HELPFUL Marion Farrell, who runs the Ossining Prison Ministry.
By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: December 23, 2008
THE trailer where visitors are processed at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility can be a bleak and forbidding place. Family members who come to visit inmates wait on long wooden benches that line the peeling linoleum floors. Large metal signs on the walls warn visitors that an electronic drug detection system may be in use; others caution that those wearing inappropriate clothing will be turned away. Prison guards stand behind a large barrier, checking forms and deciding whether visitors may proceed to the next security screening.
In the midst of all this dreariness is a tiny island of pleasantness. Marion Farrell, who has been volunteering at Sing Sing for more than 25 years, stands beside a small table covered with a blue tablecloth decorated with a design of daisies. On the table is some basic breakfast food — coffee, tea, hot chocolate, juice, cereal and muffins. A sign in both English and Spanish announces that breakfast is free, courtesy of the Ossining Prison Ministry.
To understand why something as simple as a free breakfast is a big deal under these circumstances, you need to think about what the visitors have probably gone through to get this far, said Ms. Farrell, the executive director of the prison ministry.
Many inmates come from some of the poorest communities in New York City. To visit them, their families often must walk to a bus stop, take a bus to a subway stop, the subway to the train station, the train to Ossining and then a taxi to the prison. Many mothers are lugging babies, toddlers and packages. They might leave their apartments at dawn and still be going through processing hours later.
“It’s a hard, frustrating time,” Ms. Farrell said. “People try to get there by 8 a.m. — that’s when they open the processing trailer — and they can only visit until 2:30 p.m.”
Once visitors finally get their turn at the processing desk, guards check first to see if the inmate is still at the prison. Ms. Farrell has witnessed women who made the trek only to discover that their husbands or fathers had been transferred to another prison. Children’s birth certificates are checked, adults must present identification, and all metal objects — rings, watches, keys — must be put in a small box.
If a guard decides that an outfit is too revealing — mostly a problem in the summer — the visitor will be denied entrance. Spaghetti straps, low necklines, exposed midriffs, shorts, short skirts, and skirts with slits are all against the rules. Here again, Ms. Farrell saw a need and stepped in to meet it. Next to the cabinet where she stores the breakfast food, Ms. Farrell keeps several boxes of clothing. Sweatshirts, long skirts and baggy pants in various sizes are available to be worn into the prison.
Not everyone is thrilled with the selection. Many women have made an effort to look as attractive as they can for the visit, and when shown the shapeless items to wear over their own clothes, some can be rude. Ms. Farrell said she had learned to “roll with it.”
“To be told, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come in,’ some are reduced to tears,” Ms. Farrell said. “Some find it more than they can handle. They’re already frustrated and nervous, especially if it’s the first time and they don’t know what to expect. It helps just to have somebody friendly there.”
Ms. Farrell may not seem like someone who has logged countless hours inside the maximum-security prison and who counts several inmates among her good friends. White-haired, and clad in black sweat pants and a sweatshirt, at 74 she gives off the air of a kindly but no-nonsense, highly competent grandmother. She began volunteering in the prison in 1982, through the First Presbyterian Church in Ossining as the church began a Bible study with the inmates. Over time, the men in the group were asked if there was anything else that the church volunteers might to do help. The inmates’ answer: help our families.
The breakfast program and the clothing distribution grew from that suggestion. In 1992, the Ossining Prison Ministry became incorporated as an ecumenical nonprofit group.
Ms. Farrell runs another program as well. Once inside the visiting room, family members, including small children, must sit at tables with the inmate. The prison ministry keeps three large chests containing toys, games and puzzles there. Children may choose something and take it to the table to play with their father.
Ms. Farrell is sometimes asked why she volunteers in a maximum-security prison, a place that houses violent criminals, when there are so many other opportunities among “more deserving” people. On this subject, she has strong feelings.
“First of all, there are a lot of innocent people in there,” Ms. Farrell said. “And second, why would we penalize the families of anybody — innocent or guilty? The families should not be punished, and they should not be treated in any shape or form as something less than regular citizens.”