An angel in the jailhouse
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – On her first night in prison in Rifle more than 20 years ago, Marian Melville recalls settling into a chair next to an imposing inmate who leaned over and growled at her, “If you sat next to me on the outside, I would have killed you.”
She wasn’t there as resident, but as a visitor. And she didn’t let the threat deter her.
A member of the non-denominational Crossroads Church of Aspen, Melville, 80, has been the voluntary leader of a Bible-study class at the Pitkin County Jail for more than two decades. Right before her then-pastor left town in 1984, he invited a small group for tea and asked them to get more involved in the ministry. For the first few years she drove to the prison in Rifle and back every Friday evening, but eventually the travel got to be too much, and her husband, Ralph, with whom she co-owns the Mountain Chalet in Aspen, begged her to stay closer to home.
She’s part of the national Prison Fellowship program, which was started by Chuck Colson, a former special counsel for President Richard Nixon. The goal is to reach out to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families as an act of service to Jesus Christ and as a way of trying to restoring peace in communities.
On most weeks Melville is accompanied by Pastor Derek Brown, Stephanie Somers and Cameron Wenzel, all of Aspen. Wenzel, 27, arranges his day off as manager of Snowmass Sports each week to coincide with Melville’s jail trips. It’s a deed that’s in his blood, as his grandfather was a minister at a maximum-security prison in North Carolina.
“We encourage everyone in the jail to come and study with us, no matter where they are in their walk of faith,” Wenzel says.
When Melville enters the Pitkin County Jail each week, she gets a greeting worthy of a rock star. On a recent Wednesday she walks in and eight men in bright orange pants and shirts run over to shake her hand and hug her, and then rush her over to the artificial Christmas tree that has just been decorated. They want her to do the honors of putting up the star, so they gently help her stand on a chair while she places it on top.
“She’s our hero,” exclaims inmate Esau Rodriguez, 22. “She brings us hope. She’s one of the most generous people we’ve ever met. Even though we’re in jail and everyone else thinks we’re the worst, she has faith in us.”
They sit down at three tables pushed together, the men’s Bibles already open. Some passages have been highlighted, and many have scribbled notes on pads of paper or in the margins. The classes are equal parts reading and discussion. The day’s topics range from submission to adultery, and what they mean in relation to God and real life. Melville makes it clear she’s not there to judge them and doesn’t concern herself with what landed them there in the first place; the warmth, respect and passion around the table are mutual, evident and overflowing.
“The goal is to make the lessons from the Bible applicable to their lives, and hopefully it’ll change their lives the way it has mine,” she says.
The majority of the men at the table are Spanish speaking, so each excerpt is read twice, once in English and then again in Spanish. When necessary, Wenzel provides the English translation for someone offering a talking point in Spanish. Each man takes turn reading, and all of them offer fodder, each equally engaged. Melville’s ice-blue eyes alternate between the day’s passages and the men around the table as she frequently gestures her hands for emphasis.
Because of the time of year, they also talk about how the passages relate to the meaning of Christmas.
“Christmas is a quiet, somber day in jail, and it’s harder on some than others,” says Jim DeBerge, 63, who has worked at the jail since 1983. “Some will stay in bed all day.”
In past years the deputies have made up special T-shirts printed with Property of the Pitkin County Jail that are given out only to inmates on Dec. 25. Some years they’ve also put together stockings filled with such commissary items as candy and shampoo. Occasionally some local businesses donate other stuffers like mugs.
“It sucks to be in jail at Christmas,” says Don Bird, 62, who runs the jail and has worked there for 26 years. “They’re separated from their families and we try to make it easier on them if it’s something we can manage.”
He stresses he doesn’t feel bad for them. “If they were being mistreated, I would. But they’re in here as a consequence of their own actions. But I do feel bad for anyone who’s in jail at Christmas.”
Like every other day of the year, the inmates will eat what’s prepared at Aspen Valley Hospital on Christmas. Today the menu boasts prime rib for lunch and Cornish game hens with all the trimmings for supper.
Melville used to bring Christmas presents for each inmate, but the rules have tightened up over the years about what’s allowed inside, so she forgoes holiday gifts and instead gives them their own Bibles when they enter the jail, whether or not they participate in her classes. And those who don’t participate are still welcome to partake in the chips, pretzels and sodas she brings them every week. She even calls every week before she arrives to see how many inmates are there that day so she can be sure to bring enough snacks and drinks. If it’s someone’s birthday, she supplies the cake (although only the deputies can light the candles).
It’s thanks to Bird that programs like Melville’s Bible study exist, but he credits the philosophy established by former longtime Sheriff Dick Kienast, who believed in combating unforced idleness and giving the inmates a positive diversion.
“We try to have the guys use their time productively,” says Bird.
It’s a humanistic approach to law enforcement that outgoing Sheriff Bob Braudis supported during his 24-year tenure, and one Bird expects incoming Sheriff Joe DiSalvo will continue.
“The goal,” says Bird, “is to create a normal environment in the jail and most people will act normally. [Melville] shows genuine compassion and concern for these guys, and they really respect her.”
In addition to the weekly Bible study, inmates can also participate in regular art classes with the Aspen Art Museum, as well as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in the jail.
Twenty-eight-year-old inmate Charles White has taken advantage of all the programs offered in the jail in the four months he’s been inside. He’s not looking forward to Christmas.
“This is the longest I’ve ever been away from my [wife and two young children], and it’s my first Christmas without them.”
But he says Melville’s class and the art class, as well as the NA and AA meetings, have all helped him learn to manage his anger. He writes in a daily journal, reads his Bible and works hard on his recovery steps.
“This is the first time I’ve had for myself to deal with me,” he says. “I’m really trying to change and I owe it to the jail, Don and Marian for having these programs that help people like me. We’re high up here in Aspen, and I feel like we’re closer to God because of it. By them being so nice to us, it shows us that we’re human, we’ve made mistakes and that’s OK, even if the ones that got us in here weren’t OK. They let us know we have another chance.”
Melville is a steadfast believer in second chances, no matter the transgression, including those against her. To this day she’s still in touch with the wife of the inmate she sat next to that first night in Rifle. He’s grown ill and she keeps tabs on his progress.
“She puts it out there because it’s what she believes in,” says Bird.
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