I went to jail. My hands were sweating. My breathing got heavy. I wondered if anyone I know would see me. I wondered what people would think.
I started in booking. There was a guy near me in cuffs and he was getting patted down. He slipped off his shoes so the officer could search his socks.
“Turn this way,” I heard as he was instructed to have his mugshot taken. One to the front, one to the side.
Wow, this is real.
I looked to my left and saw a waiting room full of people who recently came out of a police car. They were waiting their turn for processing and meeting with the magistrate. Eyes were rolled. Heads were in hands. There were no smiles.
I saw the holding rooms where inmates would sit for hours or even days until they sobered up or decided they wanted to cooperate. I was told the windows were regularly replaced because people would smash their fists, or heads, into them.
Behind me was a padded room.
Clang clang clang. An officer walked by dragging shackles behind him.
I was so glad I could walk out at any time.
I receive a lot of mail at my office. Some are addressed to me, some to our senior pastor, some just to the church. Some are thank you letters from our ministry partners, some are newsletters, some are advertisements for mission trips. Last week, I received a letter that was unlike anything I had received before. This letter was from an inmate at the county detention center.
The handwritten letter was photocopied and sent to many churches in the area pleading for Bibles for the inmates. Our church does not have a prison ministry of any kind. We have some members who participate with a local ministry by playing basketball or softball at prisons around the Southeast, but we don’t have any formal affiliation with the local prison.
This letter certainly piqued my interest and I wanted to know more about this inmate, the chaplain and the ministry in our detention center. After a quick search of the public database, I found that the inmate who wrote the letter was no longer there, but I contacted the chaplain who offered to take me on a tour of the facility.
I was excited for the opportunity, but as I drove to the detention center, I found myself growing more nervous. I’ve never been to jail before, so my presuppositions are strictly based on TV shows like Prison Break, reality shows like Locked Up and movies like The Longest Yard and The Rock (Say it with me in your best Sean Connery voice: “Welcome to The Rock.”)
The tour and discussion with the chaplain were very humbling and it was a privilege to be allowed access to the detention center. Here are a few of the more tangible things I learned.
- When you enter, you have no privacy. Each inmate is innocent until proven guilty. That’s a given and I was reminded of that very early on the tour. But, you have little to no privacy. As we stood in the processing area, the chaplain described the routine for incoming inmates. These people were feet away either being processed or waiting their turn. I wanted to interrupt and say, “Stop talking about them…they’re riiiiiight heeeere and can hear you.” As I already described, at the very moment we started talking about mugshots, there was a guy having his taken. Real life stuff.
Each inmate’s records were there for the processors to see and review. Their past records were on display for those who had access. This is how God will judge one day. All our records will be on display. Nothing will be secret, nothing sacred, nothing hidden. My past is nothing to be proud of. My sin is wretched. But, through Christ, God sees me as clean.
- We saw the inmates the way God sees us. The chaplain mentioned this statement in passing, but it struck me as quite profound and it caused me to literally stop in my tracks to consider that statement. Looking out across the maximum security wing, I could see slivers of windows each filled with a set of eyes staring at us as we walked freely around the prison. I knew nothing of their crime other than they were guilty of breaking a law. But, hearing those words from the chaplain helped me see that in God’s eyes, my sin is no different than theirs. Romans 3:23 tells us that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” My sin is every bit of disgusting to God as those of the inmates. My sin may not break the laws of our country or state, but they break the commands of God.
But, there is great hope. In the very next line Romans 3:24 says “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” By faith in Christ, I am able to be presented as pure and holy before God at the time of judgment.
- The unknown is terrifying. We stood in one of the more moderate security pods and the inmates walked around us. Some played cards, some were mopping the floors, some were making phone calls and some were separated in an exercise area just pacing. I’m embarrassed to say that I felt like I was in the middle of a jungle and I didn’t know which plants or animals were friendly or threatening. For a while, I tried not to make any eye contact with the inmates. I didn’t want anyone to think that I might be staring or judging. Some of the guys seemed like they did not belong. Others, it was obvious that they had been there before.
Over time, I started considering how I would feel if it were me wearing the orange jump suit and locked up 22 hours each day. I would want love. I would desire friendship and a kind word. So, I began to make eye contact and greet the guys who walked around me.
- The officers and guards are amazing people. I met several Christians who worked with the inmates each day. They were steadfast in their job of keeping order and making sure the inmates conformed to the structure and expectations of the prison. Simultaneously, they were prepared to share the Gospel if initiated. They treated the inmates as brothers who needed help, because that is exactly what they were. The inmates may have been broken spiritually and apart from God, but they were not to be written off.
I heard stories of attacks, people high and in a rage and others with several mental disorders. The officers who operate the facility are brave. I certainly could not experience what they have and continue to come back to work each day. They do a wonderful job of protecting our community and keeping the safety of the inmates as a priority. Everyday they go to work and see people on their worst days, but they press on. They should be commended.
- The ministry needs are real. The chaplain told me they go through 100-150 Bibles every month. Legally, they are only allowed to hand out a Bible if an inmate requests one. How terrible would it be to not be able to respond to that request? This is no different than a believer or someone desiring God in a country where the Gospel is forbidden. It should break our hearts to have someone crying out to read the Word of God but to have no resource to obtain it.
After challenging our missions committee with the letter from the inmate, they wasted no time in committing a portion of our budget to purchase the Bibles they need. In a few days, we will have 600 NIV Study Bibles ready for inmates to consume God’s Word and learn of its offer of redemption and hope.
- The Gospel is real. I was told of stories of murderers who committed terrible, violent acts and will be locked up the rest of their lives. But, through the Gospel, they have been saved, purified and redeemed. One day, when they are no longer held to the laws of man, they will be seated in heaven as forgiven children of God. What great hope that gives us!
It is estimated that about 85% of the people at the detention center are good people who made a selfish and poor decision. The others fell in to a spiral of crime or drugs. No matter the purpose for their arrest or incarceration, the concept of prison ministry is 100% real. These men and women have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn but to the hope of heaven through Christ. Lives behind bars are not lived that have ended. In our very nature, we desire a higher being. When we struggle and want to cry out, we want someone to hear us.Many of the inmates have an idea of who Jesus is, but they lack a committed relationship with him. How will they gain this if they don’t have access to the Gospel? How will they have access to the Gospel if we don’t respond?
If you are interested in providing funding or actual books for the detention center in my community, please let me know. If you want to provide Bibles for your own detention center, contact the local chaplain and ask about their requirements and needs. For my local center, they can only receive books that are still sealed in the box from the publisher so no tampering can be done. The preference is for the books to be delivered directly to the prison. As for the type of Bible, they like to have KJV or NIV versions and large print would be a great added bonus since many inmates have poor site and no glasses. There are many option and some great deals at http://www.biblica.com.
Some Bibles are published specifically for prison ministry and include testimonials such as this one: http://www.biblica.com/en-us/search/?filter=&q=free+on+the+inside
The ones my church is sponsoring include study material like this one: http://www.biblica.com/en-us/niv-outreach-bibles.aspx?product-variants=1223