Fourteen years ago, after getting her Ph.D. in religion and personality, the Rev. Dr. Emily Brault went to prison. She’s been there ever since and has no plans of leaving, she likes to say.
Since 2004, Brault has served as a full-time prison chaplain at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, the state’s only prison for women. She works along with another Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Susan Matranga-Watson, who started in 2012. For the 1,300 women incarcerated at Coffee Creek, Brault and Matranga-Watson tend to spiritual and religious needs; provide pastoral counseling; and oversee volunteers who provide a variety of religious, educational, and other programs. Much of their chaplaincy involves grief work: helping inmates deal with unresolved trauma, the pain of separation from children, or the death of a family member. Brault also facilitates dialogues between victims and their offenders through a structured and voluntary restorative justice program, while Matranga-Watson spends part of her time at the adjacent men’s intake facility, where male prisoners are housed temporarily as they are processed.
Brault and Matranga-Watson believe that they are the only UU ministers in the United States who are full-time prison chaplains. Both say they love their work and its deep expression of their UU values.
“As a prison chaplain, I have access to people’s lives in a way others don’t. I’m comfortable with the trauma, with meeting people . . . and companioning through that time,” says Brault.
“I love being a chaplain, plain and simple,” says Matranga-Watson, who previously worked as a hospital and hospice chaplain. “I know it sounds weird, but I love grief and loss and helping people through that process of pain, whatever that pain may be.”
Unitarian Universalism is a natural fit for prison chaplaincy because the First Principle affirms the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. “These are people, and they deserve respect whatever their crime is,” says Matranga-Watson, who holds two master’s degrees and was ordained as a UU minister in 2000. While some inmates have committed “horrendous crimes,” she says, “most of the people I have met have a core decency in them, but they were on drugs or alcohol or so wounded that in their own woundedness they made horrible decisions.” While that doesn’t excuse the crime, she says, “I have the freedom to get to know people as people, not as what they came to prison for.”
As UUs, who support religious and spiritual pluralism, they enjoy working with inmates from a huge variety of faith traditions as well as non-believers. “I’m here to create a safe place where people can come and talk and cry and maybe find some respite, find some hope, maybe get some encouragement,” says Brault.
Brault believes that less than 5 percent of the Coffee Creek population is so dangerous that locking them up is the right choice. Restorative and transformative justice approaches are less expensive and more effective at repairing harms done, Brault argues, adding, “Putting people in a box is counterproductive if we really want people to become better people.”
Yet over the past forty years, the population in women’s state prisons grew 834 percent, more than double the pace of men’s prisons, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization. At Coffee Creek, the number of inmates has more than doubled since 2002, due to mandatory sentencing, longer sentences, and other hardline measures, Brault says. According to Lambda Legal, about 17 percent of transgender Americans, and 50 percent of black transgender people, have been to prison, where they face unique dangers. There are transgender women and transgender men incarcerated at Coffee Creek, Brault says, since the Oregon Department of Corrections has adopted a practice of placing transgender inmates where they feel most comfortable and the department feels they will be safest. “Oregon is ahead of the curve on this issue,” Brault says.
Oregon, which offers educational programs and job training in prisons, has the nation’s lowest recidivism rate, says Brault. Once released from prison, felons are eligible to vote, unlike in twelve other states that do not allow them to vote. But Oregon incarcerates black people at the seventh-highest rate per capita in the nation, she notes. It has the death penalty and recently passed a number of get-tough-on-crime laws, including longer sentences for identity theft, a crime most often committed by women, typically to support their addictions and their families, she says. While most inmates suffer from addiction, only those convicted of drug crimes are eligible to receive drug treatment in prison. Despite providing treatment for mental illness, the prison environment is not conducive for those struggling with serious mental health issues, Brault says.
A native of California, Matranga-Watson and her wife, Jude, who have two grown daughters, moved to Portland in 1990 and joined Eastrose Fellowship UU in Portland, where Matranga-Watson was its first community minister. Brault and her wife, Tara, have a son and belong to the UU Congregation at Willamette Falls in Oregon City. Brault says her dysfunctional childhood provided her with personal insight into the lives of the women she works with. Focusing on religious studies in college and graduate school, she found her calling while volunteering in prisons, where a mentor introduced her to a model of chaplaincy that’s “about just being with people, befriending them, not needing to fix them or fix their life or give them the answers.” That approach guides her work today.
While getting her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, Brault attended First UU Church of Nashville and found her spiritual home because of the faith’s emphasis on universal love, including its support of LGBTQ people. In 2004, Brault and her wife moved to Oregon and she took the job at Coffee Creek.
Several times a year, Brault preaches to UU congregations in Oregon and Washington about prison ministry and how UUs can work on ending the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration. Often, someone will reveal to her that they have a child in prison—typically, there was an addiction involved—or that they themselves served time, she says. While many UUs volunteer in prisons, conservative Christian groups are far ahead in providing direct support to inmates and their children, Brault notes. “Are they converting them? Yes, they are. But I don’t think we can be critical. They are showing up.”
UUs interested in the issue of mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects people of color and other marginalized groups, can do a lot, whether volunteering in programs for inmates or working to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting public schools, Brault says. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation without walls, has a strong prison outreach program. UUs should also support candidates who favor criminal justice reform.
While Brault admits she went through a “big burnout” several years into her time at Coffee Creek, “working with inmates is the easiest part of the job. Working with the bureaucracy and the dehumanizing policies and practices really wears me down. My sustainability rests in always returning to the core of why I’m here”: to help people in need. “That’s enough.”