Prison Ministry Leader Photo

"I Know What That's Like" - Southeast Asia Stories

How Chicago Navigators connect with prison ministry in Asia


Atop a concrete wall, jagged edges of bottles, brown and green, jab at the sky, translucent in the sun. They are meant to prevent escape.


Behind the wall, in a courtyard, hundreds of women roam. They wear two kinds of uniforms: blue and white if they have already been sentenced, and orange if they still await their prison terms.


A blanket of casualness cloaks the scene. Two women in blue uniforms, pass a baby back and forth. A prison guard takes the infant in his arms for two minutes and hands him back.  


Another woman strolls by, her hand nestled in that of a young man, who also wears a blue uniform. Their feet, clad in flip flops, kick up a sheen of dirt as they walk.


This feels nothing like an American prison.


Two other women in the courtyard would know.


One, a Chicago Navigator, Mica Garrett, sits in the courtyard eyeing the women, looking for one in particular named Nat, whom she had met on a previous visit to the prison.


Across from her, Colleen Brinkmeier widens her eyes as she peers at several women across from her, realizing that as a visitor, she has a direct view of those female prisoners bathing and brushing their teeth.


“I’m glad I’m not in here,” runs through her mind over and over.


It’s Mica’s third visit to the prison and Colleen’s first.


After serving a couple of prison sentences in Illinois—and becoming a Christian while in prison—Mica started a faith-based residential re-entry program called Bridge to Freedom. Colleen, who also served time in Illinois prisons, was its first female graduate.  


They’re here to see if the Navigators in Chicago can forge a continuing relationship with the women in the prison here, to see if they can unearth hope in a place of heartbreak.


This is a prison referred to by a number, the prosaic name of this facility deep in Southeast Asia. It holds mostly women, plus young men who enter as minors.


Sirivuth, the head of a Christian prison ministry here, tells us the prison was designed for 500 inmates. There are currently 1,827.


Mica and Colleen walk amid the concrete prison, and venture into a room where inmates sit at sewing machines, working on the blue and orange prison uniforms. Though the uniforms all look the same at first glance, the women have managed some individuality. One has sewed on buttons emblazoned with apples. Another wears multicolored buttons.


Mica sidles up to the women and asks questions, with a staffer from the prison ministry translating: “What’s your name? How old are you? Do you have a husband? Do you have children? Why are you here? How much longer do you have here?”


An older woman, Lim Ny, says she’s been at the prison for 12 years and expects to leave in about two-and-a-half years.


Learning how to sew, she says, has inspired her to open a tailoring shop when she leaves.


A younger woman seated behind her, Sreytouch, says she’s been in prison for nine years. Her husband is in another prison.


She doesn’t say the number of years she has left.


A prison guard, through the prison ministry staffer, tells us the reason: She’s been sentenced for the rest of her life.


Still, she says she enjoys sewing, enjoys having something to do with her hands, enjoys making things, even if they are prison uniforms.


“This makes me very happy,” she says.


The vocational and training programs, Sirivuth says, equips those in prison with skills across 10 disciplines—from computers to literacy to electricity to English—that men and women can use to gain employment when they leave prison.


Sirivuth smiling


The faith-based organization has gained the trust of the government, establishing MOUs, or Memorandums of Understanding, with various public departments to set up vocational programs in the country’s three federal prisons.


Their classes have served more than 950 prisoners in the past year, but aside from vocation and learning, the ministry also focuses on health and nutrition, visiting foreigners in prison, assisting the children of those in prison, reintegration and re-entry, and resiliency of spirit. The latter is, in essence, a regular Bible study.


“Our vision is to holistically address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs,” Sirivuth says in his office, about 20 minutes away from the prison. “Here, our culture is that visiting prisons brings you bad luck. So families don’t want to visit the prisons. Even to walk past the prisons, it brings bad luck, so they have to invite a monk to drive out the bad luck and say blessings. So we are the bridge to break the cycle of such traditions.”


Mica smiles several times during Sirivuth’s comments, noting the similarities in bridge-building between his organization and hers. They came at it different ways—she out of a calling from God after her own prison sentences that re-entry services needed strengthening, and him out of a realization that despite working for Christian organizations for years, he had not been truly visiting and serving those in prison, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25—but in distinct parts of the world, they both try to bring dignity and faith into the prison and re-entry system.


Sirivuth continues, saying a prison official came to him with a request that the organization implement a culinary skills program in another of the country's prisons, but he wasn’t sure he had the knowledge or resources.


Right away, Mica’s eyes land on his. The nonprofit she founded, Bridge to Freedom, happens to fund itself partly from a catering service run by its students.


“We might be able to do something,” she says. “Let’s keep talking.”


In another alcove inside of the prison Mica and Colleen visit, women sit and stand in front of mirrors. Hot hair straighteners lay on tables, plugged into multiple outlets on the floor.


Women sit, holding each other’s hands, painting them with hues of blue or beige, lilac and lavender.


Mica and Colleen walked into the area of the prison used for cosmetology training. In seconds, a woman in a blue prison uniform gravitates toward Mica, pointing out her braids and saying, “I love your hair!”


The women sit us down and grab our fingers with tenderness, asking what colors we would like on our nails.


I choose a deep purple, the color of my alma mater, Northwestern University. Mica and Colleen decline politely—Colleen, a lover of nail polish, had just indulged in a manicure that morning—but they did sit and watch and talk.


As a woman in blue garb named Tavika started on my index finger, the woman who had pointed out Mica’s braids, her face curious and inquiring, sidled next to her.


She smiles, looks at Mica and asks, “Can you cook soul food?”


Mica, who once opened up a soul food restaurant in Alabama called “Just Released” and dreams of starting a similar restaurant in this Southeast Asian country, glanced at her with curiosity, answering that she could.


The woman introduces herself as Manvin.


“My husband is black,” she says. “He’s from Nigeria. That’s why I love your hair so much.”


Manvin adds, her eyes raw now, “He’s also the father of my son.” She squats beside Mica and looks up at her as tears pool.


Mica looks straight into her watery eyes. She has visited this prison twice before, and the pattern seems all too familiar: Women do the bidding of their husbands or boyfriends, who talk them into carrying bags for them—bags filled with drugs—and get caught.


“Is your husband the reason why you’re in here?”


Manvin nods, her eyelids turning crimson as she cries.


She talks about her son, who was an infant when she entered prison and is now four years old.


“It’s so, so hard,” she cries. “It’s really hard here, you know.”


Mica runs her hand through Manvin’s hair. She pats her shoulder.


“I know what that’s like,” she says, a tear trickling down her cheek. “I’ve been in prison, too.”


And there, amid hairdryers and nail polish and hairbrushes, Mica and Manvin hold each other. Shared experience fills the space between them.


When Manvin looks up, Mica gazes at her, brown eyes peering into brown eyes.


“You’ll come home,” she says. “You’ve got hope.”


Manvin inhales and nods.


Holding Hands

by Abigail Jackson


“But listen to me,” says Mica, her tone growing sterner. “Don’t go looking for him. Don’t you go back to him,” she says, referring to Manvin’s husband, who pushed her into drug smuggling.


“You go looking for Jesus.”


They hug, and Mica asks Manvin to write to her.


A few minutes later, Mica sits in the prison courtyard, watching as inmates hold hands, brush their teeth and pass the baby around, wondering if she will get to see the woman named Nantiya, who goes by Nat.


Her eyes take in the men and women walking in blue and orange, glancing at faces and hoping for one familiar one.


Ten minutes later, a slender woman in a blue uniform appears before her: Nat. She wears her hair to her shoulders and though she is 32, she could be mistaken for a college student. She speaks English flawlessly.


Mica breaks into a smile, and they hug.


“How are you doing?” Mica asks.


“I’m okay, you know,” says Nat.


They had met twice before, and Nat has remained on Mica’s mind. Would there be a way to help her from the outside? To contact her mother? To procure legal assistance? Mica isn't sure, but she wants to try. For now, all Mica can do is give her presence.


Standing under a small overhang that provides shade and respite from the 95-degree heat, Nat begins her story. She says she was born in a neighboring country in Southeast Asia but adopted by American parents and raised partly in America.


She confirms that she got mixed up with some men several years ago, yet when asked about the details of her case and whether it involved running drugs, she seemed vague and almost bewildered herself by how or why she ended up in prison.


She had been in the prison for five years so far. Her term? Life.


What Nat does know for sure, she says, is this:

Late in 2014, she was given a book by the prison ministry called “The Grace Awakening” by Charles Swindoll.


Up until then, she didn’t believe in God. She had thought of the Bible as “B.S., a bunch of stories.”


Yet as she read the book, she kept thinking, “What if God really does love me?”


And then one evening as she neared the end of the book, in this prison surrounded by concrete and jagged glass, hundreds of miles from where she was born and thousands of miles from the country where she grew up, she knew.


In her heart, she heard God saying, “I love you. My grace is sufficient.”


And Nat invited Jesus into her life.


Since then, Nat says she feels peace. When guards threaten to turn off the running water, Nat calms the fellow prisoners she calls her sisters by telling them to stay serene, that things would be fine. Despite the thought of an interminable prison sentence, she feels loved.


“If it wasn’t for prison,” she says, “I would never know Jesus.”


On hearing Nat recount her story, Mica nods. She reflects herself on how single-mindedly she wanted to see Nat that day, almost to the exclusion of listening to other women’s stories in the prison.


But then, in the cosmetology room next to the boxes of nail polish, Manvin opened up to her about her toddler son and her hardship. And together, Manvin and Mica cried. That receptiveness to Manvin, she says, may have led to God allowing her to see Nat.


Mica thinks about her experience with Manvin, about the plight of Nat and her life sentence, but about her peacefulness, as well, and about the time she herself spent confined by walls topped with barbed wire, where God met her, too.


“A prison is like a garden for God,” she says. “He waters it, and it just grows.”


She gives Nat another hug. She looks into her eyes. She’ll be back soon she says, and then passes through the concrete wall to the other side, with dust from the courtyard spiraling behind her.


By Erin Chan Ding

Navigators in Chicago


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Navigators in Chicago. She and Kristen Norman, a freelance photographer, traveled to Southeast Asia this year to see the work being done and the partnerships being formed with the Navigators in Chicago. Stories from their journey chronicling the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Navigators in Chicago will appear periodically this year.


Colleen sitting across from Debra with Bibles open on a patterned table.

Colleen Brinkmeier: "Only God Brought Me Through"

Around 7:30 a.m., inside a brick house on the corner of Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues on the far South Side of Chicago, Colleen Brinkmeier gathers at a table with Debra on a recent Tuesday, just as they do every morning.


They pull out their Bibles, and each has brought with them a devotional, from which they’ll share a passage with one another.


A block away, 87th Street bustles with a Cash 4 Gold store, a seafood shop and a deli. Several blocks west of the house in this city of neighborhoods lies Chatham and several blocks east stands South Chicago. Both Chatham and South Chicago have reputations as two of the more notorious areas of Chicago’s South Side.  


But here in Marynook, a tiny hamlet nestled within the Avalon Park community, there are houses like this modest brick one-story home, most of them built in the post-World War II-era. The streets stay quiet and tranquil.


This, after the tumult of Colleen’s life before a four-year stay in prison, is exactly what she wants right now. This is Bridge to Freedom.


The house on Kenwood contrasts the old Bridge to Freedom apartment in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on the West Side, which records the most violence per capita in the whole city. In the organization’s apartment there, on Central Avenue, noise prevailed at all hours. A bullet once flew in and lodged itself in the bathroom wall while Colleen was home. The police said they preferred to leave the bullet in the wall.


Bridge to Freedom, founded by Mica Garrett, a Navigator who was herself twice incarcerated, functions exactly as the name sounds: It’s a link for the formerly incarcerated between prison and total freedom. It’s not a halfway house, though. It’s completely voluntary; applicants go through a process to get accepted and agree to an all-encompassing faith component that includes morning devotions and weekly church attendance.


The first floor of the Marynook home contains three bedrooms and two bathrooms for the women in the program, and the basement level is laid out the same way for the men. A tone of respect laces through everyone’s language as they address each other: Ms. Mica, Ms. Debra, Ms. Colleen, Mr. James, Ms. Julie, Mr. Henry, Mr. Peter.


Born in 1962, Colleen grew up on a large farm in a small town called Fairdale in rural Illinois, about 90 minutes outside of downtown Chicago. Her closest neighbors lived a half-mile to a mile away.


“We had all the animals,” she says. “I knew how to do it all.”


The fourth of five kids, Colleen and her family raised beef cows, dairy cows, pigs, and chickens. They plowed. They grew corn and peas and wheat.


But in 1999, the jail and prison sentences for Colleen began. They started out short, in connection to things like stealing and petty theft.


She talks about being stuck in a rough, two decades-long relationship with the father of her two sons. They lived in Rockford, about 90 miles outside of Chicago. In the beginning of the relationship, she says he grew verbally and emotionally abusive. Toward the end, the abuse got physical.


In the middle of their time together, Colleen says she got caught stealing something for her boys, Joey, now 26, and BJ, now 31, and served a six-month jail sentence. Later in her relationship with her kids’ father, Colleen suffered a miscarriage so severe she needed a total hysterectomy.


During her stay at the hospital, Colleen says, her ex-boyfriend “literally moved me out of the house.” He found her an apartment, paid one month’s rent and left her and the boys on their own.


Colleen sitting on her bed in her room.


It didn’t turn out well. In the next several years, Colleen was caught committing public aid fraud and spent three more stints in jail. Things got really bad around a decade ago, when, she says, “I got caught up with the wrong people.”


The group in Rockford would steal checks and cavort around suburban Chicago, visiting big box stores like Walmart, K-Mart, and Home Depot, writing stolen checks for merchandise and re-selling the goods.


In September 2009, she told the group she would write one final check for one more batch of stolen Walmart merchandise, and there would be no more.


“I just had that feeling,” she says. “I was done with the group.”


And yet. Five months later, she got a call from her ex, saying the police had shown up looking for her. It turns out the check she wrote at Walmart was stolen from a judge’s wife; police had caught Colleen forging the stolen check on video surveillance.


Colleen got scared. She ran. She left Rockford, heading to Springfield for five months and staying with a friend. Another friend convinced her to head to Las Vegas, but to do so, she had to go back through Rockford. She booked a bus ticket that took her through Rockford, texted her best friend she was heading over, and she says when she showed up at the bus station, “police were everywhere you could imagine.”


She was sent to Logan Correctional Center for a year, and then spent three and a half years at Decatur Correctional Center. At the same time, her two sons had received a prison sentence for arson. Her whole family was incarcerated at once.


Her inmate number—R36357—followed Colleen around from prison to prison.


At the time, Colleen says, “I was still rebellious. I was still mad.”


Life at Decatur, she says, felt so hard. For health reasons—a hernia and respiratory issues—she couldn’t perform a job. She received $14.70 a month. She heard from her sons over the phone every couple of weeks. Sometimes, they wrote her letters. Some women in the prison treated her with kindness, every so often offering her an extra bag of noodles.


One day, a few weeks after arriving at Logan, she read in the newspaper that a 67-year-old man had been killed in a home invasion. Later that day, she got a call from the jail staff asking her how to reach Jim, the man she had been dating at the time. She realized the murdered man had been Jim.


She was shocked. She immediately went into grieving, helped by a counselor at the prison.  


“Some say it was a blessing that I was incarcerated [at the time of the home invasion] because who knows what would have happened if I would have been there, too,” she says.


Jim’s death also ruled out one of Colleen’s options for where to go after she finished serving her sentence.


As she processed his death, figuring out how to occupy her time in prison took the largest toll on Colleen.


She attended a church service every other Saturday. She joined a few Bible studies. She signed up for Bible classes in the mail. And in those long stretches during the day, she got curious about the Bible itself.


She would take a Bible into the day room of the prison for three to four hours at a time. Colleen had a system: Write down the first verse of a book of the Bible. Flip to the last chapter of the book. Write down the first verse of the last chapter in the book. For single-chapter books like I John, Jude, and Philemon, she devised a different method of writing verses. She wrote down verses for every single book, even obscure ones in Nahum and Numbers.


When she finished, she would start with the first verse of the second chapter of a Bible book. A prison guard there who also served as a chaplain challenged Colleen to memorize Romans 8:28, his favorite verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).


So she wrote it down, and when they saw each other, she recited it.


In November 2014, at a semi-annual re-entry summit at Decatur, Colleen met Mica, the Bridge to Freedom founder, and Debra, who served as the program director for Bridge to Freedom for the last seven years and also lived with the women in the house.


A friend Colleen had met in prison, plus the prison counselor, pushed her toward them, reminding Colleen she’d be on the outside in three months with no place to go. Nearly everyone else told her not to go to Bridge to Freedom.


“You don’t want to go there,” she says they told her. “It’s a cult.”


Before they left for the day, Mica handed Colleen an application and asked her to fill it out.


“You’re coming to our place,” Mica told Colleen.


Colleen says her prison unit wasn’t happy about it, but she felt relief she had a place to go and wouldn’t be back in Rockford.


Then, in February 2015, for the first time in years, she changed out of her prison-issue blue pants and long-sleeved white shirt. For the first time in her life, she took a train, a Metra from Decatur to Union Station in Chicago, where Debra met her. She would become the first female graduate of Bridge to Freedom.


Colleen with a slight smile


She looks back at her life then and now realizes how hard she made things for Debra and Mica.


“When I first came, I was a mess,” she says. “I took them through stages where they didn’t know what to do.”  


She and Mica visited a doctor on the West Side who diagnosed Colleen with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. At one point, says Mica, who went with Colleen to all of her psychiatric appointments, Colleen’s doctor said she would need to be institutionalized.  


“He said she was too far gone,” Mica says. “If he could see her now…”  


Every Sunday, when they’d go to church, Colleen would dress in short skirts and shirts showing off her cleavage.


“They were too short for the place where we were going,” says Debra, “and I would catch her at the door and say, ‘No ma’am. You can’t wear that. We got to bring it down. Bring it down.’”


Three years later, everything has changed. Colleen sits on a couch at the Bridge to Freedom house’s living room dressed in a lavender blouse flattering for her shape.


“Now, she dresses very fashionable,” Debra says. “It’s beautiful.”


Her blonde hair falls around her shoulders, and her bangs have been neatly trimmed. She’s had a pedicure and her fingernails painted, indulgences she makes sure to enjoy regularly.


Of course, the changes go far beyond her appearance.


In spring 2015, Colleen had been riding to a picnic when she got sick. Really sick.


The driver had to stop and open the van door so she could throw up.


Doctors later told her she had been having a heart attack.


Several months later, in December 2015, she underwent a triple bypass heart surgery. Three months later, she was still at Rush University Medical Center, recovering. When she tried to go home once, she got an infection in her legs.


At one point, she medicated herself on prescription pain pills. It just hurt too much.


“I was in so much pain,” Colleen says. “Nothing was working. I was in so much pain, I even asked God to take my life.”


She watched television. She slept—a lot. She kept taking prescription pills.


“I didn’t really care,” she says. Then, “I went to Ms. Deb, and I said, ‘I need help. You need to take this medicine.’ Because it was taking over.”


God used those months, her darkest, weakest, most pain-filled moments, to draw Colleen close to Him.


“It was only God that brought me through,” she says. “Life just shined totally different. I needed to let the past be the past, and not take any more steps to go back into the past.”


Later that summer, Colleen got baptized at her church, Apostolic Faith Church in Indiana.


She’s still growing, still having morning devotions. On a recent morning, one study centered on exalting and praising God and another on doing small things with great love.


Bridge to Freedom funds itself in part by cooking and catering events, and Colleen helps cook for those. She also makes mac and cheese and scalloped potatoes and ham for her housemates on occasion.


Colleen in a hairnet and apron serving potatoes. She smiles and holds her hands in the air.


On a couple of weekdays this January, Colleen headed with Debra, Mica, and Ella, who joined the house in December, to North Park University on the city’s North Side, dishing out the rolls, chicken, and lasagna they had prepared for a conference on Christianity and mysticism.


Like her, Colleen’s two boys are out of prison now, and she sometimes visits them in Rockford. Her dynamic with them, now that they’re both out and no longer on parole, remains a bit stilted.


“I’m still figuring out where I fit in,” she says.


In Bridge to Freedom, her role is clear: family. She considers Julie Beland, her roommate and former prison-mate—they served as peer educators at Decatur together, discussing health and hygiene with other inmates—her sister.


Colleen and Julie will stay up late, sometimes ‘til 1 a.m., just talking.


“She’s a wonderful person,” Julie says. “She’s my heart. She’s my best friend.”


Colleen has been at Bridge to Freedom for three years now. She graduated from the program last year, and she envisions someday renting or owning her own place or staying to serve others who come through Bridge to Freedom.


Colleen had looked at Debra like an older sister, gentle, wise and in many senses, her navigator.


And then, when Debra left Bridge to Freedom in February, Colleen started leading the morning devotions.


“Colleen has probably grown more than anyone at Bridge to Freedom,” Mica says. “She’s grown the most—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”


When Colleen first came to Bridge to Freedom, according to Mica, she couldn’t write a complete sentence. Then, Sierra Neuharth, the daughter of Jay Neuharth, the director of The Navigators in Chicago, began tutoring Colleen, and now she’s writing papers and studying for a bachelor’s degree.


Colleen, now 55 years old, has a dream for the rest of her life: She wants to become a prison counselor. When she and Julie left Decatur, they said there was one counselor for every 400 inmates.


Colleen wants to help right-size that overwhelming ratio, and she’s taking classes so she can go back to prisons like Decatur to counsel the women there. She has a couple of more years of her schooling left, but can already visualize her return through the barbed wire.


“When we go into prison, you’re always going through the back door,” Colleen says. “I don’t ever want to do that again. I want to be proud to walk through a front door and say I’m walking out that same door I came in on that same day.”



Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.