Practical tips for getting involved in prison ministry and caring for ex-offenders
In the Bible, so many of God’s people end up in prison. Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, John, James, Paul, Silas, Aristarchus, Andronicus, Junias and even Jesus, when he was arrested, all spent time behind the walls and bars of prison.
They all experienced the distress of being cut off from loved ones: the darkness, the oppression and the loneliness. It is not surprising that Christians are called to go into prisons to visit and care for those there. God wants us to be light in the darkness – to be beacons of hope where there is often despair.
For me, as a prison chaplain, my inspiration comes from Isaiah 58:10: ‘Spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.’ Oppression comes from many sources: the loss of freedom, loss of dignity, harsh surroundings, shame, guilt, depression and anxiety. Prisoners are also hungry for good news, acceptance, understanding and the chance to make things right.
Having someone non-judgemental to talk to can be very healing. Illustration from Petra Röhr-Rouendaal, Where there is no artist (second edition)
Prison visiting can be one of the most challenging and rewarding services we can offer. We can hold out hope and love to prisoners who have lost almost everything. We can bring the free offer of the gospel of forgiveness and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit to those condemned. We can offer the possibility of new life and change to those who have been mastered by sin.
My desire has always been to get Christians into prison! I want them to see how powerfully God acts in the worst circumstances to redeem and save. In prisons, Christians can demonstrate the acceptance and love of God through acts of kindness and words of encouragement. Of course, we never force the gospel on people. But I have seen so many prisoners come to faith and find a new reason for hope and life in Jesus. It is wonderful to see them find ways to put right some of the wrong they have done. Relationships with families are restored. This experience can help us to have faith for the communities in which we live and work – that God can work in the same way there, too.
The power of
God moves powerfully in prison, and prison volunteers often feel they gain so much more than they think they are giving. Love costs, so be prepared for disappointment, but hope for the best. A released prisoner who has found living faith goes back to his or her community as a testimony to the power and presence of God. Churches need to be ready to receive these people. Wisdom and grace are required, as there may be areas where ex‑offenders still need to change and grow. That will be true of us, too.
For those of us who are Christians, prison ministry is an act of worship to our God, who seeks and saves the lost. We can pray for our local prisons and for the light of Jesus to shine into the darkness.
How to get involved in prison visiting
1 - make contact
So how do you go about getting into prison? The first step is to make contact with any prison chaplains already working there to offer support and prayer. They will be able to tell you what is needed and the processes to follow for getting access to the prison. The most important thing is for visitors to be humble and willing to serve in any capacity.
If there is no prison chaplain, then you can contact the prison governor offering practical support. In some countries, the offer of food for inmates is very much needed, especially for those who do not have family nearby. This practical offer of help may open doors to a wider ministry. If you have a professional qualification and are a teacher, doctor, nurse or counsellor, then the prison governor may be very pleased to hear from you.
Prison Fellowship International (www.pfi.org) is an international Christian organisation with branches all around the world. They are a great place to start when finding out what the needs are and whom to talk to.
2 - go through any checks and training
In many prisons there will be a vetting process to go through, and this will vary from country to country. Some prisons will offer training to new volunteers, and this should always be done. Volunteers need to be mature in faith. They should dress simply and behave appropriately at all times.
Some of the most effective prison visitors are those who have a criminal record themselves, but they may be told to wait a number of years before they are allowed to visit prisons. Humility and patience again are key.
3 - Always follow the rules
Governors are responsible for keeping everyone in the prison safe, both inmates and staff. Prison ministries can be easily destroyed if security rules are not followed or if inappropriate relationships develop.
Prisoners may ask volunteers to bring forbidden articles into the prison or to take messages out. The golden rule is: ‘Nothing in and nothing out.’
4 - Build good relationships
Do not ask a prisoner why they are in prison, as their answer can affect the way we respond to them, and they will notice. Instead, remember that all prisoners are made in the image of God. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and all can be redeemed by faith in Jesus. So prisoners are just like us! Having this attitude opens the door for many amazing conversations and opportunities.
We should seek to meet prisoners’ needs and befriend them. Having someone to talk to who does not judge them and believes the best for them can be very healing. Try not to ask the prisoner too many questions, as that can feel like an interrogation. Instead, allow them to express their fears, hopes, questions and needs. Never make a promise to a prisoner that you cannot fulfil, as they have been let down by many people in the past.
You should not give your personal details or too much personal information to prisoners. This keeps the relationship on a professional basis and protects our loved ones.
5 - Keep confidentiality
Finally, one of the hardest things is not to talk with others about the prisoners we meet. We can talk generally about what we have seen and experienced, but never mention prisoners’ names or any details that might identify them. Keeping this confidentiality increases trust and helps us to work with integrity.
Matt Boyes is Managing Chaplain at Feltham Prison in the UK.
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