Adobe Stock / William
Woman to Woman: Prison Ministry gives Iona students the opportunity to meet and befriend inmates in Westchester County.
This past semester, Iona College of New Rochelle hosted an outreach program in conjunction with Bedford Presbyterian Church at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. This service program, dubbed “Women to Women: Prison Ministry,” invited student volunteers to meet with inmates at the prison in small groups. During their time spent talking and administering to the inmates, the students learned more about the reality of being an incarcerated woman in Westchester.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility has been in operation for more than a century. It is one of three prisons in New York State the exclusively houses women prisoners — and with a total capacity of 921, it is by far the largest. Of these three facilities, Bedford Hills is also the only one designated as maximum security. Due to this fact, many infamous women such as “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher, “Fatal Attraction Killer” Carolyn Wamus, and Joyce Mitchell have called the facility home at one point in their lives. Despite this history of infamous inmates, Bedford Hills is well known for its emphasis on family-centered programs, the result of Sister Elaine Roulet’s work in Bedford.
The service project, which experienced a dramatic shift following the pandemic, was overseen by student minister Elizabeth Kiernan, an incoming senior who is currently majoring in both criminal justice and political science. Kiernan, who cites Iona’s active and robust campus ministry as one of her prime reasons for enrolling, hit the ground running by trying to bring the project back to its former, pre-COVID, glory.
“Women to Women had been running for some time. But COVID really threw a huge wrench into it,” explains Kiernan. “Ever since COVID hit they started emailing inmates instead of actually going to the prison to see them. So I wanted to restart the in-person visits.”
The project ran for a total of 21 in-person visits, during which students would meet in small groups with their inmates (two students to each inmate); once the meetings started, the students and inmates would chat about whatever topics came to mind, running the gamut from cellblock gossip and joke-telling to stories from the past and plans for the future. The students would also “keep” their assigned inmate for the duration of the term; each time they arrived at the prison with their group, they would always visit the same prisoner. This resulted in some truly strong bonds being formed between the inmates and their students.
During her time overseeing the project, Elizabeth Kiernan met with a woman named Mary. Mary, who has been incarcerated at Bedford Hills since 2017, had not received a single visitor before Iona’s program started. “She told us that, the very minute she was incarcerated, her family cut her off,” Kiernan explains. “It happens sometimes.” Through their visits, however, the two have formed a strong friendship with each other.
“But we’re friends with them,” Kiernan says. “100% Mary is my friend.” Even on days when Kiernan is not scheduled to meet with Mary in person, she still keeps in contact via email. “It’s part of being a friend, you know? Telling each other what happens in your lives. She’ll tell me things that happen with her friends in Bedford, and I’ll tell her things that are going on with me at Iona. I email her every week, and I know she gets excited when I come to visit.”
Kiernan, who plans on pursuing a career in the criminal justice system as an ADA, has learned quite a bit from this project. “I want people to know that their crime doesn’t define them,” she explains. “We aren’t doing this to be their saviors on the outside. We do it because they’re human beings and they deserve to have someone to talk to just like us; and the only difference between us and them is that we haven’t been arrested… Even just writing to an inmate helps if you can’t visit them in person. It’s the little things.”
“It’s so important to me, especially since so many of my programs as a C.M. have been about prison reform,” Kiernan elaborates on what lessons she’ll remember going forward. “Not everyone deserves to be prosecuted. Not everyone deserves to be going through a court trial and have some of these charges held against them. It’s so important to know what you should be charging them with and what you shouldn’t. The fact that someone is in Bedford Hills for shoplifting is completely ridiculous. That’s not worth being in a maximum-security prison.”
“Not everyone deserves to be going through this hell,” Kiernan adamantly states. “And it 100% is hell. But everyone does deserve that chance to say ‘I can be better, and I want you to know I can be better’ and hearing ‘Yes, I can see that in you.'” For Kiernan, this mission trip was her way of giving the women of Bedford Hills the chance to stand up and say exactly that — and to have a group of young volunteers who were willing to listen with open ears and see with open hearts.