Marked for Life: A Prison Chaplain's Story (Nancy Hastings Sehested) -- A Review

MARKED FOR LIFE: A Prison Chaplain’s Story. By Nancy Hastings Sehested. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019. Xv + 168 pages.

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. Though we proclaim ourselves to be the “land of the free,” it appears that the American prison population is larger than any other nation. Tough on crime laws, including three-strikes laws, along with anti-drug efforts have filled our prisons to overflowing. This reality has especially affected communities of color. Even as the prisons fill up, the nation is not of one mind when it comes to the purpose of prisons. Are they designed to rehabilitate or warehouse people we don't wish to deal with—all in the name of protecting the citizenry? But at what cost, not only economically, but in terms of humanity, have we undertaken this “project.” “Law and Order” continues to be a productive political slogan, but with diminishing returns. When it comes to prison life, whether one is a prisoner or a guard, the situation faced by those involved can be and often is dehumanizing. For most of us, prison life goes on far from view. I served a church in Lompoc, California, which is home to both federal and state penitentiaries, but it’s not something the city highlights. The prisons are hidden in valleys out of sight of the city, and few employees of the prisons make themselves known in the community (unlike the neighboring Vandenberg Air Force base). Indeed, at the annual Flower Festival Parade Vandenberg Air Force base is front and center, but the prisons remain unrepresented. Out of sight, they are out of mind.

I share this reality as background to my reading of Nancy Hastings Sehested's powerful memoir of her life as a prison chaplain. Sehested, a Baptist pastor (she became famous when the church that called her to be its pastor was disfellowshipped by the Southern Baptist Convention). After serving as a pastor of a local congregation, she answered the call to serve as a chaplain at a medium-security prison in North Carolina. Women chaplains are not common in a men's prison, so she faced skepticism and many obstacles placed before her from staff and inmates. Nevertheless, in spite of the challenges, she stayed with the job and eventually became head chaplain at a maximum-security men’s prison. Again, this is not common. So, she has been in every way a trailblazer.

Marked for Life is part memoir and part commentary on the prison system. As a memoir, we enter Sehested’s life as a prison chaplain, where she shares both the joys and challenges of her vocation. She notes that after her interview and tour of the prison, she didn't believe that she could be a chaplain. It seemed too daunting a task, and besides, she didn’t think she would get offered the job—being that this was a men’s prison and she was a woman pastor. Yet, the job was offered, and she said yes. After saying yes, stayed in this form of ministry for over two decades.  

While this is the story of a woman called to prison ministry, it is also the story of her encounter with inmates, guards, prison staff and officials. These stories are important because they illuminate realities most of us have no insight into. We learn that everything about prison life is meant to dehumanize the prisoners, and in the course of this effort those who staff the prisons also become dehumanized. The message that the lead chaplain gave her as she began training was that "inmates are human beings just like the rest of us ... If you feel overwhelmed by what they've done, try to remember that these men are more than the crimes they committed" (p. 11). That is not the message of the prison itself, but it’s the core message of the book. In the midst of a depressing and often violent context, Sehested took up a calling and brought humanity into the lives of those who were incarcerated and those who did the incarcerating. The story she tells is illuminating and powerful.

Sehested takes into the prisons giving us a first-hand look at this reality. We encounter inmates who have done horrible things, and yet we learn they are more than their deeds. Some of them become deeply religious. While Sehested is a Baptist, as a chaplain she was called upon to serve everyone, whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American, Buddhist, or even Wiccan. Sehested had to learn how to navigate all of this and provide spiritual encouragement and counsel to all. For those of us who serve in ministry, her story will prove enlightening.

We learn as she learned that prisons have rules. They're in place for a reason—to protect guards, inmates, and others who enter the prison. Sehested had a steep learning curve and broke a number of rules. Sometimes her infractions were little more than sharing some extra food with her clerks (inmates who assist the chaplain’s office). Compassion can prove problematic. There are times in the book where Sehested had to take actions she did not feel were fair, especially when she was not allowed to inform a family of an inmate's sickness until after he had died. Again, rules don’t always fit with the call to ministry, and yet they are there and have to be navigated.

While she did minister to the inmates—that was her first calling—she was also chaplain to the guards, staff, and even wardens/superintendents. Many of those who are employed by the prisons hate their job. This often leads to violence against inmates. The fact is that when you are in prison you are not in control of your lives, but in many ways, the same is true of employees.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters organized under three headings: “Beginnings,” “An Unusual Flock,” and finally “Finding a Way Out.” In the first section, Sehested tells us how she became a chaplain and how that worked out for her. In the middle section, we read of the people she was called upon to serve in ministry. One chapter is titled "Old Time Religion," which serves as a reminder that many of the men who are incarcerated hold very conservative religious views, views that Sehested did not share but had to work with. She tells us how one of the inmates was insistent that the Bible did not allow for women pastors, and thus her ministry was illegitimate. Interestingly, as time passed, he came to value her presence. The last section tells stories of people leaving prison, often in death. It concludes with her own departure from her work at the maximum-security prison after serving as head chaplain for a decade. She started her ministry with a lot of skepticism from both inmates and staff and left with their respect. She took with her memories of lives encountered, some of which were changed as a result of their encounters. In other words, she brought some humanity to a very inhumane space.

It is said that we have created a prison industrial complex. Money is to be made on prisons, and the result is dehumanizing. In this book, we enter that world and see it firsthand. If you read it to the end and come out thinking that this system is good for America and for those who work in this context and who live in it, then I think you've missed something. The book is sobering. Yet, it is hopeful. It’s not because of the system. There is hope because of people like Nancy Hastings Sehested, who are willing to enter that world and bring a bit of compassion and grace to lives lived in despair. As she was told on day one, despite what she might hear—that these people aren't like us—the fact is these inmates are human beings like us. If we can hear this message, then perhaps we can change one of the most inhuman narratives of the American reality. So, read Marked for Life, read it carefully and prayerfully. You will not be disappointed. It will open your eyes to realities we too often ignore. But as one’s eyes are opened; transformation may take place.


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