«Personal Witnessing In Jails and Prisons By Allen D. Hanson CONTENTS “REMEMBER THE PRISONERS.” 1. Six things you need to know about the justice ...»
They sometimes get a reputation for getting out of jail faster than the other inmates or “riding religion out of the prison.” This is not really true except that Christians have more reason and motive for not doing the things that get them in trouble in the prison (like drugs or violence).
Christians acquire less “write-ups,” demerits or derogatory prison records that prevent them from becoming eligible for Department of Corrections programs, such as transfer to a halfway house or minimum-security unit. Often they actually leave the main prison or close custody units and cell blocks before other men with the same sentence because they simply don’t mess up and break the rules. Once a man “gets religion,” as the non-Christian convicts say, even the guards and staff can tell the difference.
One tough prison warden was overheard to say, “I don’t know what they (the Christians) have got, but whatever it is, we need more of it.” The inmate who knows Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord attends church and Bible study. In work units or prisons with inmate jobs available, the Christian convict may apply for an 8 to 5 job that allows him to attend all the scheduled off-hours church services possible. The author did this during his nine month sentence at Minnesota State Prison. The Christian inmate needs the fellowship with other believers. He should look for opportunities to testify and witness and as much as possible radiate the peace he has in his Lord as he keeps the disciplined routine of the prison schedule.
The Christian inmate may prepare himself for release someday (even if it is many years away) by regular physical exercise and daily Bible study. He can pray and read his Bible during the prison counts or lockups as he uses his day to the best advantage. This is how the Christian convict spends his time when he is not working on his prison job or attending church services. He may write letters to Christian friends outside the wall. He can always enroll in a Bible study course, either inside the prison or by mail. He may also work part time or full time for the chaplain or as an outside prison volunteer. Burying himself in Christian activities prepares his mind and body for eventual release, and helps him serve his sentence. He “does his own time” in prison as required by the inmate code. When the lockup or prison shakedown inspections come, he prays. He reads. He talks to his “celly” (cell mate) who may or may not be a Christian and he prepares himself for his final day in prison; his day of release.
Satan still is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and he has some successes with inmates who confess Christ. Prison walls do not change the fact that there is weak faith and misguided faith and lost faith. But the Christian inmate can be a beautiful man who is worth all the evangelistic effort we put into the prison ministry to reach him.
19 The author knew a Christian prison volunteer in Missouri who told outsiders that he had more Christian friends inside the wall of a big prison than he had on the outside, and he really meant it. He was going into the prison two nights a week to minister and testify and he was associating with some of God’s finest people in one of America’s big penitentiaries. His frie nds inside the wall were some of our nation’s finest Christians and he was enjoying their fellowship.
If you have never been in a big prison to meet good Christian inmates, you are missing an opportunity to fellowship. Go into prison and meet them. You will be surprised. The sad part of the penal system is that a sincere Christian will probably never commit another crime and they represent no further threat to society; but they may have many years of prison time to serve for something the did before they became a Christian.
Is it safe to be a Christian in prison and profess your faith in Jesus Christ? Oh! Yes! It is the only way to be in prison, if you must be there at all. Christians in jail universally feel that they have a “shield of protection” as they praise God and testify to His holy name. Christian inmates tell one story after another about experiences they have had and how they personally have been protected and uplifted in a difficult prison situation. Prisons are dangerous places indeed because some unstable men reside there.
But Christians seem to always come through their prison experience unharmed because of the unique protection that our Lord provides. Christians need not fear the danger and uncertainty of prisons either as a convict or an outsider going in to minister, because our God will protect His people. The author can personally testify to this marvelous and wonderful truth. Let us praise His holy name.
20 CHAPTER EIGHT PRISON WIDOW
Loneliness, frustration and guilt are the emotional feelings of the wife that waits outside the prison wall for her husband’s release. She hasn’t committed any crime, but she has gone through all of the arrest and trial procedures with her husband. Now she waits outside the prison wall while he serves his sentence. An important part of herself is locked up in that prison cell and her life will not be normal until her husband is released.
Besides being sole parent to the children, she is repairman, grocery buyer, taxi driver, breadwinner, chief cook and accountant for the family that is left behind. She visits at the prison and the welfare office on a regular basis and buries her identity elsewhere to hide her shame. She is lonely and often bitter because she has been left alone to wait for a man that she loves who may just commit another felony when he is finally released. She is afraid that he will go back to jail again and leave her alone once more. Welfare doesn’t provide enough food and shelter so she tries to earn a little more money by working as much as possible, as she tries to hide the true circumstances surrounding her life.
The prisoner’s wife really wants to wait for her man, but often she does not. Figures at one Midwest state penitentiary show that 70 percent of all marriages break up during the first year of incarceration.
Nearly all spouses, who didn’t divorce their mates who are locked up inside the prison wall, had some sexual relations outside of marriage if the prison sentence and separation lasted more than one year.
These are hard facts not often faced by prison ministry volunteers. They do not reflect as much on the wives, who didn’t survive the wait, as the justice system that created a prison widow with a living husband that she cannot live with for several months or years.
Inmates learn these truths shortly after they arrive in prison and some men will encourage their wives to seek an outside relationship with someone that they know and trust, who does not represent a real threat to their marriage. In other words, they approve (as long as they can’t be there personally) of someone who will not represent permanent competition. No single prison problem is less understood.
Few couples who survive the prison experience will ever talk about this dilemma. Experienced prison chaplains know that separation of married couples is one of the most complex problems facing the prison ministry today. Conjugal visits have greatly relieved the problem in prisons such as Attica, New York and Walla Walla, Washington; but many states have failed to deal with this situation and the social nightmare that it creates.
What is the result? Besides an unstable marriage, there is a lifetime scar on the relationship that couples often blame on the justice system. Right or wrong they blame the justice system and not themselves. There is no easy answer, but as we minister in the prison environment we must always be aware of the possibility of infidelity, which is seldom discussed or talked about. It creates an atmosphere that will have an effect on your ministry both to the inmate inside the wall and his spouse on the outside.
Prayer works wonders, but there is also a great need for the love and companionship of the church to the family during this difficult period. The wife who waits for her husband needs enough material help to make welfare reach. She needs social acceptance by the church to provide love and companionship while she waits. The church can be a tremendous help by just being there to share the hurt and to care.
Some fine young wives do wait and survive the prolonged prison sentence. If they can do this, their marriage may actually be strengthened. The men and women who minister in prison need to be aware of the serious problem created by separating married couples so they can properly minister to both the inmate in p rison and the family that waits outside the wall. Besides acceptance, love and a normal Christian lifestyle, the prison widow needs some financial assistance in the form of car repair or moving help, as well as children’s clothes and basic food if the welfare check doesn’t fully reach. Above all, she needs the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in her life. She is probably going to be more receptive than she has ever been before because of her current dilemma.
The so-called minimum security unit, or half-way house or prison farm, is just another word for relaxed custody. When an inmate is deemed to be “safe” (as most of them are) and the remaining sentence is short enough so there is sufficient incentive for the inmate to stay put in a low supervision prison, he may be transferred out of the medium or maximum security prison to the half-way house or its equivalent. There is a great opportunity to minister here because visiting is expanded and the rules are relaxed to some extent. No single custody arrangement has a better climate for ministry because aids and helps like tape recorders, charts and even treats, such as Coca-Cola or coffee, can be brought in if desired. Often coffee is available at the prison 24 hours a day in the minimum security unit.
There are as many different half-way houses as there are states to license them. Some are privately owned and some are operated by the government. The one common denominator is reduced security and more normal access to the prisoners. Contact the officer in charge of the program and discuss your offer to conduct a service or bible study. He might refer you to the chaplain who may already have something at the unit that you can participate in, or he may have a suggestion on what you can start in the way of a new ministry.
The prisoners in a half-way house are “short-timers” and they will soon be released. They will soon be able to participate in outside church activities and rejoin their family. You are reaching them at a critical time in their prison life. It is a time of decision and your ministry may prevent a new crime from being committed by reaching these people before they are actually free. It is an important ministry.
Here are some suggestions to help you minister in a half-way house:
1. House rule are important and they vary from unit to unit. Know them and observe them.
2. Use a practical approach. Release is near and inmates need some firm answers to big social problems like jobs, driver’s licenses and places to stay. If you can’t furnish these needs try to put them in touch with someone who can. This can be the toughest part of this ministry.
3. Remember the paranoia and the trauma that they have just been through and the effect it is having on them as you work with them in the half-way house.
4. Offer a Bible study or a program of Scripture learning that they can follow now and after their release. This is important.
5. Offer a firm and positive personal testimony from you own experience with Jesus Christ to help strengthen their faith.
6. Encourage them now and after they are released. Uncertainty is their main concern, even if they don’t talk to you about it.
7. Try to put yourself in their place and see how you would respond and how you would feel if you were the one who had gone through all of this.
As the prison population increases dramatically across the United States, more and more half-way houses or minimum security units will be established in small towns all over America. As prison reform limits the number of total prisoners that can be housed in the big state penitentiaries, the local communities will see the non-dangerous prisoners put in a half-way house or local community based correction center. When this happens, even small town Christians will have such facilities nearby to minister in and the responsibility of a prison ministry right at home. Let us pray for this new expanding ministry as prison reform in the United States gives us a new opportunity to testify for our Lord in the half-way house.
23 CHAPTER TEN MINISTERING TO THE PRISONER’S FAMILIY
Whenever someone is sent to prison, there is almost always a family of some kind that is left behind to wait. It may be a wife, parents, brother, sister, almost any close friend or relative that cares about the new inmate. These people represent an unusual o pportunity for dedicated Christians to minister to the family of a prisoner while he is in jail. There is probably no better time in the life of the prisoner’s family to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to these relatives than during this critical period. They really need our love and concern. These people represent an excellent opportunity for evangelism and Christian outreach and they will be much more receptive to the gospel than usual.
Almost every social ministry, as outlined in Matthew 25: 31-40, applies to the family of prisoners.
An entire book could be written on the requirements of these hurting people and our opportunity to serve our Lord personally by helping them with their daily needs. If these needs can be met, then renewed faith in Jesus Christ can overcome the heartache and traumatic effects of waiting for a loved one who is in prison. The family didn’t commit the crime, but they are actually serving the time emotionally with the inmate that they love. Things won’t get back to normal in their life until their loved one is released from prison and that may be many years away. It doesn’t matter if the inmate deserved everything he got from the judge—things won’t be right for the family until the inmate is released. They need the love of fellow Christians and the gospel of Jesus Christ to fill the void in their lives.