The Three Wise Men bear gifts - and criminal records.

In this Christmas nativity play, so do Joseph, the Angel and King Herod.Except for Mary - more on that later - everyone does in the version put on by inmates at the Guilford Correctional Center in McLeansville. The men dress in costumes borrowed from local churches and perform for the public each year.

"It's a Christian celebration for them just as much as anyone else," says chaplain Bob Scruggs. "They want to put their hearts and souls into doing something for the community, just like the churches do."

Make all the jokes you want about finding religion behind bars - these are the same guys whose "Men's Club" undertakes service projects each year, such as buying food for low-income families at Christmas. They also show up at the prison chapel for Easter sunrise service and spring revival.

For this year's performance, there are nine actors, a narrator, eight choir members and two stagehands.

All have been convicted of felonies, generally ranging from armed robberies to drug selling and sex offenses. Some of the men are on work release.

"There's a few I'm a little surprised with," Scruggs says of those who wanted parts in the production. "One of them, he's played a part his fourth year in a row. I don't see much of him during the year, but he's done it four years.'

This year's performance, with singing, will be at 6:30 p.m. today outside the campus chapel in a fenced-in area under the watchful eyes of correctional officers. It lasts half an hour. There's no seating, so it's a standing-room-only performance.

"There are going to be those who think, 'What's going to happen to me behind a prison wall with all those inmates?"' Scruggs says. Churches already come in each evening for a variety of services and events for the inmates.

The fact that the prison is a men's facility has necessitated a few changes over the years. Mary's part was played by a Dillard's mannequin the first year.

Since then, Mary has been played by a warden-approved volunteer who is part of the Yokes Fellows, an international prison ministry started by a Quaker minister several decades ago.

"I hope that they (the public) will see that the holiday means something to them (the inmates). ... They want to be involved in traditions of the holiday that they're used to and enjoy it like anyone else," Scruggs says.

The prison is located at 4250 Camp Burton Road, McLeansville. The public enters through the chapel gate.

For more information, contact Scruggs, of the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, at 375-5024.

\ Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 373-7049 or

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