Hannah Overton, wrongly convicted in 2007 of murdering her foster child, spent seven years in prison in the Dr. Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas, before her conviction was overturned. It was “the worst nightmare anybody could ever experience,” the mother of five says. Overton, whose family was blessed with immense support from their church, the community, and other churches, saw inmates devoid of the familial interactions she treasured in prison. “It’s really hard. You’re taken away from everything that you love and know, and you’re placed in a situation where you don’t have a whole lot. You have to live under conditions that are just whatever they are for the day,” explains Overton.
Prison is “nothing like what you see on TV,” states Overton. Prisons in Texas provide basics for inmates; everything else must be purchased. Each inmate is supplied with five bars of lye soap, “like hotel bars,” explains Overton, and one roll of toilet paper weekly. Feminine products, along with a toothbrush and baking soda in lieu of toothpaste, are given. All other personal items, including deodorant, paper and stamps, must be bought from the commissary. Those without money [B1] are at a loss for keeping in touch with family. “That is, by far, the hardest thing. They feel left and forgotten,” says Overton. With “one phone call for twenty minutes cost[ing]five dollars,” she explains, it can be difficult for many inmates to maintain a connection with the outside world.
“One thing that is really common, is due to the fact that they feel so forgotten and left, they feel like they don’t have hope, so they don’t have any reason to try to get any better, to try to change anything in their life,” says Overton. Desiring to lift the spirits of friends in prison, Overton started a Bible study. The first study focused on past hurts, and was so successful others asked to join. “You can talk about [rehabilitation] all day long, you can have these programs to try to conform, but real transformation is in your heart and unless there’s change on the inside there’s not going to be any change long term. We started doing the studies and started watching lives change and it just kept on growing,” says Overton.
A friend of Overton’s began mailing Christmas cards to the inmates involved in the Bible study. The women were deeply touched to be the recipient of a card. For some, it was the only correspondence they received the entire year. This outreach carried over to each holiday, and others at the church joined in.
Desiring to continue ministering to the prisoners after her release, Overton and her husband founded a Christian Outreach program, Syndeo Ministries in June to help the inmates “be an asset to society,” explains Overton. “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison: Hebrews 13:3.” Operating strictly from donations, the ministry still maintains Bible studies in the prison. Volunteers, who hail from around the country and Canada, send cards every holiday. The ministry distributes gifts at Christmas and provides mentorship though a pen pal for each inmate involved in the Bible study. The website sells cards and bracelets to finance these services.[B2] Cards can be purchased for personal use, or individual cards can be sent to an inmate. The purchase of a bracelet results in an inmate receiving a bookmark and invitation to the current Bible study being held in the prison.
Relatives of those incarcerated also need support, and Larry Overton knows well the hurt and struggle of families of prisoners. Children of female inmates deal with having their mothers taken away, and there is a stigma from having a parent in prison. He looks forward to having the opportunity to minister to them, as well as the prisoners. “We’re excited to see what God is going to do with this. It’s been such a long road for us,” he says.
The ministry recently received a donated house and three acres in Palestine, Texas. Once renovations are complete, it will be used as a transitional home, able to accommodate up to twelve women at a time. The Overtons will live on the property while running the home, once their own housing has been built.
The Overtons hope to inspire the creation of ministries for other prisons. “I see that so many good things have happened out of this and so many lives have been changed for eternity that I see that God has good plans, all the time, and he carried us through every step of the way,” Overton says.