Volunteer at a Prison

Prisoners are locked away in a world that's drastically different from the world outside. If you help bring God's love to them, you'll help them find the spiritual freedom that will transcend their physical imprisonment.
Whitney Hopler
Prisoners are locked away in a world that's drastically different from the world outside. If you help bring God's love to them, you'll help them find the spiritual freedom that will transcend their physical imprisonment.

Here are some principles to guide you in prison ministry:

  • Pray that the Holy Spirit will go before you to prepare inmates' hearts for your ministry, and give you the grace you'll need to be a good ambassador for Christ. Remember that prisons are full of hurting people whose circumstances naturally motivate them to turn to God (often, they know they've made wrong choices, they can't pretend to live independent lives anymore, they're lonely, and they're genuinely seeking better futures).

  • Find an established prison ministry organization in your area and join its work if you can to have the support of existing relationships. But if there is no existing prison ministry at your local jail or prison, contact the institution's chaplain (or, in the absence of a chaplain, the head administrative officer) and ask about specific ways you can help. Be respectful and patient, seeking to establish trusting relationships with all prison officials. If you find that there aren't any current ways for you to volunteer in a religious program, consider volunteering in a nonreligious one, such as by helping inmates learn vocational skills or a second language.

  • Study the institution's rules and commit to following them closely. Expect to encounter some situations you don't understand, but decide to comply with the rules when you do.

  • Don't bring anything into the prison or out of it, unless you've received authorization to do so. Always bring a picture identification with you. Refuse to carry items between inmates or pass messages back and forth.

  • Dress modestly and try to volunteer only with prisoners who are of the same gender as you.

  • Don't get involved in an inmate's legal problems, no matter how much you may want to help. Leave such situations in the hands of professional legal counsel.

  • Don't ask prisoners about their crimes. If they want to talk about them, they'll start the conversation themselves.

  • Arrive on time and leave on time. Remember that prison life operates within the confines of a tight schedule.

  • If you plan to conduct a Bible study in prison, choose to study one of the Gospels if most of the inmates are new to the study (if they're continuing, go on to Acts, Romans, or one of the smaller epistles). Plan for an hour- or hour-and-a-half long session on a weekly basis if possible. Begin and end with prayer, and incorporate some singing if you can. Use a modern, easy-to-read translation of the Bible. Seek to tell the Bible stories in exciting ways and ask inmates questions to help them think about how they can apply what they're reading to their own lives. Bring some copies of whole Bibles and New Testaments to give to the prisoners. Keep in mind that you'll likely have new faces every week, and may have to deal with interruptions, noise, profanity, and blunt comments meant to test you. Pray for God to help you deal wisely and lovingly with the circumstances, and if a particular inmate is disruptive, have the courage to respectfully yet firmly take control of the group (the other inmates will respect you for it). Never assume that inmates have any prior Bible knowledge, but never be condescending. Don't assign inmates to read passages out loud since some may have never learned to read well; instead, let them volunteer to read.

  • Listen well, and seek to learn from the prisoners who share their stories with you. Show appreciation for their contributions to your life rather than just thinking about your contributions to theirs.

  • Help expand the inmates' lives by describing life in the outside world to them within the context of things they're interested in (such as telling them about a recent car show if they enjoy cars). If you get permission to do so, bring them magazines, games, or videos to enjoy.

  • Encourage prisoners to seek and accept God's forgiveness for themselves, ask people they have hurt to forgive them, and forgive others who have hurt them.

  • Consider volunteering to help people who have recently been released from prison make the transition to life back in the outside world. Remember that in prison, people have most decisions made for them, and when they must start making their own decisions again, they are often overwhelmed.

  • Consider volunteering to help families of prisoners.

    Adapted from Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out, copyright 2002 by Lennie Spitale. Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tn., www.lifewaystores.com, 1-800-448-8032.

    Lennie Spitale has been involved in prison ministry in scores of correctional institutions, including adult, juvenile, male, female, state, county, federal, maximum, medium, and minimum security prisons for more than twenty-five years. He is Director of Prison Ministries for Vision New England, a member of the Coalition of Prison Evangelists and a seminar instructor for Prison Fellowship.

    Do you participate in prison ministry? If so, why? How has your service helped others and drawn you closer to God? Visit Crosswalk's forums to discuss this topic by clicking on the link below.

Originally published July 19, 2002.