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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
justice inter-agency coordinating committee has announced Restorative
Justice Training events that will be offered in all five of
the US United Methodist Jurisdictional Conferences. Those dates
and locations are: August 12-14, in Los Angeles, CA; September
6-11, in Nashville, TN; September 16-18, in Oklahoma City, OK;
September 23-25, in St. Paul, MN; and January 13-15, 2000 at
Stoney Point, New York.
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.
is a program director at the General Board of Church and Society
in Washington, DC.