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How to Start a Prison Ministry

by Frances Jett

Note: This article was published originally in Christian Social Action, June 1999, pp. 27-28 and reprinted with permission of the General Board of Church and Society for 2002-2003 United Methodist mission study on Restorative Justice. Some information in it, including references to the 1996 Book of Discipline and the Prison Ministry Action and Study Guide are therefore out-dated. In 2007, The Board of Discipleship published Congregational Tool Box for Prison Ministry, which replaces the earlier action and study guide. It is available for $8.00 as a PDF download.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow captives. (Hebrews 13:3)

Building and maintaining prisons is one of the fastest growing "industries" in the United States. More and more men, women, and children are being incarcerated each day, forcing communities to build additional jail cells. Beyond the issues of how to prevent people from entering the prison system is how to care for those already behind bars.

Many congregations feel that prison ministry is best done by someone else: an expert, a prison chaplain, or, some drastic cases, not at all. The United Methodist Church, in its 1996 Book of Resolutions, urges members "to inform themselves about local jails" in a variety of methods. The question is, how?

Responding to the 1988 General Conference mandate, the Inter-agency Task Force on Prison Ministries/Prison Reform and the General Board of Discipleship developed a Prison Ministry Action and Study Guide. Note first that the word "action" precedes "study." The guide is comprehensive and details the steps that individuals, congregations, and annual conference can take in developing a good prison ministry. The packet also includes valuable resources, including telephone numbers of persons who can assist you in starting your ministry, and tools to use for study and development.

Scripture, Structure, and Support

The three primary components for a prison ministry coordinator to focus on are study, structure, and support. Embracing our biblical mandate is essential when starting a prison ministry in your faith community. The theological foundation for the United Methodist Church to be in prison ministry starts with mandates by Christ to be in ministry by "proclaiming freedom to the captives" (Luke 4:18), and we are all summoned to "remember those in prison as if you were their fellow captives" (Hebrews 13:3). Jesus identified himself as the one who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner - and invites us to ministries of nurture, outreach, and witness. We respond to this invitation and commit ourselves to justice-making.

John Wesley defined true religion as love shed abroad in our hearts, as love for God and neighbor. Wesley considered regular visitations of and friendship with the poor and imprisoned as essential to discipleship as prayer and Holy Communion. Ministry with offenders and victims, then, is not optional; it is mandatory if the church is to be the church. As a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God's reign, the church has no choice but to cast its lot with the ostracized, victimized, and marginalized.

The next step is to establish structure. Find out who in your faith community is already involved in prison ministry or reform activities. Some people work with ecumenical or secular groups; get to know those people and those groups. Seek out those in your community employed in any part of the criminal justice system: police officers, judges, lawyers. Start exchanges between those working in prison ministries and those employed by the criminal justice system. Invite them to speak on the importance of prison ministry or victim offender reconciliation. Peace with Justice Sunday or any Sunday that you may designate to reflect on social justice ministries would be a good time to organize an event on this ministry.

The final step for the prison ministry coordinator is to provide support. Collect and distribute articles and news about prison ministry. Maintain a file of resources and training opportunities on prison ministry, prison reform, and restorative justice. Distributing this information and having visitors speak on the subject will raise the awareness of your faith community's need to be involved with persons affected by the criminal justice system. You will have the power to effect change, as those who are incarcerated return to the free world. Considering that most of those incarcerated are released into society, making that transition a healthy one is important to the welfare of all people.

Not everyone in your faith community will feel comfortable visiting a prison, or participating in some form of restorative justice; those persons can participate in other ways. Since less than 20 percent of inmates receive visitors regularly, writing letters to the incarcerated and their families is appreciated. Preparing gift baskets for prisoners or providing housing for visiting family members, are also valuable opportunities for people to become involved. Enabling persons to take part of the ministry at level that is comfortable for them is extremely important.

Given our mandate and our Wesleyan tradition of putting our faith into action, how can we further support those who are involved in the criminal justice system as they seek new solutions? How can we help to heal the conditions and cycles where violence is engendered and human life is degraded? How can the cycle be broken? These are the questions we must continue to ask.

Restorative Justice Ministries

The 1996 General Conference responded to those questions by creating an inter-agency coordinating committee to develop ministries of restorative justice throughout the church. We boldly state the idea of restorative justice in our Social Principles: "In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of genuinely new systems for the care and support of the victims of crime and for rehabilitation that will restore, preserve, and nurture the humanity of the imprisoned." (Social Principles 68.F)

A primary goal of rehabilitation has been taken out of the criminal justice system. Our current system is described as retributive, where crime is a violation of the state, defined by lawbreaking and guilt. Justice determines blame and administers pain in a contest between the offender and the state, all directed by systematic rules.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, considers "crime as a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victim, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance" (Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990, p.181). Restorative justice is not a new way of thinking or behaving. It is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The goals are to resolve conflict, find mutually beneficial solutions, and restore persons who intentionally or unintentionally have broken a covenant with the community, and increase their self-awareness and accountability.

Each time God forgave the Israelites collectively or individually, it was God's invitation and opportunity for them to return to a relationship with God and to the human community. Sometimes the need is to transform, when there is little to which a person or situation can be restored. In both cases, the invitation to be instruments of restoration or transformation is still ours to accept as people who embody the faith.

There are many ways to put our faith into action. The General Board of Church and Society is mandated to speak truth to power and advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. We are actively advocating for youthful offenders for a juvenile justice system that will protect them from adult offenders in jails and prisons. We are actively opposing prison privatization as a public safety priority. We continue to speak out against police misconduct and discrimination.

The Church needs to understand that our ministry is with prisoners, crime victims, and their families and the community at large. This encompasses a concern for the entire criminal justice system, especially persons employed within the structure of that system. The ministry of the church is both pastoral and prophetic, seeking both to heal those who have been wounded and to transform those structures that inflict those wounds.

Frances Jett is a program director at the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, DC.