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In prison, a preacher without a pulpit

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 1999



A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons


The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, a preacher who once enjoyed a misbegotten life of great wealth, entered the Florida state prison system Thursday a pauper unable to bring with him even the most modest of possessions.

Transferred from county to state custody at 12:45 p.m., one day after he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years, Lyons was driven by van to a state prison in Orlando to be evaluated and processed. In a few weeks, he will be assigned to another prison to serve out his time.

It's a life that is unfamiliar to a man who until recently enjoyed luxury and power.

If he wants a radio or bottle of shampoo, he must buy it from a prison commissary. If he wants a book, he must visit the prison library. Family can send him nothing but letters.

The state will provide him little: a uniform, shoes, a razor, a bar of soap.

Stripped of his freedom and his own clothes, he will be allowed to keep just his wedding band, family photos and perhaps his watch.

The St. Petersburg minister can carry just one book with him as he enters prison: his Bible.

"He'll be stripped of his identity and become a number in the system," said Clearwater defense lawyer John Trevena, who doesn't represent Lyons but has a minister client serving time in the state system. "Prison is the worst thing that can happen to anyone short of death.

"For a preacher especially, it's not a fun place to be."

Despite his celebrity, Lyons is likely to be treated no differently than most of the 66,280 prisoners in Florida's 131 correctional institutions, state Department of Corrections officials say. Though he is convicted of the white-collar crimes of racketeering and grand theft, he probably will be housed with a wide mix of prisoners, violent and non-violent. He will be a minister without a pulpit, free to counsel other inmates individually but without a church or a congregation.

A man prosecutors described as a cunning racketeer who hid records in a safe now will have all his mail opened and monitored by guards.

The well-read man who once led a nation of black Baptists as president of the National Baptist Convention USA is likely to work at a menial job, perhaps in a prison laundry or cleaning prison grounds.

And like all prisoners, he will work without pay.

"The taxpayers are paying inmates' room and board," said state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan. "So when they work, they work for free."

Unless Lyons, 57, gets lucky, he won't even have something most Floridians take for granted -- air conditioning. Few prisons have it.

Much is still uncertain about Lyons' future. Buchanan said he must be processed before he is sent to the prison where he will serve his sentence. He has no guarantee of winding up close to home, though the state tries to keep inmates near family.

Also uncertain is the mandatory job to which he will be assigned.

The fact that Lyons is a minister may help him behind bars. Trevena represents Calvin Jackson, convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 for shooting a Pinellas man who tauted him with racial slurs.

For 10 years, Jackson was on the lam. By the time he was caught, he had become a minister and by all appearances turned his life around.

Trevena said Jackson, whose case drew national attention, preaches individually to inmates and has a strong following. At times, Jackson has told Trevena, guards or inmates give him a difficult time because he got so much media attention.

"He said a guard told him, "You might think you're important. But you're just a number in here,' " Trevena said.

Lyons can expect to draw some strength from preaching, especially in a state prison system that affords an educated man few opportunities to stretch the mind, Trevena said. Preaching will give him something to do and help pass the time.

When they are not working, Trevena said, "Inmates spend most of their time doing absolutely nothing."

 

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