A lot has been made in the past couple of years about deep problems in the American justice system, particularly when it comes to prisons. Endless reports have been published, along with a steady stream of documentaries or similar projects aimed at raising awareness. In many ways these issues are cut-and-dry, and in many other ways they’re complex and nuanced.
But at least one aspect of the prison reform debate is unavoidable: Christians are called to care for prisoners.
The writer of the book of Hebrews says in chapter 13 that Christians should “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.” But how exactly?
A common barrier to working with prisoners is the many myths that surround people who are or have been incarcerated. I work with the organization Prison Fellowship, where we run into these myths all the time. In order for Christians to be effective in ministering to those in prison, we need to address these myths.
Myth 1: The incarcerated are in prison to be punished. Prison ministry only interferes with justice.
Many people are in prison because they have committed crimes that require the law’s justice. But justice and prison ministry are not mutually exclusive.
For the 2.2 million Americans incarcerated today, justice has been served. Yet 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released. Justice without compassion doesn’t rehabilitate. It doesn’t equip people with the tools and the motivation needed to thrive after prison.
Prison ministry programs offer holistic rehabilitation—classes on life skills, finances and parenting. Prison ministry prepares prisoners to be leaders in their communities, both inside and out.
Compassion does not undercut justice but rather fulfills it.
Myth 2: Prisoners should have thought about their families before they broke the law—their kids are not my responsibility.
Children with incarcerated parents are the invisible victims of crime. There is no solace for them when justice is served.
Recently, Smithsonian Magazine shared that an estimated 2.7 million American children have at least one parent incarcerated. Half of those children live with someone with a substance abuse problem. A quarter live with someone who is mentally ill. These children often develop separation anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviors.
As Christians, it is not for us to judge the incarcerated or their families. It is only for us to love those who are hurting—to listen and to show that we care.
Myth 3: Once a criminal, always a criminal.
As Christians, we believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That he who is in Christ is a new creation. Prisoners have the same potential to live transformed lives as new creations in Christ Jesus.
The Church should be on the front lines in prisons helping prisoners rehabilitate. We hear so often that in Christ “the old has gone, the new is here!” but what Paul writes next is also equally important:
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
We cannot deny prisoners a chance to be reconciled to God as we were once reconciled.
Myth 4: Prisoners should take responsibility of their own lives. Get a job. Be good citizens.
Most former prisoners will be incarcerated again in less than three years. And not always because they committed another crime. In fact, many return to prison because of parole violations.
Parole seems simple enough: Find a job and keep it; get court-mandated drug abuse treatment and counseling, etc. But formerly incarcerated citizens struggle because of their criminal records. After all, there are more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions on vocational and educational opportunities for former prisoners.
And since many job applications ask about criminal records, these individuals are often not given a chance to find a job they are legally allowed to hold.
This “second prison” doesn’t care if the person has talent, skills and potential. And when communities are hostile to former prisoners, they contribute to the cycle of incarceration in our country.
Citizens who are committed to living legitimate lifestyles should not be hindered in doing so.
Myth 5: If I went behind bars as a volunteer, I wouldn’t be able to relate.
Prisoners and former prisoners have the same needs and fears as the rest of us. They have parents in bad health, spouses struggling to pay the bills and children they want to do well in school.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows how we are to treat others. He is a friend of sinners, a person who goes into the homes of the hated and marginalized and treats them with respect. Meeting with these men, women, and adolescents to listen and let their voices be heard can be beneficial. You don’t have to be an evangelist to share the love of Jesus with those who need it.
One of our volunteers shared with us that she thought she had not made an impact serving families of the incarcerated. But later she received a letter from an incarcerated father, thanking her for visiting his children. Because of her, his children had visited him for the first time in prison and he was able to share his faith with them.
Prisons are full of people in pain and who have caused pain. Yet we must remember that they are all precious to God. When God sends us out into the world to preach the Gospel to all people, He wants us to remember those in prison.