With a table stacked with Christian devotionals to her right, Louisiana first lady Donna Edwards delivered what she said was a message of redemption and hope through prayer to dozens of prisoners Tuesday afternoon.
The first lady delivered copies of the donated books, titled "Jesus Calling," and inscribed them for the women, all state inmates housed at the former Jetson Center for Youth juvenile facility in Baker, their temporary home since the state's lone women's prison — the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel — flooded in August.
But for the dozens of prisoners, the first lady brought along far more than the boxes of devotionals.
Women who'd spent decades in prison said they couldn't recall anyone of Edwards' stature taking time to see them. And after spending months closely tracking the progress of a raft of criminal justice reforms pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the gathered inmates burst into cheers several times at the mention of the governor.
Drawing on her own Catholic faith, Donna Edwards told the crowd she was there to visit them without judgment as fellow "children of God," referring several times to passages from the Bible urging ministry to prisoners. The first lady spent about two hours at the prison and listened to inmates, chaplains and prison officials speak to the success of faith-based programs for the women.
Sabrina Parks, an inmate and peer minister who's spent the last 36 years in prison, said the first lady's visit "spoke volumes."
Edwards "didn't look at us through the 'offender' lens. She sees us as sisters in Christ," said Parks.
"That was very inspiring," added Sandra Starr, a fellow peer minister and inmate.
Edwards said afterward that meeting with the women was "a very humbling thing." The first lady said she hoped the devotionals, which were given to the prison by the author, Sarah Young, might be "a small token, but an offering of hope" and play a role in preparing the women for productive lives back outside of prison.
A number of inmates told her they pray regularly for her and her husband, the governor. Donna Edwards asked them to pray for all lawmakers and public officials "for us to do God's will and do what's right."
Tanesha Hardy, 37, who's been incarcerated for the last eight years and now works as a welding instructor for her fellow inmates, among other jobs, said shortly after meeting with the first lady that the visit, and the attention paid to prisoners by lawmakers and the governor, has "really touched us."
"That's all we talk about in the dorms — 'Gov. John Bel, Gov. John Bel,'" said Hardy. "It just means so much to us to have the first lady come visit us."
Barbara Braud, a retired public schoolteacher who's worked as a volunteer chaplain in the prison system for the past 14 years, told Edwards and the gathered inmates on Tuesday afternoon that she's "been blessed to be part of a spiritual 'growth spurt' right here in prison."
The first lady's visit came amid a tumultuous year for incarcerated women in Louisiana. As floodwaters rose around LCIW in August, most were forced to evacuate by wading out with some of their possessions crammed into laundry bags.
In the months since, they've remained scattered across the state's prisons, with more than 200 landing at Jetson, a former juvenile correctional facility that had sat vacant since being shuttered in 2014. Other groups of female inmates are living in isolated dorms at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the state's two largest men's prisons.
It remains unclear when the inmates might be able to move back to LCIW.
Starr said the flood traumatized many of her fellow inmates, disrupting programs and workshops and scattering tight-knit groups of friends who'd come to feel like family over years together in prison. Many of those connections persist only through the mail.
Chatter about an ambitious effort in the state Legislature to overhaul the state's criminal justice system and cut the prison population also stirred excitement among the inmates held at Jetson. Even before the Legislative session began, Parks said, a number of women dedicated time for prayer over the efforts and closely tracked the package all the way to the governor's desk.
The final package of bills passed into law is projected to trim the prison population by 10 percent over the next decade.