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Joseph’s Hammer hopes to nail down Burnet prison unit chapel

Ellen Halbert Unit chapel

Joseph’s Hammer, state, and Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials met recently at the Ellen Halbert Unit in Burnet to look over the site for a proposed chapel. Pictured are TDCJ Program Supervisor Shayne Roberts (left), House District 20 District Director Michele Samuelson, Pam Stevenson of Joseph’s Hammer, Chaplain Mark Cartwright of the Ellen Halbert Unit, Helen Smith of Joseph’s Hammer, TDCJ CIRC chairman Marvin Dunbar, Michael Hall of Joseph’s Hammer, Halbert Unit Warden Maria Ramirez, and Davey Haberer of Joseph’s Hammer. Courtesy photo


Since the construction of the Ellen Halbert Unit in Burnet in 1995, faith-based organizations have borrowed cramped classrooms in the education wing for worship services. That could soon change as members of Joseph’s Hammer met recently with state officials to discuss building a worship center at the women’s prison.

“The Halbert Unit is a special place,” said Joseph’s Hammer board member Helen Smith, who has been volunteering with the Bridges to Life Program at the prison for 10 years. “The women are angry when they come here. If they leave angry, we’ve accomplished nothing.”

Faith-based programs such as Bridges to Life help imprisoned women grow in their faith and work through that anger, making them more likely to be successful once they leave the Ellen Halbert Unit.

Prison Chaplain Mark Cartwright oversees the swelling number of women who want to grow their faith during their time in the six-month treatment program. Many of the women in the facility are dealing with alcohol or substance abuse issues. Women who complete the six- to eight-month drug and alcohol rehabilitation program soon will be returning to their communities across Texas.

About 1,100 women — each with an average of four children — go through the program every year.

“When they take one or more of these volunteer-led classes, they are more likely to rejoin their families and children and turn their lives in a positive direction,” Cartwright said. “The new building will keep me from having to turn women away due to lack of space in our classes.”

Joseph’s Hammer is a nonprofit founded in 2018 with the sole purpose of raising funds and building a worship center at the facility.

When Texas built the prison in 1995, the state ran out of money before a chapel could be constructed, and so volunteers of faith-based programs have to use the classrooms when for their services and programs.

Cartwright pointed out it often falls to local churches to fund the building of a chapel.

“In other Texas prisons, the surrounding area churches got together and raised the money to build a chapel for the prisoners in their community,” he said. “Although the state will provide the adjacent land, no one has come forward until now.”

Earlier in May, members of Joseph’s Hammer and state and Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials met at the Burnet unit to look over the proposed site.

The planned chapel will be a modest metal building with enough room for up to 350 women to worship and study.

Davey Haberer is heading up the construction side of the project for Joseph’s Hammer.

“We’re glad that Texas Department of Criminal Justice CIRC chairman, Marvin Dunbar, and Shayne Roberts, program supervisor, took time out of their busy schedules to confirm the location and design process going forward,” Haberer said. “These women made a mistake, and we ought to help them while they are visiting our area.”

“By building a worship center at the Halbert Unit, we can help transform the lives of families all across Texas,” said Michael Hall of Joseph’s Hammer, who is working alongside director Paige Lechler and Wade Whitehouse to create community awareness about the pressing need for a worship center.

He is also the campaign manager for District 20 State Representative Terry Wilson.

Wilson has taken an interest in the project and knows that faith-based volunteer programs have proven to be a big factor in keeping people from returning back to prison after they get out.

Hall estimated the building will cost about $134 per square-foot. He and the other Joseph’s Hammer officials are asking the Highland Lakes community to step up and help build the chapel.

“We’re asking each family in the Highland Lakes area to give enough for at least half a square-foot ($67) so we can break ground in 2020,” Hall added.

Learn more at the Joseph’s Hammer’s website or mail donations to P.O. Box 7960, Horseshoe Bay, TX 78657.