On a foggy winter night, thick tree trunks lining the long road into Oakhill Correctional Institution cast a chilly vibe that gets colder at the sight of razor wire atop the fenced entrance to the 685-inmate facility.
In the lobby, a guard has me stash my keys, phone and wallet in a locker. I’m soon joined by nine members of Madison Pentecostal Assembly. The last to arrive is Bishop Eugene Johnson. His GPS got him lost in southern Fitchburg, so the group’s running a half-hour late.
We pile in a van that drops us at the northeast corner of Oakhill’s 100-acre grounds. There, 60 inmates are waiting inside an A-frame chapel built in 1965, when this property housed the Wisconsin School for Girls. Scattered across 11 rows of pews, they’ll have to wait a little longer.
A small group assembles in a room off the sanctuary, where Oakhill’s chaplain has instructed inmates to fill a baptism tub constructed of blue tarps and an aluminum frame. Johnson leads a prayer while an inmate named Leo stands shirtless at the foot of the tub, waiting to be baptized. A dozen men, both inmates and clergy, encircle him and murmur encouragement. Johnson invites Leo to stand in the water. He pinches his nose shut, cups the back of Leo’s head with his other hand, then dunks him.
The men clap, shout and sing loudly. “I don’t care what the world say about me,” the song goes, “I been down in Jesus’ name.”
The service begins. Speakers take turns reading Scripture, praying or leading Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” while three inmates play bass guitar, piano and drums. Two ex-cons, now members of MPA, talk about the greener pastures awaiting these men some day. One wears a bright red suit accented by red-and-white wingtips — a festive contrast to the prisoners’ green uniforms. During songs, he struts the aisle in time to the music and fist bumps the congregation. The mood is light, happy. If security guards are present, I don’t see them.
The service was arranged by Rev. Emmanuel Okoye, Oakhill’s chaplain since 2004. Born in Nigeria, the son of a train conductor, he became a Pentecostal minister in his early 30s. In the late 1990s, he was “called” to a church in Milwaukee before settling in Wisconsin for good with his wife and kids.
As chaplain, Okoye often has to deliver bad news to inmates — about relatives who have died or girlfriends who have left.
“Sometimes I have to wait while they sob, give them Kleenex,” he tells me.
After the two-hour service, several inmates shake my hand and thank me for being there. Asian beetles caromed against the overhead lights; one landed on my shoulder. A short man in his 40s picked it off gently and let it go.
“No problem,” he says, pulling on his coat before walking outside. “God bless.” n
Oakhill Correctional Institution, Oregon, Wis.
Rev. Emmanuel Okoye
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