Prison ministries encourage personal, spiritual growth

by Carrie Brown , posted Tuesday, May 31, 2016 (one year ago)

Photo from Morguefile.com
WETUMPKA, Ala. (BP) -- When an inmate enters Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., she loses her old life. But in Alicia Smallwood's eyes, she also gains an opportunity for a new life in Christ regardless of past or present circumstances. 

"She (the inmate) can't see her kids, can't help the person who is taking care of them. She thinks she has lost everything," said Smallwood, a chaplain. "I tell her that God has cleared her mind of drugs, of men, of stealing. In here it's just her and God, and it's up to her whether she takes advantage of that." 

In prisons throughout Alabama, chaplains and ministry volunteers share the same message of hope and freedom in Jesus Christ that pastors preach from the pulpit every Sunday. In the setting of a prison, the message of forgiveness of sins is a powerful one, Smallwood said. Not every inmate wants to hear it, but that doesn't stop Smallwood and other Christian chaplains from trying.

A forgiving God

"Each woman here (at Tutwiler) has made mistakes. Some of them have made terrible mistakes. But God is a forgiving God and what I say to them is that God has placed you in timeout. He has taken you away from everything and everybody, and it's time to look inward and concentrate on you. And that's what a lot of them do," Smallwood said.

Nearly 46,000 inmates were in Alabama prisons and local jails in 2014, according to the most recent statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. Another 61,400 individuals were on probation or parole at the end of 2014. With 1,220 prisoners for every 100,000 legal residents age 18 or older, Alabama ranks third behind Louisiana and Oklahoma, respectively, on the list of states with the highest rate of incarceration based on population. The national average is 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents. The total U.S. prison population is 2.2 million, with another 4.7 million on probation or parole.

Those are big numbers but each person represented in the number is a human being made in the image of God who must be respected as such, said Harold Dean Trulear, national director of Healing Communities, an organization that seeks to provide tools for prison ministry and prison re-entry programs. The Bible is clear on how followers of Christ are to treat the prisoner, which is why the church has to be involved in prison ministry, he said.

"We're trying to say to the church, 'The prisoner is as valuable as the sick person.' If we want to distance ourselves from the prison population, we have to distance ourselves from the Bible," Trulear said, noting Jacob's son, Joseph, the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, John the Baptist, the apostles Peter and Paul, as well as those who escaped prosecution for criminal acts, including King David, as prisoners in the Bible. Jesus was a prisoner when He died for the sins of humanity, Trulear said.

Alabama Department of Corrections pastoral programs supervisor Tom Woodfin said there are many ways prison ministry is conducted throughout the state prison system. Traditional ministries that include worship and music services, small group Bible studies and revivals are common, Woodfin noted. 

Increasingly prison ministries also are including programs to help inmates develop life skills that will help them cope with life in, and perhaps eventually out of, prison. Programs that provide training in parenting and job skills benefit prisoners in significant ways in both the short and long term, Woodfin said, contributing to the "spiritual, emotional, educational and personal development of the inmates."

In addition to meeting some of their basic human needs, ministry programs also can give inmates a sense of self-confidence and hope for the future that they might not have had before. That kind of personal growth benefits not only the inmate but also his or her family and society as a whole because the result is "potentially a more rehabilitated inmate, financial savings and an offender that is less likely to re-offend," Woodfin said.

Ministry programs also affect the overall atmosphere of the prison environment, he said.

"Faith is a calming influence in a potentially violent environment," he said. "Ministry programs fill an inmate's time with profitable pursuits."

For chaplains like Smallwood, those pursuits change from day to day. She might have Bible trivia game time one day and a hygiene class the next. She regularly shows Christian films and holds programs around major holidays like Christmas, Mother's Day and Easter. 

"I do anything I can to get them into the chapel," Smallwood said. "It often isn't a traditional service, but before and after the program I'm going to pray and I'm going to steer the conversation to God and religion."

Of the 970 inmates at the prison, Smallwood estimates that at least 60 percent attend some type of religious service at the chapel on a regular basis. As she plans programs her goal is to address the root of the problems that got many of the women into jail in the first place so that if they get out of prison, their chances of post-incarceration success are greater. 

However, the impact of prison ministry also is felt inside prison walls.

Success stories

"Speaking only for Tutwiler, some not so nice things go on in here, but some good things go on in here as well," Smallwood said. "The programs I offer here in chaplaincy are all self-help or self-awareness, and I'm a firm believer that if we do not keep preaching Jesus, if we fail to expose these women to the Gospel, it will be much worse than it is now."

Smallwood encounters many who criticize prison ministry as wasted effort but said she can counter those critics with many success stories.

"I know several men and women who got into trouble, served time in prison and who are now very successful and very productive. I've heard a lot of them say it's because they asked God into their lives," Smallwood said.

Smallwood doesn't shy away from the hardest cases either. 

"I like to see God transform a woman that hated Him. I like to see how He changes her over the course of weeks, months and years and then watch as she speaks to other women who come in here. That's God in action."

Carrie Brown McWhorter is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist.
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