since then are “a total God thing,” especially Garten and Regan coming into her life.
Wanting to make a difference
Garten first got involved with prison ministry about five years ago through another friend. “I saw what a great difference she made in their lives simply by caring, and I have been going ever since,” Garten said. “Basically, I meet with the women in the chapel and listen to them and pray with them. Having grown up in a Catholic school, I have been blessed to know the Lord’s great love and forgiveness. I want to pass that on to the women and hopefully they will pass it on to their children.”
Garten invited Regan to join her in mentoring Smith, and they met regularly on Sundays, along with other female inmates. They used a program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that ministers to “every possible addiction or struggle people go through in life,” Regan said. Following the group session, Regan and Smith would spend one-on-one time together in prayer and spiritual direction.
“She’s so young and she’s so enthusiastic … wanting to jump back in, and not just make a difference for herself but make a difference for other people,” Regan said. “With my excitement for Laura is a little bit of fear, just like a mother would have for her daughter. She is a felon and not just everyone in the world is going to put their arms around and welcome her.”
That has proved to be absolutely true for Smith. There are times when she’s on the phone or in person at a doctor’s office and “I get disrespected because they know I’ve been incarcerated.” While some of Smith’s initial enthusiasm has been tempered by the reality of the challenges she faces, she says, “I am struggling, but I am OK.”
In captivity, but ‘free in Christ’
St. Matthew’s participation in the Take One program formally took shape when parishioner Julie Perrey approached former pastor, Father Mark Beckman, about getting the parish involved. He gladly gave his support and asked Perrey to serve as liaison for the new ministry.
Along with Regan, Perrey gave presentations to different parish organizations, encouraging their help for the days ahead. “I was overwhelmed by the support,” Perrey said. “To me that was so motivational.”
A parishioner since 1996, Perrey works as chief networking officer for TRICOR, a state agency that helps prepare inmates for release from the prison system, and she also serves on the steering committee that launched the state’s Take One initiative.
To get involved with prison ministry, and ultimately Take One, Regan said she had to overcome her own fears as she journeyed each week to the prison. “It’s not the women you are afraid of,” she said. “It’s what you have to go through to get to the women and the uncomfortableness of it all.”
“I went in there fearful. I walked away from there so grateful that God pushed me through that fear to go, and I can’t say it only happened once. It happened in the beginning over and over.”
But Regan said she always came away grateful after spending time with the women. “These people can’t get out but we can go in,” she said. “In the captivity of prison they can be free in Christ.”
So many in need
As Smith’s parole hearing date approached in mid-June, St. Matthew parishioners offered prayers at Mass for her. The parish prison ministry began laying the groundwork needed to help her find a job in the Nashville area, get an apartment, and perhaps be united with her three children.
Since Smith currently lives about 80 miles from Nashville, St. Matthew’s parishioners are not able to help her as much as they would like. They have donated money for her car and helped her make contacts for future employment. “Things have not gone according to our schedule,” said Garten. “I wish we could do more. … I’m here for a phone call if she needs to talk, and we are praying for her.”
While in prison, Smith took accredited courses in hopes of someday becoming a paralegal. Her dream is to work in the legal field, with a particular goal of helping other women in prison. Even as she envisions that better future for herself, it’s still hard, at this moment, for Smith see how she will get there.
These early days of freedom are difficult, but Smith relies on her own determination and a newfound faith in God that was nurtured by her mentors and studying Scripture. “It’s like it all worked together,” she said. “So it all goes back to God.”
“I just want to express how thankful I am and grateful for everything, it’s hard to put into words.”
Since Smith’s release, Perrey has been working to pull together the pledges of support to get her settled in the Nashville area. “We will work with Laura for one year after her release,” she said. Then, the St. Matthew prison ministry plans to focus on mentoring a male inmate.
“St. Matthew has been ahead of the curve,” Perrey said. “There are so many others that need this same help.”