A.                INTRODUCTION

The prison population of the United States is a mission field because most inmates are unchurched, and churches and active Christians often have not responded with the gospel to those who are incarcerated within their community. Perhaps the church is unaware of the prisoners or, worse yet, does not want the Christian criminal or his family in the church. Such disregard is reprehensible in the light of specific scriptural injunctions such as, "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners" (Hebrews 13:13, New International Version). Imprisonment is also a general theme of the Bible, for prisons and prisoners are mentioned in both Testaments 130 times. The evangelical church must again take a look at the total community, for ignorance of those locked up in prisons and jails within reach of the church cannot be offered as an excuse for apathy.


Widespread use of prisons as a primary means of criminal punishment was originally an eighteenth-century phenomenon. Before that time, various forms of personal and family humiliation, such as public flogging and execution, were effective social control.

The roots of prison ministries go back to a time when John and Charles Wesley and others of the Holy Club of 1730 sought permission to preach in the jails of England. In this country, the Quakers began the Pennsylvania Prison Society (1787) to provide volunteers for prison work. During the nineteenth-century, prison reform was given greater attention by the church. Spiritual interest in inmates was shown by denominations providing chaplains, but during "the past century, the church has done little more than provide for prisoners the religious services sought by the state." In recent years a growing interest in the inmate has been shown by such serving churches as the Salvation Army and the Volunteers of America. Faith missions have also multiplied and encouraged thousands of laymen to do personal work in the jails.

C.                EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM

All larger communities have some kind of penal institutions for there are 6,000 in the United States. The local jail is the most common form of lockup and those inmates should be the easiest for the church to evangelize, but 40 percent of the 4,000 jails have no spiritual ministry of any kind. There are 400 institutions for juveniles, 1375 state prisons and 125 federal prisons, and new facilities are being built each year. In fact we are a nation which builds prisons. Prisons are big business sometimes referred to as ‘prison industrial complex’. The state of MN calculates that it costs $38,000 a year for each inmate, but what does it "cost" spiritually? All of these institutions are running at full capacity, leading to early release programs.

Inmates live under some of the most abnormal circumstances. They have no privacy (in 1983 prisons were 100 percent over-crowded) and are bored, restless, fearful, and uncertain. Two-thirds are under age 35. Over one-half are drug or alcohol abusers. One-fifth are functionally illiterate because they did not finish high school. Since the better behaved are paroled, 66 percent of those remaining have a propensity to fight, leading to over 100 murders in prison. It is no wonder, then, that 80 percent of those paroled recidivate or are rearrested. Most of them recidivate within 90 days. Under those conditions many are tempted to backslide as Christians.

Altogether in 2015, 2.3 million inmates are locked up in state [1 million], in local [.7 million] and in federal prisons [.4 million], juvenile [102,000], immigration [10,000], military [2,000] and Indian Country [1800],  About 900 inmates are incarcerated per week, due to the get-tough policies such as the 'three-strikes-and-your-out laws' and 'truth-in-sentencing laws restricting early release. There are as of the year 2002, 6,600,000 adults under correctional supervision. Some 4 million are on probation. In a year nearly 4.9 million  pass through the penal system. Ten million juveniles and young adults are involved with the criminal justice system. John DiLulio, Jr., an authority on criminal justice suggests in an article “Crime In America--It’s Going to Get Worse” [August 1995 Reader’s Digest], that criminals are now more violent, younger, repeat offenders and that “most convicted criminals never see the inside of a prison”. When he asked long-term prisoners what was triggering the explosion of violence among new young criminals they answered, “the absence of family, adults, teachers, PREACHERS, coaches who would care enough about young males to discipline them”. Those who are convicted of a crime, and their families, are in spiritual need because the overwhelming majority are unchurched. Far more serious than the locked doors are locked hearts, says Chaplain Susan Bishop.

A report in USNWR 11/02, indicates that 2.5 million youths under 18 are arrested annually. Fully 50 to 75% are suggested to be suffering from mental health problems.

In Jubilee magazine of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministries, winter of 1996 issue, the lead article is entitled, “Children of Violence”. Becky Beane reports that criminal justice professionals cringe at the rise of remorseless juvenile offenders. There was a 60% rise in juvenile crime between 1987 and 1992. The number of juvenile offenders doubled between 1984-1991, while adult offenders rose 20%. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote that this activity follows ‘spiritual death’. Amazing language for the world, but accurate. The church must become alert to ‘at-risk symptoms’ in children and provide loving and responsible role models as well as the Gospel. Colson suggests that statistics indicate 6% of males ages 14-17 will be chronic lawbreakers, responsible for 50% of serious juvenile crime.

Public radio reported in January 1998, that over the last decade, the female prison population is growing two to one faster than male prison inmates. In 2004, women make up 7% of the prison population, accounting for 1 in 4 arrests. The reason for the arrest of women is the increased involvement in drug crimes, violent crimes and fraud.

In 2004, arrests for drug violations were more than any other offense, mushrooming from 40,000 in 1980 to over 450,000 today.  Those sentenced for drug offenses make up 55% of the prison population.

Cal Thomas, conservative columnist reports in World magazine [6/29/02, p5] Islamist clerics win converts in America’s prisons; are they building a new terrorist army? African-American inmates are being converted to Wahhabi Islam in prisons with Saudi Arabian money through the National Islamic Prison Foundation. Charles Colson agrees suggesting that ‘large numbers’ are being converted not only to Islam, but also to their political objectives. An imam from an Oakland, CA, mosque indicates that more than 200 African-American imams have been trained in Saudi Arabia.

The prison population of some two million is 70% African-American and most are men. This could create quite a pool of disenchanted men delighted to fight the establishment with the venue of radical Islam and funded by Saudi money.

D.                CHAPLAINCY

The spiritual welfare of inmates is delegated by the states to 1400 chaplains--about 70 percent of the 2,000 needed to staff the prisons. In 30 percent of the institutions there are no chapels in which the chaplain can conduct services. The chaplain's work load is so heavy that he can have meaningful contact with no more than 25 percent of the inmates. He can work in depth with 100 and see another 400, but that does not make provision for all those who would like to counsel with him. Yet, "the need for religious and spiritual guidance is far more acute in prison than in free society." The role of the chaplain has evolved over the years. At first he was responsible for providing personal pastoral care for the inmates. Then counseling the total person became his primary responsibility. Now he is essentially a "broker of religious programming," for the state permits various outside religious groups to provide services for the institution. The chaplain at San Quentin Prison, Nick Neufeld, arranges schedules for services to be conducted by Christians as well as Christian Science practitioners, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Black Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jews.

E.                 MISSIONS ACTIVITY

Since 1950 there has been a rapid growth of mission organizations targeting penal institutions as a mission field. One directory lists 100 organizations. Many of those societies are small, providing missionaries (chaplains) for some of the local institutions (23 percent) as well as those throughout the state (23 percent). Other missions (25 percent) are working in several states across the nation whereas 29 percent have expanded to an international ministry.

International Prison Ministry, under the direction of Ray Hoekstra (Chaplain Ray), reaches into the prison world with extensive radio broadcasts, free Bibles, literature, book racks, and a bimonthly magazine called Prison Evangelism. The magazine reports stirring testimonies of inmates who have found Christ as Savior.

Charles Colson, made famous by the Watergate scandal and his subsequent conversion to Christ, established the Prison Fellowship Ministries [PFM] to provide Christian seminars for prisoners. In 1971 the first in-prison seminar was given. During 1981, 230 in-prison seminars involved 4,000 inmates. Jubilee newsletter reports that 100 workers under the Prison Fellowship (PF) are giving seminars. Colson's activities are newsworthy; therefore, he has probably done more than any other to alert the church about prison ministries and the authorities about needed prison reforms. PF's ministries are now international because they found that out of 100 missions surveyed, only two had an overseas prison ministry. PFM runs its Christ-centered InnerChange Freedom Initiative in prisons in MN, KS, IO and TX.

Christian Prison Volunteers initiated a "Visit by Mail" ministry. Recognizing that 25 percent of all inmates have no visitors and five percent never receive a letter and have no one to whom to write, names of prisoners are given to pen pals who will write and send a little "paper sunshine" to an inmate.

In 1955 Yokefellows International Prison Ministry was founded in response to the message of Matthew 25:36: "For I was ... in prison and you visited me." The Yokefellows ministry yokes three or four outsiders with one dozen insiders who meet together in weekly meetings. The outsiders visit the groups of the population and share the Word of God. On the outside they can also have a ministry with the family of the inmate. The Yokefellow volunteer commits himself to seven "disciplines." He agrees (1) to pray every day for the inmates, (2) to read the Bible daily, (3) to attend church weekly, (4) to tithe his income, (5) to tithe his time, (6) to witness in daily life, work and words, and (7) to study Christian books.

With increased spiritual activity in the prisons, numerous inmates are being saved. It is the purpose of Good News Mission to establish converts in indigenous churches behind bars. The Christian inmates are living in "warehouses of fear" and need Christian fellowship and support within the walls, where they are in Satan's stronghold. The inmates with leadership potential are given special training as church leaders. A National Fellowship of Congregations Behind bars is sponsored by the Association of Evangelical Institutional Chaplains.

Good News Mission is the largest civilian supplier of chaplains and offers a graduate level course for chaplain training at Liberty University. According to Rev Calvin Scott [Scotty], National Executive Director, they anticipate having 200 chaplains serving by the year 2000. The philosophy of the mission is to seek the salvation of every inmate, releasee, and each family member. Their follow-up ministry includes 30,000 who are enrolled in the mission's Bible correspondence courses.

In Chicago the Light Bearers Association of America is a mission organization that trains young men as institutional chaplains by on-the-job training with chaplains working in penal institutions within the city.

Recognizing that a host of volunteers will be needed to service the many penal institutions and their large populations, the Association of Christian Prison Workers holds seminars to train volunteers to work in prison ministries. Men are needed who "have an infinite capacity for disappointment."

Many volunteers are needed in this "island of isolation" from the rest of society. The Christian inmate will need help with his crippled personality. The volunteer can support the Christian inmate in his alien culture. He can help him to reenter society and his family. He can be the friend or spiritual buddy the inmate never had. He can model social and Christian ideals before the new Christian as one who is currently experiencing a daily walk with the Lord.

It is important to realize that the volunteer is an unusual person who must play a number of roles. He is "a citizen doing a very complex, frustrating and at times demanding job. His reward is the knowledge that he has walked with the inmate on the road leading to Calvary."

A number of service organizations offer materials that are prepared for inmates. Special literature is available from several sources. An 850-word New Testament is available for the functionally illiterate. Cassette-loaning libraries are also helpful. An adult Power for Living paper is available. Bible correspondence courses are very important according to Charles Fizer, Direcdtor of the Emmaus Correspondence School. ECS maintains the largest Bible correspondence ministry in North American prisons. Annually 300,000 Emmaus Bible courses go into over 3,000 Federal, State, County and City jails.

Source of Light Ministries supplies literature for ministries to prisoners as well as a correspondense school ministry.

Concern for the prison population of the United States is growing. God has prepared mission societies to lead the way. Many more professional chaplains are needed to work within the penal institutions and direct the work of others who are allowed to go in for ministry. Missionaries are needed to help with the work within and to train the volunteers who are playing a key role in discipleship and the reentry of the inmates into the community. This is critical, for 40% of those who are released, recidivate within 3 years.

The volunteers might be likened to short-term missionaries so popular in recent years. Without question, in "many ways the mission field behind bars is the most 'foreign' of mission fields." Dr. William Simmer asks,

Why is it that we have become preoccupied with sending missionaries far away when our own communities are about to explode with frustrated and neglected peoples? Many churches and Christians either have not yet recognized or wish to ignore the fact that there are prisoners in their own community who require a response from the church.

Finally, the Christian believes in inmate rehabilitation and is concerned to help the Christian ex-con return to society as a responsible citizen and active Christian in the local church. Various mission organizations are working to establish in every major city and community near a prison facility Care Committees of Christians who are  ready to help Christian inmates upon release to find jobs, fellowship in the church, and to readjust to society.  Other organizations, such as Justice Fellowship, seek to influence legislation with reference to the penal system.

President Bush has signed into law his Faith-based initiative to involve churches in the rehabilitation of inmates. Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated in 2003 the first faith-based prison—a facility focused on encouraging the spirituality of inmates of all faiths. This facility is focused on the Roman Catholic faith, but it to involve all faiths.


 1.  American Bible Society, P.O. Box 5656, Grand Central Station, New York, NY

 2.  American Indian Missions, Inc., P.O. Box 2800, Rapid City, SD 57701 (offers the 850-word

      New Testament)

 3.  Assembles of God Prison Division, 1445 Boonville Avenue, Springfield, MO 65802 (provides

      correspondence courses and The Living Bible for Inmates)

 4. Bible Believer's Cassettes, Inc., 130 N. Spring Street, Springdale AK 72764 (2,500 tapes


 5. Bible Portions League, Route 3, P.O. Box 12, Coushatta,

 6. Crusaders Club, Winona Lake, IN 46590 (offers free correspondence courses)

 7. Emmaus Correspondence School, 2570 Asbury Rd, Dubuque, Iowa 52001, 319-588-8000, an

     extension ministry of Emmaus Bible College.

 8. Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers. P.O. Box 30179, Los Angeles, CA 90030

 9. Gideons (provides services and Scriptures) 9. Logos International Fellowship, Inc. Prison

     Ministry, APO. Box 191, Plainfield, NJ 07060 (offers literature and correspondence courses)

10. Moody Bible Institute Correspondence School, 820 N. LaSalle Drive, Chicago, IL 60610

     (offers free courses, literature, and films)

11. Scripture and Christian Literature Mission, 1818 S. Summerlin Avenue, Orlando, FL 32806

     (offers literature and Bible courses; maintains correspondence with inmates)

12. Scripture Press Ministries, P.O. Box 513, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137 (Produces Free Way, Power

     for Living, and books)

13. Source of Light Mission, P.O. Box 8, Madison, GA 30650 (offers Bible courses)

14. World Home Bible League, P.O. Box 11, South Holland, IL 60473 (Offers Scriptures and

      correspondence courses)

15. American Protestant Correctional Chaplain’s Association, 5235 Greenpoint Dr., Stone

     Mountain, GA 30088

16. Association of Evangelical Institutional Chaplains sponsors A National Fellowship of

     Congregations Behind Bars.

17. American Correctional Association, 4380 Forbes Blvd., Lanham, MD 20706  PH 301-918-


18. American Correctional Chaplains, PH 202-514-9740 [Federal chaplains]




























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