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Twyla Snider: prison warden who also carries a Bible & leads devotional

CUSHING, Okla. (BP)–“When as a child I saw missionaries who came to our church dressed in their native costumes, I thought it was cool and wanted to be a missionary,” said Twyla Snider. Although Snider now wears the title of warden instead of missionary, her calling is one of missions.

However, a few years ago, those who knew her would never have thought of her as a missionary.

“I had a ‘potty’ mouth, and could throw an inmate to the ground with the best of them,” Snider said.

Adopted into an Assembly of God pastor’s home, Snider grew up in northeastern Oklahoma. She attended Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where she earned an associate degree in public affairs, then graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s in sociology and Tulsa University with a master’s degree in urban studies.

It was while she was at OSU that she took a corrections course under a well-known professor who told her she had the perfect personality to work in corrections. After a three-month internship at Tulsa Community Treatment Center, she was hooked and began a life’s work in the field of corrections.

Before becoming warden at the new Cimarron Correction Facility in Cushing, Okla., in 1997, Snider was assistant warden at Holdenville for one year, worked in the juvenile system three and a half years and in the state corrections system 17 years.

She said while serving at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, her job became unpleasant.

“I had always been well-revered in the department of corrections, but that was being questioned,” she recalled.

Snider was also going through a divorce at that time and became so despondent at one point that she pointed a gun at her head and was ready to “blow out my brains,” until she remembered her two sons and knew she couldn’t do that to them.

While attending a stress management course, she said she picked up some Christian literature.

“I also asked Christians to pray for me, including a group of inmates who already were praying for my salvation,” she said. “I knew all the right things to do. I grew up in church and had 21 years of perfect attendance in Sunday school, but I was rebellious and never surrendered my life to God.”

Snider recounted she woke up at 2 one morning at 36 years of age and “knew immediately God was there.” At that point she surrendered her life to God.

But the next morning, she began to question what she had done in the middle of the night. She said she told her secretary that “every time I cuss, it is like it is being sent over the public address system.”

After hearing what happened earlier that morning, the secretary said, “Don’t you realize what happened? You made a commitment to God.”

The secretary called Paul Bettis, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma coordinator of criminal justice ministries, who at that time was chaplain at Lexington. Bettis prayed with Snider and gave her some Christian tracts.

Snider said for the next two months things at work still were not good, but she received peace from prayer when things went wrong.

Then one day she got a call from the director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, who offered her a job as assistant director of the juvenile agency. He told her he wanted to offer her the director’s job, but politics prevented it. When she asked him what she would be doing, he said, “I don’t know. I just created the job today.”

The next day, Snider said she read in the Daily Oklahoman that DHS laid off 150 employees the day before.

“I know God had to work that miracle, creating a job for me the same day 150 others lost their jobs,” she said.

Two weeks later, the man offered the top job in the juvenile division declined the position, and it was given to Snider.

“I was in the top position, and I had no idea what to do,” she confessed. “I spent a lot of time in bathroom stalls praying for wisdom, and I was successful.”

Snider said she was working on establishing a Christian boys’ ranch in Konawa when she was offered a job as assistant warden at the prison in Holdenville.

“At the same time I was offered the job in Holdenville, I discovered the boys’ ranch was not going to be approved,” she said.

A year later, she became warden at the new medium security prison facility in Cushing.

“When I came to Cushing, the dream I had was that I was supposed to walk across the yard with my Bible in hand and to conduct chapel services,” she said. “But there was no chapel here.”

Snider does, however, lead devotionals with inmates at 7 a.m. each Wednesday.

“We have inmates here who pray two to three hours every day,” she said. “If I have a need, the inmates are notified.”

There is a sense of peace at the Cushing facility. Maybe it’s because of Snider’s faith. Noted Bettis: “The effects of a good warden or a bad warden roll down to the yard.”

Misconducts at the prison are low, and in one recent month, only five inmates had grievances, which is extremely low for any size prison, Snider said.

In the 960-capacity Cushing prison, the average age of prisoners is 31. Fifty-one percent are minority races, and the crime of choice is armed robbery, with drugs close behind. The average inmate has 8.5 years of education, and 90 percent are school dropouts.

Snider said at the time of the crime, 85 percent of the inmates were under the influence of some kind of drug. She said 139 of the inmates are 20 years old or younger. The average sentence is 20 years, with some in for life without parole, and some for short-term sentences.

Snider says her duties are somewhat like the mayor of a city. She deals with daily operations of the prison, including security, laundry, kitchen, maintenance, grievances, labor laws and personnel, which includes the 960 inmates and 230 staff members.

The prison has more than 200 volunteers doing Christian ministry, and there is some kind of church service there every night, Snider said.

Only about one-third of the prisoners have visitors, so the staff becomes the only contact with the outside world for two-thirds of them.

“I usually spend at least two hours a day with inmates,” Snider said. “I try to influence them and work with them through life situations. I have a kinship with them — a mutual respect kind of relationship.”

Snider said inmates who knew her at other facilities and before her Christian conversion just look at her and say, “You’ve changed.”

Maybe from warden to missionary?

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  • Dana Williamson