Rev. L.H. Mayfield: Oldest Living (Former) Prison Mentor in the Country

by David Higgins
Jan 2009


The life of the Reverend Dr. L.H. Mayfield, who is 98-years old, has been one of continual service. His age isn't evident, however, upon first meeting him. Standing in the doorway of his Hyde Park apartment, he could easily be mistaken for a man in his late seventies. And, despite having endured a recent illness, his mind is still in excellent working order. He doesn't have the fatigued appearance of someone who served as the chaplain at Christ Hospital for thirty years, spent eight years working at the Hyde Park Community Church, and, has worked in a decidedly different setting: the Federal Correction Institution at Terminal Island, California, not far from Long Beach in southern California.

A former president of the Ministerial Association of Cincinnati [Ohio], Mayfield was introduced to prison work through his son-in-law, Bill, a factory owner who himself had become involved with prison ministry. In fact, his son-in-law had been volunteering so frequently at Terminal Island that he had hired formerly incarcerated individuals from the prison to work for him.

Each time Mayfield and his wife visited his daughter and son-in-law in Huntington Beach, his son-in-law would encourage him to see firsthand the mentoring and teaching being done at Terminal Island. Over the months, this led his son-in-law to urge Mayfield to facilitate Kairos at the prison. Although his aging eventually inclined Mayfield to step back from prison volunteering, his son-in-law continues in prison ministry today. At one point, he was president-director of the Kairos program in California.

At roughly 77 years-old, the Reverend traveled to southern California and began facilitating the Kairos program at Terminal Island. “When I heard those steel doors close behind me, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?” he says.

Still, each inmate Mayfield worked with had gone through the Kairos program. Upon finishing his first session at the prison, Mayfield's initial fear disappeared: “I came out feeling on top of the world. I had no fear after that.”

He worked with inmates at Terminal Island until he was 87. To him, one of the bedrocks of the Kairos experience was forgiveness. “Forgiveness is where everything begins,” he says.

He tells stories of prisoners who sought forgiveness from fellow inmates, and even after being rebuffed on multiple occasions, finally made amends. On one occasion that Mayfield recalls, a young inmate, about 20, took a bag of cookies, given to him by Mayfield, to a fellow inmate for whom he needed to ask forgiveness. That inmate who received the cookies “was really rough,” Mayfield says. The cookie-giving inmate got no response from the rough inmate. Mayfield says the cookie-giving inmate, who was frustrated at receiving no response “wanted to tell that other inmate to go to hell,” he says. Soon, the inmate-recipient of the cookies went looking for the inmate who gave him the cookies, and he found him. As Mayfield recalls, this is what happened: “The rough inmate said to the cookie-giving inmate, ‘It was my birthday. You brought me cookies. No one ever brought me a present for 20 years. I appreciated that. Now, what can I do for you?’”

At the end of that particular Kairos program, the inmate to whom Mayfield first gave cookies picked him up, embraced him, and said, “I’ll never forget you.” Mayfield recognizes that inmates need to know that someone cares about them.

Another inmate he worked with whom he fondly recalls is “the articulate inmate.” This inmate apparently, at first, had some kind of good education. So, after awhile, Mayfield says that he approached the inmate and said, “You’re so articulate and that’s impressive.” The inmate, he says, responded by saying, “That’s exactly right. I was a con man.”

That Mayfield could have had such an impact on these inmates, most of whom were incarcerated for narcotics offenses, is due in part to the approach he took with them. He says, “Let them know that you don't understand specifically what they are going through, but tell them that you accept them, and that you love them."

At Terminal Island, the chapel stood at the center of the institution. So many of the inmates housed there were Mexican, although at that particular time 20 years ago, Mayfield did not notice as active a gang presence as what exists today. Among all the prison programs at that time, Kairos was most important to the inmates, given their reception of it, he says.

“We ate meals with the inmates,” Mayfield says. “The guys who had become transformed were alive with God. They were excited. Terminal Island was very well kept, pretty well run. The chaplain had full respect of a large number of prisoners.”

Twenty to thirty volunteers comprised Mayfield’s team. Much singing occurred. The team would include tremendous musicians and passionate songs. “It was a heartwarming situation to be a part of those sessions,” Mayfield says. He observed the Terminal Island prison staff becoming increasingly understanding and sympathetic of Kairos’ positive impact on inmates.

To this day, too, Mayfield recognizes the reality of inmate re-entry: “Getting work is vital,” as is maintaining contact with inmates once they have entered into society once again, something Mayfield still does, some ten years after ending his prison ministry work.

“I still receive contact from former inmates at Terminal Island,” he says. “In fact, I recently got a call. The man is doing very well. He has a good job. I’m very happy to hear that.”



Behind the Clouds—Light by L.H. Mayfield