Christmas spirit comes to prison
Lebanon inmates perform play

The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON — In beautiful three-part harmony, the yuletide carol “Noel” filled the air in the midst of a Christmas play.

But the production was being performed inside prison walls — and the trio singing it consisted of inmates.

“See that guy there, the tall one? He's in for murder,” whispered Anthony Brigano, warden of Warren Correctional Institution. “He's doing more time than just about anybody in here, but just listen to him — so talented, and one of the best inmates I've ever had.”

Mr. Brigano, his staff and the inmates involved in Monday's annual Christmas play bear witness: The spirit of Christmas is powerful enough to penetrate prison walls.

“We get a blessing out of doing this,” said Dennis Isham, an inmate who directed Monday's Christmas play. “This helps us get the Lord's word out. For some of the staff and a lot of the inmates, this play is the only church service they're going to go to all year — so it's our only chance to reach them.”

About two dozen staff members attended a performance, and nearly 170 of the prison's 1,400 inmates asked for passes to attend.

The play, A Life Trans formed,could easily be the life story of many prisoners. Several of the actors said they felt it mirrored their lives.

The play tells the story of a man who comes to prison, feeling bitter about landing there — and he's tempted by prisoners who know how to get dope and booze. But then another inmate tells him about the prison chapel. At first, he resists. Then he shows up at a prison church service that changes his life.

Corny as that might sound, it's true, Mr. Isham said. “I was in more of a prison on the outside than I am in here.”

Prison Chaplain Bernie Van Scoter said Mr. Isham, who is serving time for two robbery convictions, has truly embraced the Lord. “Talk about a life transformed,” the Rev. Mr. Van Scoter said. “The jailhouse religious — those who come to prison and "get religion' are what most people think about. But there are very sincere Christians here.”

The Christmas plays are a highlight for the believers, the minister said.

“During the time I've been here, (the plays) have really touched my life,” said inmate Michael Gilmore.

Another prisoner, Joseph Whitsell, said being involved with the play illustrated another important lesson for him.

“I'm kind of shy, so when I heard about the play, I said I just wanted a small part,” he said. “But (Mr. Isham) told me, "There are no small parts,' and that's the way it is with God.”

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