MONROE - They see it as shining light in a dark place.
Every year, hundreds of volunteers go behind bars at the Monroe Correctional Complex to bring hope and faith to inmates.
Religious programs at the prison have ground to a halt since corrections officer Jayme Biendl was slain at her post Jan. 29. Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist already serving a life sentence, is the prime suspect.
The killing has focused public attention on a place normally hidden from view – the prison chapel – where many inmates make an earnest effort to find God and the good in themselves.
Those who volunteer there aren’t sure what lies ahead.
Since Biendl’s killing, prison officials met twice with dozens of religious volunteers to address their questions and concerns. Volunteers came from around the state, said John Burkholder, pastor for prison ministries at Cascade Community Church in Monroe.
About 70 religious organizations provide services to the Washington State Reformatory, where Biendl was posted and Scherf was housed. It is one of five prisons within the Monroe complex.
Religious programs are a critical outlet for inmates, said Joenne McGerr, who oversees religious, volunteer and family programs for the state Department of Corrections.
It goes beyond the Bible, she said. Religious services help curb prison violence. The chapel volunteers provide good role models. They teach inmates social skills, such as respecting themselves and others.
Volunteers can help inmates address their physical, mental and spiritual needs, Burkholder said. They help ready them for life outside.
“There’s a lot of wounds and a lot of mental anguish that have to be healed while you’re working with this stuff,” he said.
The historical records for the reformatory chapel are under lockdown as part of the police investigation. However, McGerr said it is her understanding that the chapel was built decades ago using community donations.
Religious services are conducted mostly by volunteers. Community groups donate supplies and resources. Many of the costs are borne by the Offender Betterment Fund, which is supported by offenders and their families.
The Corrections Department is required by law to have chaplains in each prison, spokesman Chad Lewis said. Newer laws say the state cannot pay to build chapels, but they can be built with donations.
Volunteers generally work in the prison chapels. Along with traditional worship services, they organize Bible studies, church history classes and religious movie showings.
It’s tough work, but it’s a calling, said Penny Castro, volunteer placement coordinator for Prisoners For Christ Outreach Ministries, based in Woodinville.
Volunteers are eager to get back in once the lockdowns are lifted, she said.
“We understand that there is spiritual warfare,” Castro said.
WORKING TOWARD CHANGE
For many inmates, the chapel is a place to seek change.
Steve Clines has been volunteering at Monroe for about 10 years through Prisoners For Christ. He’s seen inmates leave gangs and racist groups as a result.
Still, volunteers understand that some inmates will come to the chapel for the wrong reasons.
It can be a place to get away from the danger and dullness of prison life. Inmates know they can relax there a little, said Randi Knaus, who has been volunteering at the prison for 27 years.
Inmates often try to manipulate religious volunteers, he said.
Volunteers undergo hours of training before they can visit prison, Burkholder said. They learn policies and protocols. Annual refresher courses are mandatory.
Violence in the chapel is extremely unusual, Clines said. In his decade visiting Monroe, he’s heard of only one scuffle between inmates.
Clines said he knew Scherf, but he and others didn’t know the details of his violent past. Volunteers don’t ask inmates about their crimes.
However, many inmates share their histories as they build personal relationships and work to change their lives, he said.
To his knowledge, Scherf never did that.
Volunteers don’t know when they’ll be back in the prison. The magnitude of what happened is still sinking in. Every aspect of prison operations is under scrutiny, including the chapel.
The lockdowns were still in effect as of Monday night, Lewis said. Prison officials meet daily to discuss the return to normal operations.
After the police investigation, the Corrections Department plans a Critical Incident Review, led by prison administrators from around the state, Lewis said.
The National Institute of Corrections also plans an independent review in the coming weeks, at the governor’s request.
Then, the Corrections Department can focus on moving forward.
Volunteers will head back into the prison as soon as they get the word, Burkholder said.