2017-11-01 / Start Here

Joyful Every Day

Shelby Caraway aims to get inmates in the spirit through her Christmas in Jail programming
Dana Ray | Photo by Matt Fern

In the heat of July, Shelby Caraway was drumming up the Christmas spirit all over social media. She had a goal to raise $5,000 to throw a Christmas party for inmates of the Centre County Correctional Facility this December. There will be cookies and nail painting and a present for every inmate, along with a personalized Christmas card. Caraway’s celebration may be about sweets and gifts, but the real reason for the party, she says, is letting people know they are valued and are not forgotten. It’s just one of the many ways Caraway is working to transform the prison system in Centre County, where she has been the women’s chaplain for three years.

Before Caraway came along, there was no organized way to recognize Christmas in the prison — it seemed too complicated from the legal perspective. So three years ago, she started a simple cookie-baking project with 15 inmates at a time. It was so popular that she looked to expand it. “My goal now is that every year will be bigger and better.”  

Last year at the Christmas in Jail celebration she and the inmates were allowed to paint each other’s nails, and the results were more than just colorful. “To be part of the women’s lives, touch their hands, see them as beautiful, just doesn’t happen in there. To add beauty to their everyday lives just through painted nails… it meant something.” For months afterward, Caraway noticed the polish on their nails was being carefully maintained.

Statistics show that more than half of the people who are released will be incarcerated again. So Caraway focuses on celebrating the good moments. “I can’t wait till the end of the story to celebrate, or we’ll miss it,” she says. “Celebration is a way of being there for people no matter what. When someone gets out of jail, we celebrate with them. If they end up back in jail, we will celebrate again when they get out again.”

This mentality also keeps Caraway going through the setbacks. “For every general story I tell, there is a real person behind it — a person who is my friend. These aren’t abstract systems but things that change lives forever.” Celebrating the small wins helps her keep things in perspective.

Several years ago, looking to get involved in her community, Caraway attended a gathering of local leaders who impacted the prison system: police officers, social workers, nonprofits, jail officials and more. Their question was: How could they support and guide inmates’ reentry into society after jail?

Caraway went through the required training to visit the jail on a regular basis, and three years ago they asked her to become the women’s chaplain.

Her work in the jail is just one part of her local engagement. She works full time at Calvary Church in community outreach, focusing on supporting vulnerable populations like the homeless or those currently incarcerated. She also was a house manager at the for two years. And you may have seen her driving around town in a tie-dyed car. “She has a name, Joyful Wheels, and an Instagram account,” Caraway says.

Caraway’s latest work is a mentoring program for inmates who are soon to be released. “We asked, ‘What will happen when we put people together as friends?’ And what we’re finding is that these people actually have a safe place, someone to help with the tough transition back,” she says. Without a friend, the return to normal life can be fraught with alienation and stigma. The government programs can be time-consuming and confusing to navigate. Landlords might not want renters who were incarcerated. Employers might not consider anyone with a criminal history. These challenges must be overcome for people to adjust to society and avoid the same behaviors that led to jail in the first place.

This kind of work is not always possible in other regions. Caraway says she’s lucky to work in an area like Centre County. “This community is really incredible and supportive,” she says. “People are open and try to work together and see the tangible outcomes. The work here is sustainable in a really unique way.”

Next month, Caraway will be back in the Centre County Correctional Facility for her fourth Christmas in Jail. To support the work and get involved, email her at •SCM

Dana Ray is a ‘why finder,’ wordsmith and idea wrangler. She is a consultant helping individuals and business owners find and apply their ‘why.’

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