At Oakhill Correctional Institution south of Madison, one man has spent the past decade as chaplain, offering religious services to nearly 700 inmates.
A native of Nigeria, Reverend Emmanuel Okoye works from a corner office in an A-frame chapel in the northeast corner of Oakhill’s 100 acre grounds.
“When I was growing up, you know, as a young man,” says Okoye, “I did have an inclination in my heart that there is something special about my life.”
Okoye grew up in a small village but spent his 20s as a business man in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. But he said he felt lost. He turned to his religious roots, and was ordained as a Pentecostal minister in his early 30s. In the late 1990s, the church called him to move his family to Milwaukee to serve as a youth pastor. His decision to stay in Wisconsin was based, in part, on the state’s motto.
“I kind of look at WI Coat of Arms, there’s a sign on top of it, it says Forward. After I pray I look at it, I decided that I’ll stay in this state and move forward in this state,” says Okoye.
In 2004, Okoye took over as Oakhill’s chaplain. He was nervous his first day.
“We look at prisons from outside, and oh there are criminals over there! You know, they are aggressive, they are bad people! It’s not necessarily that way,” explains Okoye.
At Oakhill, he leads worship services, gives sermons, conducts baptisms. He also helps organize services for the many faith groups inside Oakhill: Catholics, pagans, protestants, Jews, Native Americans, and Muslims.
“Our goal is just one: to help let the inmates understand what has transpired in their life, what brought them here, and how they can move forward,” says Okoye. “So we want to see people changed.”
He also meets one on one with inmates, a role that brings him face to face with a lot of guilt, grief, and despair.
“Men do cry. Sometimes I have to wait while they sob, give them the Kleenex,” says Okoye. “Maybe somebody’s wife is having the baby, or the mom is in the hospital or the dad, or somebody passed. Most of the time, it is the chaplain that breaks the news to them.”
But the job has joyful moments. At a Christmas service last winter, he clapped hands and bumped fists with inmates as they sang carols.
“I’m not a medical doctor or a cardiologist, but I say we work on people’s heart. That’s what we do. I feel fulfilled being part of somebody’s journey,” says Okoye. “And it’s a joyful thing to see them go home or go to a lesser work center out there where there’s no fence. That’s a joyful thing.”