They face charges of rape, murder, assault with a deadly weapon and DWI, among other crimes.
On Sunday, they were all God’s children, minister Vinny Abbruscato, 61, said as he and others baptized 39 inmates at the Durham County jail.
In two small wading pools set up in a secure parking lot, and under the eye of a half-dozen detention officers, the 30 men and nine women emerged in singles and in pairs from the jail doors. They wore bright red shirts and pants; some of the women wore plastic caps.
Inmate Reginald Minor asked for the service, which took several months to plan, a jail spokeswoman said.
“It’s my faith,” he told a handful of reporters. “I’m a Christian. Like all Christians, we believe Jesus is the way.”
Minor, 38, who has been in jail since October on assault and other charges, said he is innocent. He and one other inmate spoke briefly before stepping into the pools, and all the inmates returned to their pods in minutes after a word with Sheriff Mike Andrews, who handed them Bible study guides.
The Sheriff’s Office has been under criticism by some community members who cite three inmate deaths in recent years and quality of life concerns over food and other issues.
The sheriff had a federal agency review the jail recently. It found the jail met standards but offered suggestions for improvements, including the separate housing of inmates with mental illness, which the sheriff is working on.
But Sunday, Andrews said it was time to focus on something positive, even though he said he anticipates some might criticize that, too.
“We all get limited time on Earth,” he said. “We’re all just passing through.”
“The people that are here today, they’re here because they want to be here and they’re here because they want to make a difference,” he said. “If these individuals who have made this leap of faith want to take this step, I think it’s only befitting that we have ministers from the community that want to assist us for these individuals.”
Seven of the approximately 30 churches that work in the jail participated in Sunday’s baptisms.
Abbruscato, of Trinity Outreach Inc., has been holding an hourlong ministry three nights week in the jail since March. Ten to 25 inmates typically show up, he said.
“This is something that was mentioned in Matthew 28 by Jesus, saying go and baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he said. “Baptism in water is basically they’re going down and dying to the old self and rising up the new person they are in Christ.”
Abbruscato and chaplain/detention officer Toynetta Butler handled one pool, while chaplain/detention officer Mary Robyn Wynne and retired detention officer Andre Simms handled the other.
They gently held each inmate’s arms and laid him or her down into the water, then helped them stand back up. Some came up unsteady on their feet. Some held their face in their hands.
“It’s giving us inmates an opportunity to walk in our faith, and I thank them for what they’re doing,” Minor said of the ritual.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself,” he continued. “I know deep down inside it’s bringing me closer and closer to beliefs, my religion. I just look forward to God to help me, that’s all.”
Minor dried his face with a towel after his baptism, and after a moment with the sheriff, walked slowly back into the jail, leaving a trail of wet footsteps on the concrete.