First woman prison chaplain sees progress behind bars

It is 7:28 on a crisp Monday morning at the Federal Correction Institution here.

''Four'' crackles a voice over the intercom between the front office and control. Chaplain Paula Gold-Timmons waits patiently for the correctional officer at the control console inside prison to pick up on his colleague's signal at the front gate. At 7:30 she hears the familiar click, then walks through the two glass doors and up the flower-lined path to her offices in the chapel building.

Thus begins a routine workday for the first woman chaplain in the federal prison system.

With the numbers of women in state and federal prison increasing, it is timely that a woman chaplain be appointed to the system. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report recently released, in mid-1981 the number of women in prison was 14,656, a gain of 1,400 in six months and the most ever recorded since 1925, when statistics were first kept on prison populations.

Between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., Chaplain Gold-Timmons will work to be ''the moral conscience of the prison,'' as the chaplain's role is outlined in the Bureau of Prisons manual. Dressed comfortably in a bright pantsuit, flat shoes, and occasionally a clerical collar, she will cover both charted and uncharted territory.

The ''routine'' part of her Monday will include answering correspondence, writing memos, and attending to the endless paper work associated with a religious program structured to meet the diverse needs of some 350 men and women. This also includes the scheduling and supervision of some 200 community religious volunteers who bring in a variety of denominational programs to supplement the one Protestant and one Catholic church service each week.

Her desk work complete, Chaplain Gold-Timmons will then walk through all three of the dormitory units as part of what she calls ''the ministry of presence.'' She will chat with a troubled prisoner here, visit a sick prisoner there.

''It is mostly a case of making myself available. . . . It is walking the walk and talking the talk . . . of just being there with folk who are hurt, or who have broken spirits, or who are bitter,'' she explains.

This walking ministry will include a visit to the administrative detention unit, alias ''the Hole,'' a maximum security unit where prisoners are temporarily isolated for a variety of reasons.

The uncharted or nonroutine parts of her day will fall into the general category of counseling. ''This includes everything from ''band-aid'' counseling to full-fledged ''crisis counseling,'' she says. One person will ask for support during an upcoming parole hearing - often a highly charged emotional event for an inmate. Another seeks comfort after learning that a child has been removed to a foster home.

''This I call 'band-aid' counseling, because it involves offering a little love pat to those who are down,'' she says.

''Crisis counseling'' occurs when an inmate faces severe stress - a sudden death in the family, an intense shock. ''These people are in crisis right then, '' she continues, ''and it has to be dealt with that moment.''

On several occasions, Chaplain Gold-Timmons has been called back to prison in the middle of the night to counsel inmates who are suicidal. ''We talk things out - again it is the ministry of presence,'' she says.

As an undergraduate and seminarian, as well as a new bride moving between towns in west Texas, she often found herself working in crisis situations (and liking it) in institutions for the mentally retarded and the mentally and physically ill. Prior to her prison appointment in 1978, Chaplain Gold-Timmons's internship and experience had been almost exclusively in hospital settings. ''My first love has always been hospital ministry,'' she admits. ''I never dreamed I'd ever be in prison chaplaincy.''

In fact, when she announced to the director of chaplaincy for her denomination that she intended to apply for a federal chaplaincy in the prison system, he said emphatically, ''No way. They don't have women prison chaplains.''

She persisted, and in 1978 found herself one of seven applicants called to Washington, D.C., for final interviews. Eighteen denominational representatives, all male, would interview the applicants.

The night before this key interview, her wise director of chaplaincy, reconciled to her goal, ''arranged'' a dinner party for his protegee and a select few. The select few turned out to be those on the interview committee who would be most opposed to the idea of a woman chaplain. The next morning, she was ecstatic to discover she was one of four chosen as new chaplains, and the first woman ever appointed by the Bureau of Prisons to this post.

During the interview, she recalls, one of the questions fired at her was: ''What does your husband think about your applying for this position with the government - a position that will move you around the country?'' Before she could speak, one of the dinner guests from the evening before interrupted, ''We wouldn't ask that question of a man,'' and that was the end of it.

Her husband of nine years, the Rev. Jack Timmons, has willingly relocated when it has been necessary for her professional assignments, often at some sacrifice to his own career. Their daughter, Krista, now 51/2, attends a local Montessori school.

During her years at Phillips Seminary in Enid, Okla., Paula Gold was steered in what was then the traditional direction for women in the church - Christian education. But when feminism burst upon the country, she could no longer live with that goal. Her own irrepressible ambitions for the ministry began to surface. Jack encouraged her, and a pastor she became.

When she was assigned to FCI, Pleasanton, the friendly warden there, Charles Turnbo, was asked how he felt about having a woman chaplain (and a woman minister) on board. He said he'd ''have to struggle with that.'' His church does not have ordained women ministers. Today, however, he acknowledges that Chaplain Gold-Timmons has been ''a real asset at the prison.'' He continues, ''Her contributions as a spiritual leader as well as an institution department manager have been fantastic.''

Occasionally, Paula Gold-Timmons must cope with what she calls ''unreconstructed'' sexist attitudes. ''At least the male correctional officers now tolerate me,'' she laughs. But it's the ''Good Ole Girls'' club that keeps her on her toes (FCI is two-thirds women and one-third men). ''I feel competition with the women. They are my worst critics.''

In spite of scattered opposition, Chaplain Gold-Timmons is emphatic about the value of role models. ''Women need to be represented - there need to be role models for those who are in prison,'' she says. By the same token, she herself misses having role models.

At times Paula Gold-Timmons admits to feeling discouraged: ''Changes in these individuals come slowly and not very often. We see the seeds planted, but we don't often see the results.''

Nevertheless, she has seen changes come as the inmates grow spiritually, and it is a compelling subject for her.

"These changes are radical - phenomenal!'' she says. She tells of a woman who had been robbing banks in the South and Midwest. ''This young woman came to prison bitter - totally angry. During her stay at FCI, she began to change. This change came from within her.'' This inmate had been gaining a great deal from seminars offered by the religious department - seminars on interpersonal communication and discipleship.

''I worked steadily with her, and I think her relationship with her M-2 sponsor (a prison visitation program whereby an inmate is 'matched' with a friend in the community) further strengthened her spiritual development,'' adds Chaplain Gold-Timmons. She is out of prison now, the chaplain explains, working and enrolled in a college pre-med program.

''To be able to witness this radical change is what makes my ministry hopeful ,'' she adds.

Last year, the Bureau of Prisons paid Chaplain Gold-Timmons a high compliment. A second woman chaplain was appointed to the federal prison system.

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