Prison ministries lift up inmates in love, ease stress

Prison ministries make a difference to many inmates. Jail Administrator Ralph Colontuono, left, and Sheriff Jason Ritchie greet Mary Walkingstick, third from left, and Julie Merrill, part of a ministry known as Reckless Saints of Nowhere, with Ritchie shaking Merrill’s hand in thanks.

Renee Fite | Democrat Journal

Everyone needs hope. Much in life can make a person feel hopeless, but being incarcerated might be one of the hardest situations to cope with.

One of the ministry groups that visits women in jail is known as Reckless Saints of Nowhere. Locally, Julie Merrill and Mary Walkingstick are members of that group, and they go to Adair County Jail to encourage and empower the women there.

“I want to give hope. These women are wives, daughters and grandmothers. It’s important to remember that,” said Walkingstick.

People tend to classify them all as druggies, she said.

“But they’re not. They all have a story,” Walkingstick said.

Teresa Latta told Walkingstick about it and got her involved.

Sheriff Jason Ritchie and Jail Administrator Ralph Colontuono agree the inmates are calmer when those in ministry are allowed to spend time with them.

“It gives the girls some hope at a time things feel hopeless, and they’re locked up. It keeps them calm and helps their spiritual needs,” said Ritchie.

The church outreach really makes a difference.

“They’re the most significant programs we do,” Ritchie said.

Deep in the COVID pandemic, inmates were upset because they couldn’t have ministry, said Colontuono.

“They were more agitated and short-tempered with each other. They didn’t have an outlet. Since the ministry has been able to come back, they’re more calm, and there is less stress back there among the women,” he said.

Merrill is a retired social worker with more than 30 years helping elderly and disabled have the best quality of life possible. She retired from the Bridges Unit at Stilwell Memorial Hospital.

“About five years ago, Mary Walkingstick asked me to join her Thursday nights for her jail ministry. I reluctantly agreed at that time, because it seemed scary,” said Merrill, a member of First Baptist Church Stilwell who also attends Church on the Rocks.

A son went through the 14-month program with Jordan Parker, founder of Reckless Saints.

“My son continued to struggle and they helped him, and I know saved his life,” she said.

After seeing the pain and struggles her son went through, along with many others, she wanted to help in any way possible.

“I want to be part of the solution. It’s such an epidemic now – not just here, but all over the U.S.,” said Merrill.

On Thursdays, she said, they go to give hope, compassion, love, support and the truth.

“We connected with Jordan and The Reckless Saints to provide options for rehabs for those who wanted help. Reckless Saints only use year-long programs because they have the only proven success rate. We are hoping to plant seeds that in God's good timing, they will break the chains of addiction,” Merrill said.

She has kept up with some of the girls.

“Any girl who wants can have my number. They know they can call for help, prayers, food, but not money. Every morning, I send out a Bible verse and encouraging word so they know someone is thinking about them and praying for them,” she said.

It’s a practice she started years ago with her kids, family and friends who were having a difficult time. Now there are more than 100 girls, along with family members and children, on her list. 

“We write each girl who is in jail every week and provide them with a stamp so they can write their children or families. Most of the girls don’t get mail, so this is really important to them. We also write to the ones who have gone to prison, along with those who go to rehabs. Stamps are provided by my church,” she said.

She has learned so much since beginning this ministry.

“Most of the girls are hurting, their children and families are hurting, many have lost hope, given up and burned so many bridges that when they really seriously want help, they cant get it.” she said.

Some are angry and have no trust because of their own family histories and lifestyles.

“Its not just our community, but it’s a problem everywhere. As one young man stated, ‘Our sin is just more out there than others.’  We do know that spiritual help is most needed. Our community has some good churches and many compassionate people in it. If we could come together and utilize the resources we have and build on them, we would have a good start,” said Merrill.

More resources are needed and the Reckless Saints is a big one.

“Mentors would also be an excellent help. There are two wonderful faith-based transitional housing programs in Salina and Pryor. These homes are very structured and each person has accountability to them for up to a year. They help them find jobs, and when they are ready, they help them with housing," Merrill said. "Housing and employment are big issues, especially those with felonies. These transitional homes are very connected to the community and the community and homes both receive support from each other. This would be an excellent addition to Adair County."

He doesn't like to label those struggling with addiction as "druggies."

"I don’t like that word, because they're as humans deserving of love and respect, but that does not mean enabling them, either, or us being taken advantage of,” said Merrill.

Reckless Saints can be called 24-7 at 918-864-2719 for anyone seriously wanting help. They are a 501(3)c nonprofit agency that assists people to get into rehab. They help with transportation and costs for the programs at no cost to them or their families. Merrill can also be reached at 918-575-2231 for questions.