On a steamy May morning south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Erica Bowers Welch, a 46-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of three, debated the Book of Jeremiah in her Old Testament college class at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). She listened intently as her professor reviewed information for their final exam, which would take place the following week. With her sharp cheekbones, accentuated by hair piled high on her head, Erica exuded a flair that defied the drabness of her prison-issued blue shirt. She sat with her twenty-three classmates at battered tables in the chapel classroom. A map of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was the only thing disrupting the cinderblock monotony of the walls.
Jeremiah, explained Dr. Kristi Miller, is a book about being oppressed by a foreign power (the Babylonians) but also about how faith in God freed the Israelites. “God does not play with those who oppress others for their own gain. It is a message against people in power. God takes seriously those who abuse their position of power,” she explained. The lesson seemed unusually apt for a maximum-security prison setting.
As Erica and others listened, Dr. Miller drilled them with potential exam questions. “How long were they in captivity in Chapter 25?” The class answered automatically: “Seventy years.” There were a lot of murmurs and sighs. Erica is over a decade into a forty-seven-year sentence, and most of the other women are lifers without even the possibility of parole. Most of them will die here. When Erica finishes her bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry next year as part of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) first graduating class, she won’t return to the free world. She and her classmates will be sent forth to spread the word of God and, the seminary hopes, reduce violence throughout the vast Southern prison archipelago.
Feature image by Jim Shaw, Study for Mound of Skulls (Utopian Landscape V), 1988. Pencil on paper, 17 x 14in. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gift of Lannan Foundation.