FEATURE STORIES

The Innovator: Bill Miley


by Vicky McDonald
January 2010

 

We all grow up and hear that we should speak for those who don’t have a voice.  However, there are those who can speak, although the tendency for many people is not to want to listen to them. 

I’m speaking of the vast number of people in our prison systems whose voices are typically unheard. For those individuals that have something to say, but can’t get their message out there, it can make a person feel even more enclosed. If the stereotyping of incarcerated individuals suggests that they are thought of as nothing more than caged animals, then this is what they will likely become.

Fortunately, there is hope for a number of prisoners in the form of people like Bill Miley, a chemical engineer by day and a man of great spiritual faith who, when away from his engineering responsibilities and on his own time, visits, mentors, worships with, and helps educate prisoners in several Ohio prisons. 

For Miley and his wife, Joyce, their prison ministry first began about nine years ago as they began a correspondence with a woman in an Ohio prison. Cathy Gibbs, a woman who is involved with prison ministry, introduced Jane Smith to the Mileys. Smith was an inmate at Butler County Jail and was on her way to prison, the Ohio Reformatory for Women, for three years.  Her request for the Mileys was simple; she wanted them to visit her while she was there.             

According to Bill Miley’s personal archives, in November, 2000, while he and his wife were visiting Smith, they attended a conference of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America in Indianapolis, Indiana to promote books for the Rock of Israel. This is where Bill Miley met and got to know Faith Yesner, a singer and lyricist who had just cut her first solo CD. Miley had heard Yesner sing when she was with the group Kol Simcha.  After the conference they decided to keep in contact via e-mail. 

At one point during their monthly prison visits to Smith, Bill Miley had an epiphany: there could be some great opportunity for Faith Yesner to minister at a prison he visited.  Not sure how Yesner might respond, Miley asked her if she would be willing to perform at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

After Yesner agreed to perform, Miley knew there would be work and preparation to do. At first, the prison Chaplain, Rev. Bing, did not give much more than a consideration to a visitation from Yesner. Yet, Miley’s perseverance and his gift of a copy of Yesner’s CD paved the way for authorization for a concert to take place on July 20, 2001. 

According to Miley, he wrote these observations about Yesner’s performance, a real innovation considered by many of the female inmates as well as the prison staff: “The women received us graciously. A few minutes into the concert Faith kicked off her shoes and everyone relaxed because they knew Faith was comfortable with them. Faith ministered to all of the women through her music and dramatic reading. Especially popular was the puppet, Gerbert, who sings a duet with Faith about the love of Jesus.  They all laughed and applauded Gerbert.” 

As the event ended and the prisoners filed back to their cells, an inmate approached Miley, simply wanting to shake his hand. He took the opportunity to shake this woman’s hand and was appalled to find out that others, in the past, had refused to take her hand. 

Yesner’s concert was supposed to be a one-time event; it now occurs twice a year.  Miley’s prison ministry started as a simple letter of correspondence which grew to a ministry that now involves a very popular, twice-a-year concert series, and one which Miley hopes can be replicated in other Ohio prisons in the coming months. 

What could be next for Bill Miley?

He says it is hard to find work after an individual’s prison sentence has been fulfilled.  Ex- offenders usually have restrictions and felony convictions keep them from employment. His vision is to educate employers about employing ex-offenders.

Miley would also like to go into prisons and teach writing and employment skills. “Their lack of skills hangs around their necks like an albatross. Unfortunately, state funding for programs such as these are being cut so volunteers are needed,” he says. 

Miley has also constructed a proposal to create a support group for families of incarcerated individuals. His proposal states, “There is currently no support system known to exist that ministers to the unique needs of families that have an incarcerated loved one. Families in this situation often feel alone and isolated.”

Miley says the shock of incarceration can be difficult, especially on children of incarcerated parents. His proposal continues: “The purpose of the support group is to provide a place where families can openly discuss their needs and concerns with others in a similar situation.” Miley believes the best location for these support groups is a church congregation because it is an ideal place for families. 

After serving their sentences, many of these formerly incarcerated individuals aren’t entirely sure how to function adequately or attain the real skills they need outside of prison and upon their re-entry into society. Miley’s vision is to educate the prisoners as well as employers that might be willing to hire them.

A great amount of support is needed to ensure that those individuals given a second chance can truly have an opportunity to succeed. A prisoner’s family or loved ones can be a great source of support for them. However, Miley says, family members also need support and education in order to get through their feelings of isolation so that they may be the backbone of the person exiting prison.

In fact, Miley’s outreach is currently extending into Pennsylvania. He has recently received confirmation from the chaplain at Muncy State Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania, that Faith Yesner will be ministering there in November, which is a return visit for her.

Also, he has been officially approved by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and Ohio Reformatory for Women as a clergy-of-record for an inmate he has been mentoring for several years. Not only does this include more visiting privileges, but it means that he “will be able to take her mother more often to visit her,” he says.

Miley’s spirituality is reflected upon inmates as he visits them and helps create programs for them and their families or loved ones.

RED! feature writer Vicky McDonald shares impressions on what she learned in writing the story on mentor, educator, and spiritual advisor Bill Miley, and why his work is innovative and making a difference.
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