“Alot of us feel upset, but we can’t do anything,” said Joan, a 22-year-old convicted murderer at the Lincoln Correctional Center in central Illinois. “We can’t give blood or donate clothes. We’re sitting on nothing but time. This is a way to show that even our country’s criminals are doing something.”

It was four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and she and 121 other inmates were slowly walking around the prison yard to raise money for Crop Walk, an annual walkathon sponsored by the Church World Service, which uses the funds for hunger and literacy programs, refugee assistance, and emergency relief. This year some of the funds will go to the victims of the terrorist attacks.

The women had gathered pledges from family, friends, prison workers, and other inmates with the promise that they would walk for an hour and a half. Chaplain Laurie Tockey, who’d organized the walkathon–the prison’s first–had pledged a dollar for every inmate who finished the walk.

It was a rare privilege for so many women to walk together and without guards beside them. They moved in groups of twos and threes, some holding hands, past a sign that said “Sit down when shots are fired.”

Tubs of coffee, water, and Gatorade were laid out on a picnic table. A woman from the Church World Service sat at a folding table with a calculator totaling up the foot-high stack of the inmates’ pledges.

“I took something from society, and I want to give something back,” said Joan (all inmates’ names have been changed), passing a lit cigarette to her friend Pam. “There’s not that many ways to do positive things here.” Joan, who said she’ll be released in 2011, had raised $22.75, mostly as pledges from other inmates’ small personal allowances. Pam, a convicted forger who’s scheduled to be released in less than a month, hadn’t collected any pledges but was walking to “show support.”

Crystal, who looked to be about 50, had been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and had spent seven years on death row, only to have her sentence reduced to 38 years. “I wore the shackles,” she said, “but I didn’t let the shackles wear me.” She also said the terrorist attacks were similar to the wake-up call she’d received from God. “Life is not hard,” she said. “It’s what we do with it.”

Barb, who’d been convicted of aggravated assault and will spend seven more years at Lincoln, had raised $10. “I have trouble asking people for money,” she said. “Today my reason is different than it was last week. I want to do what I can for the people in New York.” She said she was working on her bachelor’s degree. “This is a surreal dream, being in prison. This shows what can happen when you lose your focus. This walk helps you get your focus back.”

She was also worried about her children. “I have one daughter in the air force stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. I can’t get ahold of her. We’re on pins and needles.”

Barb was walking with Sue, who will be released within six months. She’d raised $6. “I’m doing it for New York and Washington,” she said. “I wish I could donate blood.”

Walking ahead of them was Angel, who’s serving an eight-year stretch for a crime she wouldn’t identify. She’d gathered $30 in pledges, some of them from prison guards. “It’s a good cause,” she said, “and I can lose some weight.” She was walking with Monique, who’d raised $14. “I’m a Christian,” she said, “and I want to do anything I can to help.”

After the walk a celebration was held in the prison gymnasium, where one

inmate led the group in singing a spiritual. Everyone stood and clapped in rhythm as they sang, “I want Jesus to be my friend. I want Jesus to walk with me.”

Another inmate gave an impromptu sermon. “This is a symbol of what needs to be done,” she said. “There is so much evil in the world. We need to leave all that hate and anger behind us. This shows we can come together.”

Finally Chaplain Tockey announced, “We raised $6,020. Not only will this make someone’s life easier, it will truly save lives. Thank you for what you did today. Thanks to all of you who did incredible work.” The women applauded. Then Tockey said, “One fourth of all the money raised today will go to the people of New York.” Still applauding, the women stood up, hugged one another, and cried.