Moving forward by giving back

by Steven Felschundneff |

It may be better to give than receive, however, for prisoners at the California Institution for Women, receiving can be life-changing.

Being in prison means living without a lot of small things we all take for granted, so a gift of a plastic bag full of common items can provide a renewed sense of dignity and self worth, or a chance to reconnect with the outside world.

It might be a blank birthday card that a woman could send to her child. Real facial tissue so she doesn’t have to use toilet paper to wipe her nose or dry her eyes. Or just a favorite candy that reminds her of a time before she were institutionalized.

Since the 1980s, Southern California churches have sent these simple items to the prison as Christmas gifts. For the last six years, members of Claremont’s own Good Shepherd Lutheran Church have carried on this tradition, spearheaded by parishioner Linda Barkman, who served a long sentence at the California Institution for Women in Chino.

Barkman has some experience receiving Christmas care packages from strangers, because she distributed the Christmas gift bags as the unofficial CIW “Santa,” and also looked forward each year to receiving one herself.

“I spent 30 years incarcerated at the California Institution for Women and you just can’t imagine how important these gifts are,” she said.

Barkman recalled how her roommate, a native Mixtec from Oaxaca, Mexico, had trouble sleeping Christmas Eve because she was so excited about receiving a gift the next day.

During a recent Saturday at Barkman’s Pomona home, a team of volunteers put together the Christmas gifts assembly line style, retrieving each item from a long row of boxes and placing them in clear plastic bags for easy inspection by prison staff. Each bag contained a spectrum of useful and frivolous items including hot cocoa mix, a candy cane, green tea, a colorful bracelet, pens, shampoo, hand soap a toothbrush and comb.

“The things we put in there are so small but they are so big. There is a sticker on each of those bags because you are not allowed to receive stickers on your mail in prison because you could be hiding drugs behind them,” Barkman said.

This year they only assembled 1,000 gifts because the population of the prison is down by 50% due to COVID and related housing restrictions. In past years it’s been closer to 2,000 bags, and one year it was nearly 2,500.

The team of about 40 volunteers worked so fast that they had to call a mandatory lunch break so as not to finish packaging the gifts before a PBS crew working on a documentary about Barkman returned to record video of the assembly line in action.

“It was quite exciting,” Good Shepherd Pastor Lara Martin said. “We had a large turnout. I left with the film crew and I was getting calls from Linda saying that we were almost done and she had been expecting it to go until three or four o’clock, and because of how many people were there they were done by noon.”

“It’s not all Christians out there,” Barkman said. “I have a Jewish sister who just showed up. I have ex-prisoners, male and female, pastors, Fuller [Seminary] professors [and] attorneys. It’s just this amazing amalgam of people coming together for a cause. And I feed them. Because you know what? Jesus fed people, too.”

In 1979 Barkman’s abusive boyfriend killed her two-year-old daughter and in 1980 she was found guilty of felony child endangerment and second degree murder. That conviction was set aside on appeal, however, she was retried and once again convicted of second degree murder on the grounds that she should have known what her boyfriend was capable of and prevented the killing.

Not long after she arrived at the California Institution for Women, Barkman started helping with church services in the psychiatric unit, and for 28 years served as its lay pastor.

She called the prison parish “the toilet tissue church” because at CIW there is no facial tissue, only toilet tissue. “You go to church service and this roll of toilet paper was being passed around,” she said.

“When the Holy Spirit touches you in our church, and it will, you will cry and you will need a Kleenex and this [toilet tissue] is what you get. And this year I was able to find a good deal on the little packages of tissue and every single woman in that prison is going to get facial tissue as part of her Christmas present.”

During her incarceration Barkman earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology through a distance learning program and was a few credits away from getting a master’s degree from Fuller Seminary when she was paroled in 2010.

“I wanted to get a degree in English but they only offered bachelor’s degrees in psychology. I wanted to continue but you could not get a master’s in psychology, but Fuller Seminary took me in and I did a master’s in theology and a Ph.D. in intercultural studies. And now here I am writing, which is what I wanted to do in the beginning,” she said.

Now Barkman is a published author, and her second book fittingly titled “What Every Church Should know about Prison Ministry” is due out before Christmas.

Barkman found Good Shepherd through luck, or perhaps divine intervention. Two weeks after she was paroled to Crossroads in Claremont, she walked over to the church on Towne Avenue with the goal of finding a faith home that would accept her. After telling her story to congregation president Neil Gilbert, he embraced her and said, “Welcome home.”

“Through the years I kind of changed Good Shepherd while they were helping and healing me so that instead of there simply being some people who were involved with prison ministry, now it becomes a concerted effort,” Barkman said.

The church took over the Christmas gift bag ministry after Barkman approached Martin with the idea. Since then, the church has been “all in” and even put together Mother’s Day gifts bags some years.

“I think Linda has helped us with her notion of hospitality, it’s really her gift. That truly, anybody and everybody is welcome. I think you experienced that on Saturday with how many people came to help,” Martin said.

This year’s gifts have been delivered to CIW and will be given to the women on Christmas, however, if anyone would like to get involved or make a donation, please contact Good Shepherd at (909) 626-2714 or email:


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