I spent part of last Friday afternoon in prison — not being fingerprinted or “scared straight,” but hanging out with Terri Stratton, the first female senior staff chaplain in the 130-year history of North Carolina’s Central Prison.

Central Prison, just outside of downtown Raleigh, is home to about 1,000 inmates, including 300 or so in its hospital/mental health facility and another 150 on the state’s death row.

Baptists Today will feature Stratton in our March 2014 issue and I won’t spill the whole story, but walking through the network of long halls and sliding steel doors helped me realize how dehumanizing prison can be, and how important it is to have chaplains like Stratton who see the inmates not as felons but as residents, not as bad people but as people who made bad choices.

When counseling or setting up religious programs for death row inmates, Stratton says she tries not to remember the specific crimes for which the inmates were convicted. She also celebrates the knowledge that many of the men, in large part because of the programming she and other chaplains offer, have made better choices, and are no longer the same people they were when they came in.

I suspect all of us could benefit from better choices and the spiritual growth that makes us better people than we used to be.

Let’s hope we don’t require time behind bars to make that happen.

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