Joys and challenges

Jim Forbes is media director at Prison Fellowship.

For more than 40 years, Prison Fellowship has been going into correctional facilities, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those behind bars, and offering the hope of true transformation. Through the use of Bible-based programming and with the help of thousands of committed volunteers, lives are being changed, hope is being restored, and darkness is being replaced with the promise of a future.

At the same time, we also envision a safer, more redemptive society. With the help of our advocacy work, we call for those responsible for crime to be held accountable through a fair system that values their human dignity and potential, and for churches and communities to provide care for victims and restoration for those who have paid their debt to society. 

Eastern State Penitentiary

[Eastern State Penitentiary. Carol M. Highsmith—Library of Congress.]


Christiana DeGroot is professor of religion at Calvin College and codirector of the Calvin Prison Initiative with Todd V. Cioffi (see pp. 24–27). CPI allows prisoners to pursue a BA degree through Calvin.

The Calvin Prison Initiative got started when Calvin Theological Seminary faculty members were inspired by the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary operates a Bible college inside the prison with over 200 graduates. The seminary partnered with Calvin College to offer a BA at Handlon Prison in Ionia, Michigan.

Every year an entering class of 20 students is drawn from men’s prisons all over Michigan. They have to meet certain criteria: having a GED or having finished high school, being free of misconduct tickets for two years, having leadership potential, and being seen as good citizens. 

They are recommended by their warden or the chaplain or principal. They are transferred to Handlon and a hold is put on them for five years to keep them from being transferred out. If they succeed to the end, they will earn a Calvin BA in ministry leadership. 

These students take Calvin core requirements and courses in the ministry leadership major and then have room for electives; almost all of the courses are taught in the prison by Calvin’s seminary and college faculty. I teach the Old Testament survey course. 

We welcomed our first cohort in 2015. We find the students to be eager and highly motivated. More than half are lifers. We want to help prisoners succeed when they leave prison, but also want to change the culture in the prison. The lifers can look at prison as a mission field: mentoring other prisoners, being involved in worship services, and being chaplains’ assistants. 

When lifers are finished, they’ll be transferred out of Handlon to different prisons in Michigan. We hope that they can take what they’ve learned and put it to good use. 

There are unique joys. So far everyone who’s taught there wants to do it again. I’ve never taught such keen, thoughtful students. They do their reading twice. They write a paper and revise it. They know they have been handed a gift of unbelievable value and are very grateful. When you come you are always welcome. 

There are challenges to working behind bars. There’s no access to the Internet. They now have their own computers and can take them to their cells, but when we started, we had two students to a computer and they could only work on them when the professor was present.

Also some of the officers have not been helpful. Slowly that is changing as we’re winning trust and respect, so the guards know that we’re not do-gooders being taken advantage of. The unit our students stay in has seen a dramatic decline in misbehavior tickets. They all stay in their cells studying. The students look for opportunities to give back. The prison has started a leader dog program, and students are involved in that. A number of students have also started growing their hair out to donate to Locks of Love.

We’re trying to build bridges between what goes on at Handlon and on our main campus. In the long run, we hope it will change the perception of our students here about prison. There is nothing like first-hand experience. We train tutors here that help prisoners write papers and study. Last night some basketball alumni went out to Handlon and played the prison basketball team. A reporter who was there said it felt like a high school basketball game. Everybody was on one level playing field, watching a good game. 

Joe Roche of Faith and Family Films operates a prison lending library.

We send books to inmates. We also provide Christian films. The volunteers who show them say they get very positive feedback. We also lend CDs when prisoners are allowed to have them, in minimum-security prisons or halfway houses. The prisoners also appreciate having Bibles. We’ve been doing this since January of 2007. We’re always looking for pen pals for the inmates (via Outreach Ministries, PO Box 91, Randolph, VT, 05060), although people should be aware that when the inmates get out they often stop writing to their pen pals. 

Jack Heller is associate professor of English at Huntington University, directs the program Shakespeare at Pendleton , and consults with the national organization Shakespeare Behind Bars, which teaches prisoners to perform Shakespeare.

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I became interested in working with incarcerated people after seeing the 2005 documentary film Shakespeare Behind Bars. It follows the work of men incarcerated at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky, as they spend nine months preparing to perform The Tempest. I visited the men in Kentucky, talking with them as a professor about their plays, bringing students, conducting annual week-long seminars, and seeing their performances. 

In 2013 I decided to try to facilitate a program myself, so I began Shakespeare at Pendleton at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, near Indianapolis. We completed the first-ever performance of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus in a prison in 2015, and in 2017 presented scenes from Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This program gives the men an opportunity to explore abilities they may not have known that they have. It gives them a chance to break out of the mundane routines of prison life and to learn some things about themselves. The first play we did, Coriolanus, is largely about anger, and I think it gave several of the men opportunities to reflect upon their past experiences with uncontrolled anger. 

Doing Shakespeare and working with reader groups in prison may seem to have a less than obvious spiritual intention. However in the passage most often used in support of ministries to prisoners, Matthew 25, visiting the prisoners is put alongside of feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, and comforting the sick. 

Many Christians envision work with prisoners as providing Bibles and Bible studies. Those are important, and I see these ministries in the prisons I visit. But visiting prisoners involves physical, intellectual, occupational, emotional, and spiritual needs. To believe that only Bibles will meet the needs of prisoners would be akin to believing that Bibles alone will meet the needs of food, clothing, and healing for the hungry, the poor, and the sick. Providing inmates with education, with creative opportunities, and with job training fills out, I think, the meaning of visiting prisoners. 

Susannah Moore is a junior and a student chaplain at Eastern University in Wayne, Pennsylvania, who serves through the college prison ministry .

Eastern University requires all of their freshmen to complete 20 hours of service. I’ve always been interested in prisons but wasn’t old enough before, so I was excited to volunteer through EU’s prison ministry. I am now in my third year of volunteering.

Our main focus is Lancaster County Youth Detention Center. We go every other Friday night and spend two hours hanging out with the kids there. We bring games and buy Doritos and chocolate for them. Our goal is to allow them to hang out just as if they’re regular kids: I think that is one of the greatest forms of stress release we can give them, a night of hanging out with friends that is also Christ-centered.

We always let them know that we are a Christian organization and tell them it’s a safe space, but they don’t have to talk about faith if they don’t feel comfortable. Our main goal is to show grace and love, because they often think, “Oh, these Christians are coming in, judging us, because they think we are such sinners.”

The truth is that all of us are sinners and there is no way that we should ever be looking down on them. We try to show them that there’s so much love and so much grace and acceptance and forgiveness. 

The kids are typically 12 to 18, but I have seen kids as young as seven. The seven-year-old had committed arson. The majority are African American and Hispanic. There are two sides to the detention center. The detention side is for kids who have committed violent crimes, often drug related. The shelter side houses kids who have not committed violent crimes. Maybe they were caught with drugs, ran away from home, skipped too many days of school, or are waiting to get into foster care and haven’t actually done anything wrong. 

I met a girl once who was in there because her father had beat her up. She had a really bad concussion, but could only see the nurse at certain days and times. She had to be with the group at other times, sitting up in a room with bright lights, instead of getting the rest and medical care she needed. Here she was coming out of a traumatic situation and was put into another traumatic situation. 

Kids are not developing normally because they are stuck in such a rigid and uptight environment, in these small rooms with concrete walls. They can no longer handle change. If there’s a change in their schedule, they often have an anxiety attack. 

This is incredibly harmful. When they get out into the world and have to make their own schedule, it causes a lot of struggles for them. If we are looking to form these kids into contributing members of society, then we need to be treating them in ways that are going to allow them to re-enter society someday, rather than having mental illness or reverting back to criminal lifestyles. 

I have found a passion for prisoners and for reforming the criminal justice system to a more restorative approach. I think the Lord has called me to work with prisoners. I want to spend my life working with prisoners. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #123 Captive Faith. Read it in context here!

By Jim Forbes, Christiana DeGroot, Joe Roche, Jack Heller, Susannah Moore

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #123 in 2017]

Jim Forbes is media director at Prison Fellowship; Christiana DeGroot is professor of religion at Calvin College; Joe Roche of Faith and Family Films operates a prison lending library; Jack Heller is associate professor of English at Huntington University; Susannah Moore is a student chaplain at Eastern University in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
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