“I was nervous as all heck. I was thinking to myself, why did we sign up for this? But out loud, I said, ‘Ok, we need to pray before we go in.’ So, we did. It didn’t necessarily make it any easier, but it made it more comfortable.”
On that Saturday in June of last year, Chaplain Bill Rogowski, Anthony Consiglio from God Behind Bars, Shaun Sanassarian, and a group of 10 volunteers walked through the cell blocks of Folsom Prison for the first time. The blocks are five levels high, and 300 men watch them as they made their way through to the yard. Unlike other prisons, this is the only way to get to the chapel.
There’s no side entrance where you can slip into the chapel without drawing attention to yourself. Visitors must walk directly through the block and then into the yard. Shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye with the inmates as you make your walk toward the little chapel.
An ancient sign with the words “Condemned Row” marks an area that has since been retired from holding cells for inmates awaiting a death sentence, but the words remain. It is a nod to this old prison’s history, but a grim and continuous reminder of where you are.
Once inside Greystone Chapel, the volunteers begin to set up for the first service. Audio equipment, Bibles, message notes, pens—all ready to receive whoever should show up. 92 men showed up to attend the very first Bayside service. The atmosphere shifted drastically.
Slowly crossed arms began to rise, and closed lips began to praise.
Shaun, the leader of Bayside’s Folsom Prison Campus, reflects back on that first night. He had an overwhelming sense of belonging, “I’m right where I need to be.”
Fast forward to now, one year from that very first service. These strangers behind bars have become family. A highly diverse and unconventional family, but a family of believers whose consistency and passion are contagious—resounding throughout the prison. The volunteers themselves have found in their incarcerated congregation, fervent prayer warriors. Even the guards and faculty members—who are so often neglected when outside groups come in—have found a supportive community. From condemned row to rows of people whose lives are being transformed.
Lines form outside the chapel before service starts, and the waiting list is substantial. 150 men attend weekly, and 100 women participate on their respective sides. To demystify the questions that come up the most often, “but don’t you have a captive audience?” or “but don’t they get credit for being there?”, the answer is simple. These men and women attend because they want to. There is no credit (called “rack credit”) offered. Many organizations and other churches do offer rack credit, but they simply do not see the same numbers we are blessed to see. Inmates are encouraged to attend and serve in the Protestant Church that meets on Sunday mornings or to get involved in other developmental programs. Our goal is that inmates would grow in their relationship with Christ, and for many that looks like “next steps.” That means healing from the hurts of the past or confronting addictions. Upon release, our goal is mentorship and employment.
It’s more than offering a weekly service, it’s about ensuring that inmates know there is someone who cares on the other side.
Most the male inmates are serving 25 years to life, so releases are not a common occurrence. We’ve seen three men released so far, and all three are employed and doing very well. They are all currently attending Bayside, and one is even helping to launch Celebrate Recovery at one of our campuses.
The reality is, not every story is a success story, but every name of every inmate who comes through our doors is in our prayers. What began with a humbled and fearful prayer has sprung up into a grace-filled movement that has permeated Folsom Prison. There’s still work to do on this so-called condemned row, but Greystone Chapel is ground zero for hope. It’s already been a year in partnership with this ministry, but this is just the beginning.