They are the forgotten souls in the Staton-Draper prison cemetery in Elmore County, the bodies of inmates charged and convicted of felonies. The inmates died in prison, buried in the cemetery down the road because their families didn't claim them for one reason or another.
"We are not here to judge," said Peggy Shippen to an audience of about 15 during a dedication ceremony.
This is where Peggy Shippen comes in. Fulfilling her dad's dream, Sam Shippen, Peggy and her volunteers with two Master Gardener clubs built three large flower boxes officially known as the 'Freedom Gardens.'
"The idea here is to bring dignity to the cemetery because despite what they've done I believe we're all connected to higher being," said Shippen.
Sam Shippen was a Catholic deacon and very involved in prison ministry. Shippen was troubled by what he saw at the cemetery 20 years ago, a cemetery that was drab, non-descript and clearly a place where people rarely paid a visit. Mr. Shippen died in April of this year.
One garden was built in memory of Sam Shippen while another was constructed in honor of Denise Pavolini, another volunteer who wanted to make this happen. Mrs. Pavolini died 4 days before Shippen.
"This cemetery just didn't have any respect. I'm used to cemeteries with flowers," said Bob Pavolini, Denise's husband.
The gardens are dedicated to those who made bad choices in life. Peggy Shippen says this is more about dignity, Shippen's way of honoring her dad and making a difference through compassion and mercy.
On this day the Freedom Gardens were officially dedicated and now a permanent part of the prison cemetery. Shippen acknowledges not everyone would agree a prison cemetery would deserve such an honorable thing.
"We respect their views and here we are two days before Independence Day and we're all free to express our thoughts and I'm okay with that," said Shippen.
The volunteers say they spent 4 Fridays building the Freedom Gardens. It was a lot of work in the heat but they believe it was worth every minute of it and every penny.
The Alabama Department of Corrections didn't spend a dime on the Freedom Gardens. Volunteers contributed out of their own pockets while the majority of the materials were donated by businesses like Home Depot.
The Staton-Draper prison cemetery is about to receive another body of an inmate who died this week behind bars, one more grave in the Freedom Gardens, another soul Sam Shippen and Denise Pavolini would have welcomed.
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