Prison ministry: serving the least of his brothers, serving the Lord

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Matthew 25:35-36


Ministers act on behalf of Christ, and all people are called to serve him. By finding their niche in ministry, God’s people may joyfully fulfill their duty. Prison ministry is one niche.

“Prison ministers have a sense of hope and believe the Gospel message is meant for everybody and the Lord is the final judge,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker. As a priest in the Diocese of St. Augustine, the Charleston bishop began visiting Death Row inmates in the late ’70s. When he met his first inmate, he saw life in the man, and, “Where there is life there is hope,” said Bishop Baker.

Tom Bullock, co-founder of His Way Ministry in Charleston, was curious about prison ministry. He heard people say that they saw the face of Jesus in men in prison, so, with a bit a skepticism, he went to see for himself. During Bullock’s first visit, he, too, saw the face of Jesus. That was 10 years ago.

He said the first step to reaching out to a prisoner is to sit next to him, look him in the face and realize that he’s just a man. Bullock started in Kairos, a ministry geared to reaching inmates with a spiritual message. Three-day weekends and weekly meetings offer a new way of living for men and women who may never have known an intimate relationship with Christ.

“The purpose (of Kairos) is to pick out the leaders in prison, spend the weekend with them, and break down the facade that prevents God in their life,” said Christian Brother Tony Quinn, who visits the Leeds Avenue Detention Center twice a week.

On Tuesdays, Brother Quinn visits the juvenile population at the North Charleston detention center, where kids stay while they await trial or sentencing. There he coaches juveniles in social behaviors and English with a creative writing class, as sessions are part of the state-mandated education program. In one class there were eight boys with hopes and dreams that did not include going to prison, but this was not the first visit to the detention center for any of them. They wanted a big house, a wife, kids, but lacked the understanding of how they would achieve these goals.

Many were raised in a drug culture, and their environment was holding them back from challenging themselves to reach their potential. They are seeking someone to listen, to understand, to help, but even then they need to realize a change within themselves. That change usually comes with a spiritual experience.

One 15-year-old girl at the juvenile center said, “Having people understand you doesn’t help when the people you want to listen and understand don’t.”

Her crime wasn’t a normal reaction from an adolescent, nor an adult, and was filled with an immense rage. (Crimes are withheld to secure juveniles’ anonymity.) Putting faith in front of her on an on-going basis is, perhaps, the only way she’ll see through that rage.

Another 15-year-old, a soft-spoken young boy, had been in and out of the detention center since his preteen years. This time he won’t be leaving until he’s 20. He has made some progress. Brother Quinn has seen him on numerous occasions, while most kids are only there a short time. He seems to know himself better than most and has plans of leaving his troublesome neighborhood with his mother when he is released. He thinks that is the only way he can end his criminal cycle. Hopefully, he’ll make further progress and find the strength to turn his back on “friends” that bring him down.

When boys and girls like this don’t change early on, they most likely will end up in an adult facility.

In South Carolina, close to 22,000 men and women are housed in 31 state facilities. Nearly 11,000 inmates are released per year, while nearly the same number either enters for the first time or re-enters the system.

“They are going to get out; it’s up to us (to help them change),” said Jack McGovern, founder of His Way Ministry, an ecumenical effort.

McGovern started the program about two years ago when he realized that there was no follow-up ministry to help ex-offenders stay on the right path. They leave with the clothes on their back, a one-way bus ticket, the few things they had in prison, no money, and nowhere to stay. He explained that men who remain in prison for more than five years typically have lost familial contact.

In His Way, inmates start preparing nine months before their release date. Bullock and McGovern and a few volunteers visit Lieber Correctional Institute every Wednesday. The first three months, stage one, incorporates the book Are You Serious? by Ferdinand Mahfood, founder of Food for the Poor. This stage helps inmates learn responsibility for their actions and teaches them about leading a Christ-centered life.

In stage two, months four to six, His Way ministers help to build inmates’ self-esteem and teach them how to deal with everyday problems. They teach them about boundaries, learning to say ‘no,’ and controlling their emotions — lessons that an unstructed environment failed to convey.

During the last three months, inmates learn how to handle transitional elements to living on the outside: handling finances, job interviewing, housing, goal setting. They are also given a mentor.

One man was very concerned about being released from prison; he didn’t think he would be able to stand up to his friends. He is a fit man about 6 feet 3 inches and was scared of being thought of as a wimp if he didn’t join them for a drink — a substance that contributed to his incarceration.

Another man, whose 2,500 push-ups a day keep him strong, is due for release within the month. He told Bullock, “I get butterflies in my stomach when I think about getting out.”

Through the program they learn that they can stand up for themselves and not go back to their old habits.

“All the training in the world, the physical rehabilitation, won’t help unless there’s a change of heart, typically it takes a faith change,” said McGovern.

He and Bullock witness this change time and again, but their resources are limited.

Only nine inmates attended a recent meeting in a prison that holds more than 1,000 men.

After they have “graduated” from His Way, ex-offenders are encouraged to be mentors in the program. Walter Anderson recently spoke at St. John the Beloved in Summerville. The parish had expressed interest in getting involved in His Way, and he shared his story.

“I couldn’t do it my way,” he said, so he joined His Way and saw his way through the fear. Now he abides by the Word of God, he explained, and the laws of society.

Parishes like St. John’s can mentor men as a group or individuals. The program needs mentors and volunteers to expand their reach.

McGovern said the group has mentored some women, but it’s difficult because the women’s prisons are outside the tri-county area.

“The process is slow, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding when you see what a difference it’s made in their lives,” said McGovern.

The program is just two years old, and McGovern said they are holding out until the end of their third year to measure recidivism within the program. Three years is a marker for judging the relapse rate. In South Carolina, 40 to 60 percent are back in prison within three to four years.

“It’s an important goal, but not what we’re going to use to measure the success of the program,” he said.

“We are called to serve, not succeed,” said Bullock.

His Way has served about 50 ex-offenders in the last two years, and McGovern said he knows of none that have gone back to prison.

In Florida, drug courts for adults and juveniles help to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders with a more personal touch. Offenders must report to the judge on a weekly or biweekly basis, undergo random drug screens, participate in three 12-step meetings a week, and attend family and group counseling for their addiction problems. Over the past six years, explained Joseph Stelma, the courts have seen a more than 70 percent success rate in people not returning to prison. If offenders don’t sign a one-year contract to follow through with the drug court therapy, then charges are upheld.

Stelma is a senior deputy trial court administrator who coordinates the drug courts for the fourth judicial circuit in Florida. He is working to reach adults and juveniles before they commit a violent crime.

Drug courts are also being used in Charleston. The adolescent program began three years ago, and the adult program began just over a year ago and has 58 participants. Acccording to the Charleston County Drug Court Office, their success rate is at 65 percent and growing with an expanding program.

Prison ministry must be a proactive ministry. While the men and women incarcerated for violent crimes need support  a light from the outside to urge them to change their hearts — there is another group looking for a way out before they are too far under.

Stelma suggested that local programs, in order to be the most effective, must be mainstreamed into the larger state prison system.

Men and women in prison hunger for contact, and according to the laws of God’s Word, we must reach out to them.