Supporting prison ministry - why, what, and how

While the idea of prison ministry may not appeal to many, it is certainly a very raw, powerful, and important ministry. Jesus tells us that by visiting those in prison we are in fact serving him (Matthew 5:24-40). This blog looks at the why, what, and how of supporting prison ministry.

Why support prison ministry?

We frequently hear about criminals being sentence to prison. When you hear such news, what are your thoughts for the prisoner? Maybe you do not give it much thought. Depending on the crime, you may feel sorrow, anger, relief, or thankfulness. Do you hope that the prisoner will suffer? Feel remorse? Seek forgiveness? Turn to God?

What does God hope for the prisoner? In thinking about your response, please consider the following.

We are sinners and need forgiveness

Prison is largely a place of punishment. According to the Bible, we are all sinners, and deserving of punishment. Some sinners are imprisoned for their wrongful acts and others are not. As the late Jerry Bridges (“Respectable sins”, page 20) wrote, “it is easy to let ourselves off the hook by saying these sins [ie- our sins] are not as bad as the flagrant one of society. But God has not given us the authority to establish values for different sins. … The truth is, all sin is serious because all sin is a breaking of God’s law”.

In acknowledging our own sinfulness and need for God’s grace and forgiveness, we have no right to look down on any prisoner. Philippians 2v3 says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…”. This understanding should effect how we see and respond to prisoners.

God works in the lives of prisoners

God can change hearts, even hard one. He wants people to turn to Him, as we read in 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance".

There are many stories of God changing the hearts of prisoners. Having accepted the reality of their sin and dependence on God for forgiveness, many prisoners are ready for change. As Christians this should not surprise us. We should expect it.

  • “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26, NIV)
  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17,NIV)

..people in prison seem to have an easier time understanding repentance than those on the outside. Prisoners are captives in every sense. They have had their most blatant sins exposed in the blinding light of the courtroom and they have been locked into the midst of every form of evil and depravity.
Charles Colson
Founder of Prison Fellowship
Showing God’s unconditional love to prisoners

Jesus said visit the prisoner and prison ministry give the opportunity to show God’s love to prisoners. Forgiveness is something we all need, and God often works through us to offer His forgiveness to prisoners.

What - The challenging world of prison ministry

Globally there are over 11 million prisoners. In Australia, we have around 43,000 prisoners across approximately 100 prisons.

Prison ministry is largely about evangelism and discipleship, and it provides many opportunities to show (and experience) God’s love. Christian organisations both in Australia and overseas are involved in different aspects of this ministry. Common areas of prison ministry include:

1. In-Prison ministry

Prison-time can be a period of great despair, idleness, and anxiety. Fuelling this is - loss of freedom, separation from family and friends, and living amongst potentially dangerous people. During imprisonment, many come to accept the reality of their sin, a desire for forgiveness, and their dependence on God’s grace.

Ministry with prisoners on the inside may include:

  • Visitation: Some ministries involved Christians regularly visiting the prisons and forming friendships. For some prisoners these are the only visitors they get. This is especially true when the family wants to sever the relationship.
  • Providing church services and/or Bible studies:• Some ministries organise regular in-prison church services. Others organise or facilitate Bible studies amongst the prisoners.
  • Mentoring
  • Teaching skills and preparing the prisoner for re-entry into society
  • Letter writing: Some ministries facilitate letter writing between prisoners and Christians on the 'outside' One convert wrote "I didn’t get letters from the bartenders, the hoodlums and all the wise guys I hung around with. I got letters from Christians I didn’t even know” (More God, Less Crime book)
  • Equipping and encouraging prisoners to outreach to other prisoners. Possibly the best evangelists to prisoners are fellow prisoners (or ex-prisoners)
  • Humanitarian aid - In some parts the world, Christians are providing clothes, bedding, and other necessities to improve the quality of prison life.

2. Supporting the Families of prisoners

The family (and friends) of prisoners also suffer. Spouses, partners, or other relatives may be left to take the extra responsibility and financial stress of raising the prisoner’s children. The children themselves must deal with potentially tragic disruptions to their lives – adjusting to a new living environment, being separated from their Mum or Dad, and living with the stigma of have a parent in prison. It is well known that children of prisoners are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour further down the track. It is a sad story:

…children of prisoners are more likely to observe parental substance abuse, perform badly in school, and experience extreme poverty and disadvantage. … more likely to experience aggression, anxiety and depression …. At risk for alcohol and drug abuse, delinquency and crime …. and subsequent incarceration
Byron R. Johnson
More God, Less Crime (Book)

Ministries with the families of prisoners may include - family visitation and support, organising camps for the children, and mentors for youths.

3. Working with Victims of crime

If you have ever been a victim of crime or a harsh injustice you will appreciate the importance of loving and supporting the victims.

4. Helping prisoners re-enter the community

Life as a former prisoner is a tough gig as follows:

The place of forgiveness and resolution in this process [returning to the community] is murky. Release from prison is supposed to signal a form of absolution, a pardon for the crimes for which someone was convicted. However, former prisoners continue to be punished and stigmatized in myriad ways… Their crime and experience of imprisonment follow and haunt them outside the gates in the form of these barriers and prison’s lasting psychological and personal toll.
Tanya Erzen
God in Captivity (book)

Many former prisoners cannot adjust to life on the outside and return to prison after a few years. Their problems include – difficulties finding work, financial struggles, being unwelcomed by family/friends, and the temptation to mix with bad influencers. Christians can help by – ‘adopting’ them into their church community, help them find work, mentoring, visitation, helping them re-establish and perhaps re-invent themselves.

It is very important that released Christian prisoners find their way into a church community.

Because re-entry is so difficult, the decision to bypass the church is a recipe for disaster – effectively separating former prisoners from the support they would absolutely have to have in order to live a law-abiding and productive life in the free world. …. The conversion experience in and of itself is not enough to protect ex-prisoners from all manner of missteps they might take following release from prison.
Byron R. Johnson
More God, Less Crime (book)
Many former prisoners cannot adjust to life on the outside and return to prison after a few years. Their problems include – difficulties finding work, financial struggles, being unwelcomed by family/friends, and the temptation to mix with bad influencers.

Christians can help by – ‘adopting’ them into their church community, help them find work, mentoring, visitation, helping them re-establish and perhaps re-invent themselves.

Prison ministries play an important role in facilitating re-entry.

5. Prison Reform

The Bible says to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8).

Over the past few hundred years (or so) Christians have played an important role in prison reform. For example – John Howard, The Quakers, John Wesley, Elizabeth Fry, and more recently Charles Colson. We will look at these pioneers in another article.

6. Prayer

It is essential that all the above ministries are held up in prayer. All prison ministries need more prayer warriors.

How to support prison ministry

Ways to get involved include:

  1. ‘Adopt’ a prison ministry - Contact a Christian organisation involved with prison ministry. One of our members that focuses on prison ministry is Crossroads Prison Ministry.
  2. Financially supporting prison ministry - A number of projects needing financial support can be found on Givehigher under prison ministry projects
  3. Do volunteer work with prison ministry - On MissionSeek (our sister website) there are often prison ministry roles for Australian Christians. For example – visitation, letter writing and mentoring.
  4. Prayer for prison ministry. Obtain regular prison ministry prayer points from a mission organisation.
  5. Get your church involved in support prison ministry. The local church has the capacity to help prison ministry in many ways. Contact a mission organisation to find out more.

  • Bridges, Jerry; "Respectable Sins - confronting the sins we tolerate", Navpress, 2007
  • Erzen, Tanya; "God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration", Beacon Press, 2017
  • Johnson, Byron R; "More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More", Templeton Press, 2011
  • Rothman, David J; “The Oxford History of the Prison - The Practice of Punishment in Western Society”, Oxford University Press,1998

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