CRIMINAL JUSTICE: The blessings and challenges of prison ministry
By PAT DUNBAR
Most of us know that scripture calls us to visit those who are in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). Some of us think we may be suited to criminal justice ministry, while others are cynical or hostile to the thought of sharing mercy with the incarcerated. But there are a number of social and spiritual benefits to this ministry.
A few of these are:
• To help an inmate function more positively within the prison environment.
• To offer a connection between the community and inmates.
• To aid and support families of inmates.
• To prepare inmates for re-entry into society (physically, mentally, morally and spiritually).
• To offer practical re-entry assistance to ex-offenders and their families.
In a previous edition of the North Georgia Advocate, we took a comprehensive view of criminal justice ministry. The various outreach areas include ministry to the victims of the offenders, families of the incarcerated, law enforcement, the prisoner, and the ex-offender.
Two of the many people from the NGA conference who have extended the grace of God in some of the state prison facilities are Virginia Tinsley, Director of the North Georgia United Methodist Housing and Homeless Council, and Ron Borgschulte, a member of Hillside UMC in Woodstock.
This is a summary of interviews that were conducted with them.
What caused you to initially become involved in prison ministry?
Borgschulte: I first heard of a prison ministry called Kairos on my walk to Emmaus. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with this prison ministry, but found myself attending a meeting at a maximum security prison in Trion, Ga., called Hays State Prison. I became involved in this ministry because God kept putting this ministry on my heart wherever I turned. I have been involved in this ministry for nine years.
Tinsley: I become involved in Kairos in 2007, so it has been 4 years. Originally I was invited by Laura Wells, a Church & Community worker in Nashville, to visit the Tennessee Prison for Women when I was in grad school at Scarritt.
What changes have you seen occur in that period of time?
Tinsley:The women in Tennessee did not wear uniforms, so volunteers were patted down before entering the prison. I think everyone was treated better once we were there because it wasn’t so obvious who was a prisoner and who was an outsider. One notable thing is the number of mentally ill people in prison now. Prison has become the new mental institution.
Borgschulte: A large percentage of the residents of Hays State Prison have life sentences. This prison has been featured in “Hard Time” by the National Geographic television channel.
What has been the most demanding aspect your work?
Tinsley:I think the most difficult thing is just being willing to “go with the flow” when prison rules change and get stricter.
Borgschulte: The most difficult aspect of serving is laying aside what each inmate may have done to end up in prison and treat them as a brother. However, we must remember that each inmate represents an individual or family that has been hurt beyond description. It is not important to know what they did. It is important to remember that God loves them as much as He loves those of us outside of the prison walls.
What has been the most rewarding?
Tinsley:Getting to know the women, hearing their stories, and seeing how Christian women act out their faith in such a difficult environment.
Borgschulte: The most rewarding experience is to witness an inmate accept Jesus as his Savior and to spread His word inside the walls.
Did you find that the prison systems in which you worked were hostile or supportive toward your work?
Tinsley:Both – some staff were supportive, and some could be hostile. A change in leadership could mean a different attitude.
What steps would you like to see taken to better enable volunteers to reach inmates?
Borgschulte: I believe we as Christians have failed to reach out to these incarcerated men and women before they committed their crimes. What would our society look like if we did not need prisons? We need more volunteers to reach out to the inmates.
What cautions would you give someone considering prison ministry?
Tinsley:This ministry is not for control freaks. You are so out of control. You have to do what the authorities in the prison say. Also, don’t believe everything the inmates tell you. You will never get the whole story. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves! Don’t ask the inmates about their crimes or the length of their sentences. And keep what is told you in confidence.
Borgschulte: The best thing to do inside the walls of prison is to listen, listen, love, love. Do not judge. Do not ask what they did to be sent to prison. Simply listen, listen, love, love.
What is the best advice you could give someone who is interested in this ministry?
Tinsley:This can be one of the most rewarding types of ministry, and the prisoners will really appreciate your taking the time and making the effort to be with them. You have to recognize your limitations. Always keep a humble attitude and show courtesy and appreciation to the prison officials.
Borgschulte: Prison ministry is not for everyone. If someone feels called to serve in a prison ministry, do it. God will keep putting this on your heart, as he did mine, until you do. If you are uncomfortable going inside the walls of a prison, ask someone who is involved in a prison ministry what you can do to support their ministry from the outside.
Is there any type of prisoner that is easier to minister to, like drug abusers and non-violent criminals? What type is the toughest to minister to?
Tinsley:I think the easiest are often the lifers. They usually have committed murder and know that they are going to live out most or all of their lives in the prison. They are more likely to commit to making the prison a better place. I see many of the older lifers helping younger women in prison. Drug abusers tend to be very sincere but often doubt their ability to change. Some are back for the 6th or 7th time. I find the toughest to be the really hard, tough women – gang members and such.
Borgschulte: I have not seen a difference in ministering to a murderer, child molester, drug dealer, etc.
Many times you see repeat returnees (recidivists), and you should not get discouraged about them coming back.
Tinsley:When they come back, I try to see it as another opportunity to influence them for good.
Borgschulte: You cannot control what a repeat offender does. God gave us the freedom to make choices. The choices we make are not always in our best long term interest. All you can do is continue to reach out to them as Jesus did to Peter when he denied Him three times
As you can see, there are many reasons to share the grace and love of God with the men and women who live behind the bars of prisons and jails. In the next article of this series, we will look at ministry with the children and family members of these men and women.
For more info, contact: Pat Dunbar: firstname.lastname@example.org