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Razor wire lines Nashville’s Tennessee Prison for Women
Photo by Ted Parks

Unit 3: A city on a hill

In the maximum security wing of a Tennessee women’s prison, a Lipscomb professor finds a community where 'the Devil is busy ... but God is busy too.'

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” 

— 1 Corinthians 12:12

“Will you teach the workshop in Unit 3?” 

That one question changed everything about my experience at the Tennessee Prison for Women.

“Who is in Unit 3?” I naively asked.

In the Word | Kate Watkins

“The loneliest people in the prison,” the administrator replied.

My friend Terra and I teach classes at the prison through Lipscomb University’s LIFE Academy program. 

Traditionally, the program puts “freeworlders” from outside the prison side-by-side with “inside students” as they study together, learning from Lipscomb faculty members and each other. 

But Unit 3 is different. It’s the prison’s maximum security unit. Women are locked in their cells for 23 hours per day. 
Set on a hill apart from the rest of the compound, Unit 3 allows no visitation. 

When we arrived for the first class there, a bold little woman announced, “I don’t want to be here. I ain’t coming back next week. I ain’t writing nutin’ down. You can’t make me tell you nutin’.” 

I paused and replied, “I haven’t met you. My name is Kate. May I hug you?” As she leaned into my hug she muttered, “My name is Patty.” 
Terra and I offered hugs and hellos to the other women, Tonya, Kathy and Lisa. (Those aren’t their real names.) 

We had only four students, but the room could scarcely contain the power of their stories. 

Tonya’s mother sold her for $500 to a stranger in a bar when she was 12. 

RELATED STORY: Erika East receives her diploma and congratulatory handshake from Lipscomb University president L. Randolph Lowry during a graduation ceremony at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. Read Ted Parks’ feature on the LIFE Academy program. (PHOTO BY TED PARKS)

Patty is in Unit 3 for drugs but learned to be a fighter from her father. 

Lisa shot her husband while he beat her, and on the way to the county jail she had a stroke. She remains partially paralyzed and makes her way around the unit in a wheelchair. 

Kathy was shot in the face during a meth exchange. She has no eyeballs, yet her eye sockets remain open. 

Trauma has forged these women into a family. Patty never came to class after the first night without a hymnal that she found in Unit 3. Tonya is a constant encourager. 

Kathy, in her blindness, and Lisa, in her paralysis, function as one person. Lisa can neither walk nor move her wheelchair. Kathy cannot see or maneuver on her own. So Kathy holds onto the wheelchair, guiding it to the sounds of Lisa’s voice. 

One night, when Lisa’s shoe was untied, Kathy felt her way onto the floor, found Lisa’s shoe, and tied it for her before feeling her way back into her seat. 

The women make up one body, physically and spiritually. When one suffers, they suffer together. When one is honored, they all rejoice together. 

Terra and I heard from our new friends what it is like to be forgotten. We heard what it is like to try to survive in a story that seems hopeless. 

We also learned to sing hymns in prison because of Patty. We learned to be stronger encouragers from Tonya. We learned that a kind voice like Lisa’s can literally guide the blind, and we learned from Kathy that anyone can get on their knees to serve another.

Unit 3 is a city on a hill. There we discovered the body of Christ singing and serving behind locked steel doors. There the Gospel is selflessly lived out in a lonely place. 

To quote Patty on the last night of class, “The Devil is busy in here … but God is busy too.” 

We yearn for God’s kingdom, where the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the captive shall be set free. So we pray, “Oh Lord, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Maybe that kingdom is foreshadowed in Unit 3. 

is the academic program director for the Doctorate of Ministry degree program in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Filed under: Headlines - Secondary Insight Views

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