BEDFORD, NY — The grounds of a prison is the last place you might expect to find an accomplished harp player creating a stirring atmosphere of contemplation.

The nearby gathering of dozens, including well-known political figures and community leaders, in the shadow of razor wire guard towers, likewise, seems out of place at first blush, but in this quiet corner of a Westchester community, the relationship between the two nearby New York State prisons and the town they call home is uniquely neighborly.

The crowd has come together at a small wooded graveyard to remember those who came to Bedford as inmates and never left the prison. Those on hand came to bear witness that those who reclaimed their names, rather than prison numbers, only in death, are a part of the community. They came to let the women behind bars just steps away know that although they didn’t come to Bedford by choice, they are neighbors just the same, and they came to say that in this community, all are worthy of respect.

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Speaking to the gathering on a frosty November morning, NYS Assemblyperson and former Bedford Town Supervisor Chris Burdick said that the example being set here offers a ray of hope in trying times.

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“It sometimes seems like we are more divided than ever,” Burdick said. “But in our little corner of the world, we are coming together to demonstrate a shared humanity … to celebrate that a humanity that was denied has been restored.”

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It is perhaps fitting that the site of the ceremony, Burdick added, had many years earlier helped lead a change that allowed those whose identities became prison numbers in life, finally have their names returned to them in death.

Sister Antonia Maguire, who before her death in 2017, was a prison chaplain at Taconic, famously came frequently to pray among the graves. Her efforts to put nameplates rather than prison numbers on simple markers was an example that led to a change in the way prisoners are interred across the state.

For inmates who die, leaving behind families who have the means, their resting place won’t be found among the simple wood and concrete crosses or headstones, some as simple as cinder blocks, but for those whose final resting place is on prison property, a community has come, like Sister Antonia, to show their respect.

Some of those in the well-manicured cemetery are merely infants, who were born behind prison walls.

But those who came to pay their respects to the neighbors they never met, and in many cases, died long before they were born, are also here for the women and men inside the prisons today.

Superintendent of the Taconic Correctional Facility, Emily Williams, said that the humanity on display has special meaning to those living and working just a few feet away.

“The fact that you have come to show your compassion and support means more to the people here than you can imagine,” LaManna told the gathering. “Everyone is very aware of what is taking place here today, how this community comes out to support prisoners and jailers everyday, making a difficult job easier … I can’t tell you what it means to me to be able to go back and share with the population that all souls are laid to rest with respect, dignity and honor.”

The remarkable community doesn’t wait until after death to express that humanity. Where most towns would have an uneasy relationship with a nearby correctional facility, Bedford has embraced its role as a neighbor to two prisons — with the Taconic and Bedford Hills Correctional Facilities just across the street from each other.

The year-round efforts spearheaded by the Interfaith Prison Partnership bring dignity to the inmates in unexpected ways. The entire community collects moisturizing soap to allow the inmates a basic indulgence most of us take for granted. During the pandemic, the community delivered thousands of masks to the prisons. Box fans were collected and donated to make nights at the aging facility more bearable. Prisoners being released are presented with care packages from the community and each holiday season, those who have more time left to serve are presented with gifts and cards reminding them that the neighbors on the other side of the prison gates are holding a place in their hearts for them.

These gestures are complicated by a simple rule in the facilities — what is offered to one inmate must be offered to all. If, for example, the community had not collected enough enough fans or holiday care packages for the entire population, then none would be allowed. Many of the spiritual leaders in attendance at the ceremony also spend countless hours with their congregations making sure that their efforts don’t fall short.

The Town of Bedford even has an official Prison Relations Advisory Committee to better help the town to offer a hand of friendship whenever possible. Sharon Griest Ballen, the Prison Relations Advisory Committee Chair, told Patch that while the community’s efforts are unique, they are being studied and slowly copied by towns and villages around the world.

“It’s a benefit to all of us,” Griest Ballen said. “A friend of mine will sometimes ask people to think of their worst moment, the worst thing they’ve ever done and then think about what it would be like if that moment defined them. Most people would say they are more than that [moment], and so are the people who are incarcerated — the difference is that their lowest moment will probably follow them for a lifetime.”

Griest Ballen explained that the community’s efforts also help to let the correctional officers know that they are a valued part of the community as well, from hosting annual luncheons as a thank you for doing an often thankless job to considering ways to make the shift change commute easier — efforts she points out make life just a little bit kinder for corrections staff, inmates and neighbors alike.

Hans Hallundbaek, a Katonah resident whose “adopt a prison” initiative helped make Bedford an example to the world, said that five years ago, when the community first gathered to celebrate the resting place of men, women and children who died without names, there were just seven people present.

Today, he looked out on a sea of dozens who came to proclaim that all souls living and departed are worthy of our respect and love.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough,” Hallundbaek told the gathering, quoting Meister Eckhart. “Today, we have every reason to say thank you.”

And he’s right.

As the faith leaders, volunteers and local leaders place white carnations on the graves of people they never met in life, there is no sense that anyone involved feels a sense of obligation or even considers the day’s events acts of charity or kindness. To a person, the atmosphere is one of gratitude for being part of a small gesture that speaks so loudly.

It probably doesn’t make much difference to the universe if there are fresh flowers on the gravestone of a baby who never saw the outside, or an inmate who never saw the end of a prison sentence, but for the neighbors sending the message that a humanity that was somehow forgotten is being remembered, the difference is evident in their eyes and in the way they glance back to a graveyard in a quiet wooded hillside.

And it seems clear that the message will resonate far beyond the prison yard.

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