URBANA-CHAMPAIGN — When she was crowned Miss America on Sept. 21, 2002, Erika Harold never imagined she would be entering an United States penitentiary a year later.
Surrounded by hardened criminals, a majority that have committed heinous crimes, Ms. Harold, her mission dear — provide hope to those many have written off as hopeless.
She’s not a criminal, but the former Black Beauty Queen has made reaching the incarcerated her life’s work. Harold has already put in ten years of prison ministry and there are no signs that she will stop.
Ms. Harold currently sits on the board of directors of Prison Fellowship Ministries, one of the world’s largest family of prison ministries. She recently shared with The OBSERVER her experiences visiting one the country’s most notorious penal colonies.
This particular prison sits on the edge of the Mississippi River near the Louisiana-Mississippi state border, essentially to prevent attempts of escape from freedom-minded prisoners.
Ms. Harold, a devout Christian, was 24 years old at the time she went to visit and tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary — informally referred to as Angola Prison.
Like the Miss Illinois and Miss America pageants, the visit to Angola Prison would indeed change Miss Harold’s life, add value to her professional background in criminal law, and heighten her passion to minister to prisoners behind the walls and their families that impassionately bear with the lives of the incarcerated.
“I visited a prison for the first time in March of 2004 and did a chapel service there in (Angola Prison),” Harold told The OBSERVER recently in her hometown of Urbana, Ill. “I had such an inspiring time that I decided to become involved in prison ministry because it felt like a perfect way to combine my interest in criminal justice reform and live out my faith in ways that hopefully would be meaningful to inmates that are incarcerated.”
Harold’s brief visit and tour was consequential to the inmates and the staff of Angola Prison. The occasion was momentous to her as well. The former 2003 Miss America had already viewed the documentary film, “The Farm,” capturing a compelling scene that showed an inmate preaching to other inmates.
Harold arrived to Angola by helicopter, greeted by Louisiana Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Jannitta Antoine and prison warden Burl Cain. Cain, who up until today has put in 19 years as the overseer of Angola, told The OBSERVER that Harold handled herself with class.
“First of all, it speaks of her character,” Cain said. “Here she is Miss America and she’s gonna come to a prison, tour a prison, and see how it is and so forth. We ourselves were just in awe and awestruck that she would visit. While she was here she was such a blessing to the inmates, had so much compassion, and she was so well received.”
The largest correctional facility in the United States by population, Angola prison, adjacent to the Mississippi state border on the East, is located on 18,000 acres with more than 6,000 inmates and 1,800 staff members. As of 2010, the racial makeup of Angola was 76 percent White and 24 percent Black. Less than two percent of its prison population are condemned to death row for future executions.
The last death row inmate was executed in January 2010 by lethal injection. More than 71 percent of the inmates are in there for life. Angola, once a cluster of slave-breeding plantations in Louisiana, was named after a country in southern Africa.
“That’s what makes Angola so unique because a lot of people will be there for the rest of their lives,” Harold said. “They were not arrested for jaywalking.”
The prison, also known as “The Farm,” has been the focus of several informational television documentaries. Cain, the warden with a total of 32 years of supervision experience, said the prison was going through a “transition” by way of the programs he had instituted.
With an entourage that included the local media in tow, Harold had the opportunity to autograph Bibles for inmates, quote to them her favorite scriptures and visit the hospice chapel that provides care for terminally ill inmates.
The main prison library and training cells used to remove unruly inmates and conduct cell searches were a part of the tour, too. Harold was impressed with Angola’s daily operations. The experience was in steep contrast to the segments she saw of prison life on shows such as “Lock Up” on MSNBC, she said.
“The first time I visited a prison I was nervous like most people would be if they were encountering that institution for the first time,” Ms. Harold said. “This prison was an unusual prison because it’s in Louisiana and it used to be known as the bloodiest prison in the south. The warden (Cain) there is an incredible warden and he has instituted a lot of programs that has reduced violence within the prison. He had been fond to say to people that his prison was now ‘safe that Miss America could walk through it and could be completely safe,’” Harold stated.
It would appear that a penal institution with an infamous reputation would take extreme caution in protecting visitors on tour of the facility. For this particular event, Cain said no extra security systems were adopted for Harold’s tour. As far as he and his staff were concerned it was business as usual.
“I didn’t have to do anything. The prison had already changed because of the seminary that was here, the Baptist Theological Seminary,” Cain explained.
“The whole culture of the prison was in the process of changing. The whole point was that the inmates assumed that Miss America was coming here and ‘we’re gonna be on our best behavior.’ When she got here, it was not about her being Miss America. It was her character that really captured the inmates’ spirits and minds. They thought this person of substances really cared about them and was willing to minister to them. It turned out to be a real win-win for us (and the inmates). She gave them hope,” Cain stated.
Prison Fellowship Ministries was founded by the late Charles “Chuck” Colson. An outreach to prisoners and their families, Prison Fellowship has offices in more than 100 countries and conducts various programs that provide inmates’ with life-changing messages and unbiased dignity behind prison walls.
Colson, a former White House counsel in the President Richard Nixon administration, served a short time in a federal minimum-security prison for obstruction of justice. The penitentiary experience had a profound effect on Colson. After his release on parole, he became an Evangelical Christian Leader and spokesperson for prison reform. Harold has been on the Prison Fellowship board of directors since 2007.
Through Prison Fellowship, Harold went on four-day trip last October to Michigan that included a board meeting in Grand Rapids and visits to two prisons in nearby Muskegon. She has also been behind the walls of the Central California Women’s Facility, presenting her faith-based messages to women on California’s death row.
“Prison Fellowship has programs in prisons throughout the country,” Harold said. “We as board members, take the opportunity to go visit some of those programs to see how they are functioning as well as to hear from inmates and their experiences with those programs.”
The former Miss America also conveyed that the programs instituted by Prison Fellowship are not only aimed at easing prison life for inmates. The programs keep a focus on the prison environment as whole and everyone in it, including the jailers that put their lives on the line every single day.
“One of the ways in which you can reduce prison violence and violence directed toward correctional officers is to give inmates the sense of investment in something meaningful and constructive,” Harold said. “Yes, I went into what is probably considered one of the toughest prisons. But I was able to appreciate how transformative some of these programs could be and talked to the inmates to see how (the programs) made a difference in their lives.”
Harold graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2001 as a Phi Beta Kappa inductee and a Chancellor’s scholar. After serving as Miss America in 2003, the scholarship funds from the pageant allowed her to finance her pursuit of a jurist doctorate degree at Harvard Law School. Harold graduated, debt-free, in 2007.
Harold has worked at several law firms since finishing at the Ivy League school, where her duties included advising religious institutions of concerns involving First Amendment protections. Once a counsel in the litigation groups of Chicago’s Burke, Warren, MacKay, & Serritella P.C., she has returned to her East Central Illinois roots to work as an attorney at Meyer Capel, Champaign County’s largest law firm.
Harold’s prison visits not only inspire the inmates, but motivate her as well. She understands clearly that the prisoners are locked up for violating the law. However, she knows her presence there brings hope for those looking for spiritual guidance. Not once, she says, has an inmate made her uncomfortable.
“The inmates have always treated me with great respect and appreciation because, I think, the inmates are always grateful when anyone comes to prison to offer positive messages and let them know they have not been forgotten,” she said. “I’ve always been treated with dignity and respect while in prison.”
Harold also learned that many of the inmates across the country use their time to understand criminal laws and specific court cases for their own well-being and the interest of other inmates that may have been unjustly accused, convicted, and locked up for a crime.
“I meet these inmates that served as prison lawyers who helped other inmates to find grounds for potential appeals,” Harold said. “In fact, some of the inmates had actually won the release of a few fellow inmates and had a picture of them posing with (the late celebrity attorney) Johnnie Cochran.”
Before Harold ever stepped on the Harvard campus, she got an education absorbing what cases by jailhouse lawyers were valid for appeals, serve relevance to her career in law, and the ones that had no foundation to fetch out the truth.
“They (jailhouse lawyers) were able to show that there were people in prison who were wrongly convicted,” Harold said. “While a lot of people are in prison because of the crimes they have committed, yes, there are some people there that have been falsely convicted. The (jailhouse lawyers) use their time, resources, and the legal system to work on that.”
When The OBSERVER caught up with Harold in late October 2013 she had just returned from visiting the prisons in Michigan. Early morning the next day, a Sunday to be exact, she left Champaign County to participate on a religious radio show in Decatur, Illinois., 45 miles west of Urbana-Champaign.
In addition to her ministry work and career as a lawyer, Ms. Harold is currently making a bid for the 13th Congressional District seat of Illinois, which is currently represented by fellow Republican Rodney L. Davis. Ms. Harold says she has a strong set of ideas she hopes can move the GOP forward.
The primary for Illinois 13th District is coming March 18. If Ms. Harold claims a successful 13th District victory in the primary and general election, she would be the first Black female Republican elected to Congress.
Considering how the GOP has taken a hit for the party’s handling of immigration, women, voters’ participation, and race-relation issues, Angola Prison warden Burl Cain says he sees Harold as a perfect fit and has no problem supporting her campaign efforts.
“I am really excited that’s she is running for U.S. Congress because she might can unify congress like she did this prison,” Cain said. “This lady has charisma that is immeasurable. We are honored that she put herself up for office. We will only benefit if she wins. I wish her well and hope God sees it that she does win because she is gonna be good for us, the United States. She is such a humble person. She’s incredible and she can make a difference.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on former Miss America, Erika Harold. In the conclusion, running next week, Ms. Harold explains her political platform and views of the Republican Party.
By Antonio R. Harvey
OBSERVER Staff Writer