TLS Members e-Newsletter

Members eNewsletter
At least four times a year, TLS members are rewarded at their inboxes with a copy of the Labyrinth Society e-newsletter. It serves as a means of direct communication with the membership and provides an historical record of the Society.

Profile of Christiana Brinton, prison volunteer and current TLS Communications VP; 4th installment in the "Meet Your Board" Series

Profile of Christiana Brinton, Prison Labyrinth Ministry Volunteer and TLS VP for Communications, in Her Own Words

Christiana with geodes at WaycrossFrom January of 2011 through August of 2013, I volunteered, along with a team of eight other women, in the labyrinth ministry program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) in Wilsonville, Oregon. The program was originally started in 2005 by Anita Trudeau who died in 2010, and was revived when the current prison chaplain, Emily Brault, contacted Kay Kinneavy at Labyrinth Network Northwest (LNN), and asked for new labyrinth volunteers. Kay immediately put out a call to all LNN members and Paula Hills Starr agreed to be the new volunteer coordinator. This was one of two labyrinth prison programs that LNN sponsored, the other being one for young women and girls at Oak Creek Youth Facility in Albany, OR. [Christiana Brinton at Waycross, 2015. Photo: Lars Howlett]

In writing this article, I scanned LNN’s archives looking for the articles about this experience and was struck by several things. Over the course of the three years, we volunteers wrote three LNN newsletter articles and two LNN Reflection articles, while Kay wrote almost a dozen paragraphs in her labyrinth events and announcement emails. Plus, the local Portland paper, the Oregonian, wrote a piece about our CCCF labyrinth ministry in September, 2011. You’d think, with all that press, there would have been more volunteers joining this worthwhile cause, but this was not the case. There are a few good reasons for this, but the other thing that I noticed was the overwhelmingly positive reporting of those who did volunteer and were willing to write about their experiences.

Volunteering in a prison environment, even when it is labyrinth related, is not an opportunity that most people jump at. For one thing, the process of obtaining security clearance and then undergoing the effects of its implementation, whenever one must enter the facility, is extremely daunting for most people. Our first meeting with the prison chaplain, Emily Brault took place at Coffee Creek where we went through metal detectors after our keys, coats, scarves and excess jewelry were placed in lockers in the main waiting room and our drivers licenses were retained by the prison guards. Then we followed Emily through seemingly endless double steel doors to another guard station leading to the inner courtyard, where we had our clearances checked again. We finally entered the medium/maximum security building where the chapel is located and three more doors to be buzzed through before arriving at our destination. By the time we had obtained our security badges months later and were able to walk in with our volunteer partner without Emily accompanying us, much of the initial trepidation we all felt during that first walk had vanished, but the sense of being constantly on alert never leaves. From talking with Helen Curry and her experiences in the Danbury Federal Women’s Prison, the security protocols intended to protect volunteers as well as the guards, administrators, and inmates are very similar and, for the most part, work well.

While it would have been nice to have an open volunteer policy so that anyone with a desire to work with labyrinths in a prison setting could join our group, the reality was a bit different. This was an issue our group constantly debated and it centered upon the degree of previous labyrinth experience a volunteer needed to have under their belt. We always stressed that being a certified facilitator was not necessary to join, but that it was very helpful to have enough personal walking experience to be able to hold space for the women inmates, walk with them, and yet not be dealing with one’s own issues at the same time. We rarely had three volunteers go in at the same time, usually only two, and they needed to have their full attention on the women and the process for that hour. I must admit, being a certified labyrinth facilitator was very helpful in dealing with a few stressful incidents that presented themselves during those three years.

After a year of volunteering, Paula resigned as volunteer coordinator and I took her place. By then, our volunteer group was well established with the women inmates who attended these walks even though, in the beginning, they had tested our commitment to this ministry in both subtle and obvious ways. They wanted to know if we were willing to take the bad with the good and so there was some acting out, excessive talking, attempts to bend the rules and such. At first some of us were upset and worried by this, but we persevered, kept showing up and the word spread that we were in there for them, with the result that there was and, I believe, still is a long waiting list to attend these weekly walks. There was always a good mix of 12-20 inmates, both seasoned walkers and newbies of Hispanic, African-American, White and Native American origins. Some were lifers who had committed murder and many had multiple issues with addiction, often in combination with emotional and physiological imbalances as well.

CoffeCreek Prison Ministry. Photo: K. KinneavyFor the most part, our volunteers were all women too and this created a bond that most of us did not expect to experience. The format was a simple one; the seven circuit, canvas classical labyrinth was already set out when we arrived with chairs arranged in a semicircle on the raised stage and with the box of labyrinth paraphernalia in the center on a small bench. We always had at least two volunteers per walk for security purposes and we’d take turns arranging meditation cards, flowers, a reading, recorded music, and a candle with matches to open the circle, before the women entered. We had managed to obtain permission to use a real candle with matches, but this could change at the whim of the prison staff. Often we placed the cards in the center of the labyrinth and then, after everyone had walked, we’d spend about fifteen minutes debriefing. [Prison Ministry. Photo: K. Kinneavy]

The cards invariably helped to break the ice and often an inmate would share a very personal story or an insight that had occurred to her. I found that the more honest we were in sharing out own issues, the more the incarcerated women were willing to share, and it brought us closer. We were all worried about our children, our parents, our partners and friends. As the group got used to one another, they became less anxious, more trusting and more willing to take time walking rather than hurrying through in a conga line. They loved it when we wore bright clothing or funky shoes. The dreary uniformity of their everyday lives was broken for a brief hour once a week and, for this, the women were so appreciative and grateful.

I cherish the memories of these years and hope to return someday when I go back to the Pacific Northwest. I will never forget the intimate exchanges we shared, the smiles and laughter, the relief on their faces and in their body language because these women inmates had been given one hour of quiet and peace. My problems seemed very small in comparison after walking with these women and yet so much was the same – only varying in the degrees of consequence. It was a powerful experience where my preconceptions and comfort zone were constantly tested and pushed. Maybe this form of labyrinth work is not for everyone, but the gift of this ministry was a two way street with, I believe, long term, beneficial effects. It would be interesting to do a case study of inmates who have been released and participated in a labyrinth program while they were incarcerated.

For more information about other prison ministries, you can access Labyrinth Network Northwest’s Resources page and also an article in the Hampton Gazette.