Month: March 2015



Lockdowns are when the inmates are restricted to their cells and there is no visits or programmed activity such as Bible Studies, AA meetings, and so on. Lockdowns are frequently called when there have been incidents of violence. The lockdown may only impact a particular unit or it could be the whole facility. It could last just a few minutes or go on for several days or weeks. One institution was on lockdown to 2 months following a riot.

A lockdown is another uncertainty encountered by those who visit inmates. Imagine living out of town and driving several hours and perhaps staying in a motel overnight in order to get to the facility where your friend or family member is serving time. Imagine the disappointment if you are unable to visit. If it happens too often you may stop trying to visit.

I have usually encountered lockdowns when I arrived at the facility to visit, or for programming such as a Bible study. We are told the facility is on lockdown and no one is allowed in. At that point the best things is to just leave the facility because it is very unlikely that they will resolve the lockdown in a short period of time.

I have only had a lockdown called once while I was already in the facility, and that was just a few weeks ago. I got to the unit and, as I usually do, I asked the CO (correctional officer) how the day had gone. He indicated it had been quiet.

I went in and set up as they invited the guys to come to Bible Study if they wanted. They turn on their light and the CO unlocks their door so they can come out, so there are a few minutes between when I set up and when the guys start arriving. There were nine guys that night. We went around and did introductions. At that point the CO came in and said, “Need to cut this short. We’re going on lockdown. Everybody back to their cell.”

A lockdown can be called if there has been some sort of incident. When a lockdown is called I don’t invite the group to sing one more song, or close in prayer. It means stop whatever you are doing immediately. As a volunteer my responsibility is to comply with whatever the CO directs me to do. The COs want to keep the facility safe and secure, in this case it was to get me out of an insecure environment. I knew not to stand around asking a bunch of questions.

When I got out to the main area of the unit there were about half a dozen COs getting organized. There had been an incident in an adjacent unit and they were determining whether they needed a nurse on the scene.

The reality is that some or all guys in the maximum security unit can be capable of violence. No matter how often I go in I cannot become complacent. But I am reminded about Luke 7 where Jesus teaches that those who are forgiven little love little, whereas those who are forgiven much love much.

hand cuffs

Dress Codes and No Hostage Zones

Dress Codes

Every prison or jail that I’ve visited had some sort of dress code at least for the inmates if not for the visitors as well. It provides a quick way for staff to identify whether or not someone is where they belong, and how much of a threat they are. Someone wearing dark green may be ok to be outside the walls picking up trash or doing gardening, but a red shirt should absolutely be inside the walls, and only in certain areas. The meanings of the colors vary by institution and can change over time.

Dress codes for visitors may be as basic as, “don’t wear the same clothes as the inmates” and “dress modestly.” At one large institution there were only specific colors that visitors could wear, otherwise they would not be allowed to enter the facility. It had nothing to do with gang colors, which was my initial thought. The explanation was that sharp shooters in the towers were taught not to target people wearing those colors.

In the prison yard occasionally an order came over the public address system telling all the prisoners to get down. At that point they all had to couch or sit on the ground, but visitors were to remain standing. The guards in the towers would do this if they saw a disturbance brewing – perhaps a basketball game was becoming a bit too physical. It was a reminder to the inmates that they were being watched over by those with deadly force at their disposal.

The administrators of most facilities try to keep rival gangs from being in the same place at the same time. In the jail where I’m now doing a Bible Study one set of gangs is on one floor, and another set on a different floor. The COs (correctional officers) alternate which group comes out so I may only see a particular guys every other week.

There was one week where the CO let both floors go at once to the Bible Study. There were 19 guys and the room was somewhat tense but thankfully the guys were there for Bible Study and not to stir up trouble.

Consider how the guys, with their designated clothing color and gang affiliations might read Colossians 3:9-11

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal[a] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

No Hostage Zones

In many of the institutions I’ve been in there is usually a sign indicating that you are entering a “No Hostage” zone. This usually means that no inmate will be allowed to leave the facility because of taking a hostage and that force may be necessary to rescue hostages. In other words an inmate seizing a visitor does not have a “get out of jail free” card. It also means that you acknowledge you are entering an area where you may be putting yourself at risk.

It also becomes an illustration. In a place with sharp shooters, limited freedom, and where the administration would not allow the inmates to take a hostage as ransom for their freedom, consider how they might read the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Grace Sufficient for You, But What About Him?

When I started doing prison ministry I began with a program that matched an inmate with a person outside the walls. After going through clearance I was assigned to someone. The inmate’s name, number, and offense were on the assignment letter. Since the offense was written as a violation of some section of the penal code I asked the program coordinator what that meant in laymen’s terms.

The inmate I had been paired with was a convicted child molester.

In prison there is a social pecking order based on your crime. At the top are murders and gang leaders. In the middle are other crimes. At the bottom were the rapists. And at the very bottom were the child molesters.

I had been paired with a child molester.

I had to wrestle with that for some time. I knew people who were victims of child molesters. Some of those people were very close to me and I knew that the devastation rocked victims to the very core of their being.

In 2 Corinthians 12 we read, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and I believed that – but was it sufficient for him, the child molester? Hebrews 4:16 reads, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Does that apply to him too?

In I Corinthians 6:9-11 we read:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

And this is what some of you used to be.

Did God provide a puny grace that was barely adequate to cover my sin, or did He provide a grace so extravagant, so abundant, that it could radically transform lives? Here was a grace that called me to risk all, to walk side by side with those who society had written off, not only as hopeless, but as a waste of oxygen and beyond redemption. It is here that the light of God’s grace transforms in ways we cannot imagine.

Or I could be safe as I cowered behind a tepid grace that was merely enough to save, but not to transform, and certainly not a grace that called us to take risks. The choice was mine.

In understand that not all are called to become friends with convicted child molesters. It is clear that the Body of Christ – the Church – is made up of many parts. At that time my role was to come alongside this man and become his friend.

How did it turn out?

I visited him most every week over the next three years. I learned that he was from a small town and could not go back home after he was released, because the victim still lived there.

Normally when someone gets out of prison there is some sort of support system to help transition them back into society. However, the state considered sex offenders as a high risk of reoffending and therefore offered no support services when he was released.

Read that last sentence again.

His brother lived in another part of the country and was part of a supportive church. He explained his brother’s situation and asked the church if they would allow his brother to come live in their community when he was released. They church agreed that he would be welcome and that they would love him, and watch over him to keep him safe, and to keep an eye out that he would not harm others again.

Imagine coming to a place where everyone already knows your deepest, darkest secret, and they love you anyway.

The church was good to there word. They welcomed him, they loved him, kept him safe, and watched over him.

It doesn’t always have a happy ending.

But sometimes it does.

An Ineffective Start


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been involved with prison ministry for 15 years before starting the jail Bible study. I’ve also been a small group leader at church, a high school Sunday school teacher, and led various Bible studies over the past 4 decades. I’ve read the entire Bible cover to cover more than two dozen times – actually I stopped counting after two dozen. All of that was still inadequate preparation for what was to come.

I’d met with a few of the jail chaplains and they decided to try me out leading a Bible Study. The fact that I was leading came up on rather short notice. I used one of my favorite sections of scripture:

Galatians 3:23-29

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

While the study wasn’t a total failure, i.e. a riot didn’t break out, it really wasn’t that effective.

The chaplain gave me some coaching afterwards that was helpful in avoiding that mistake in the future:

  1. The guys come from a wide variety of spiritual backgrounds. On one extreme some are preacher’s kids and have been raised in the church. At the other extreme are those who have never been inside a church, have never even touched a Bible and know absolutely nothing about it.
  1. The message needs to be relevant to each person in that room regardless of where they are on that spiritual continuum.
  1. There will likely be a different group of people each week, so the lesson has to be self-contained, i.e. I can’t refer to an earlier study since they probably weren’t at the earlier study.
  1. The parables of Jesus tend to provide the best material. Even those who have never heard the stories before can offer their opinions on what the story means. The parables are accessible to all irrespective of their spiritual background or education.

Preparation means having lessons that are distilled down to the essence of the gospel of grace.

I try to make the studies as interactive and participatory as possible. Over the years in prison ministry I’ve seen that the most powerful times when God has spoken were times when it was one inmate speaking to another. Here is an example from a few years back at a prison in the Midwest.

It was a Prison Fellowship weekend and I was a small group leader. There were 8 guys in our group. One of the group members was a white guy in his late 40s who had been in prison for just 3 months. He was serving a 15 year (minimum) sentence. His circumstances were weighing heavily on him. No male in his family had ever lived past age 55 so there was a very real prospect that he was going to die in prison. He was considering suicide just to get it over with.

One of the other guys in the group was a black man in his late 20s who was serving life without parole. In that moment age, race, gang affiliation, and everything else fell away as he said, “This is not the end of the line. Your life can still have meaning, even in a place like this.”

Those words were far more powerful coming from him — a man serving life who knew that he was going to die in prison – than they would have coming from me. In that moment that young man was saying to the other man the words of Jesus, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

I prepare each week, and each week I know anything that I might say will be of little value to these guys. But my presence provides an opportunity for them to meet together. I’ve learned to watch for God speaking to them, and for the words of hope that they say to each other.


God In the Max

Prison Bars

This blog is a place to collect my thoughts and experiences while conducting a weekly Bible study in the maximum security unit of the county jail.

I began participating in prison ministry after an experience in 1999. The music minister at our church was looking for people to help just once with a worship service at the state prison. I was a guitar play and decided to come along. Prior to the start of the service I met some of the other members of the worship band. They were inmates. While practicing we got to know each other a bit more. We talked about guitars. I play an unusual guitar, but one of they guys had heard of it since he had read about these instruments in a guitar magazine.

I heard about his back story: he’d become a Christian shortly after he’d arrived in prison 10 years ago. He was serving 45 years for aggravated assault. In the back of my mind I thought, “These men have committed acts of unspeakable violence.” Then the thought came, “Yes, but they aren’t being violent right now.”

In this prison the guys had to make a choice, if they wanted to participate in this worship service it meant giving up their chance to go to the gym for exercise and showering. They were in the worship service because this is where they wanted to be.

I now had seen these inmates as men — as someone’s son, brother, uncle, cousin, husband, father. What I had seen I could not un-see.

After the service I went out for coffee with another couple who had been involved in prison ministry for a number of years. I told them about my experience, and that I felt I had to do something. There were involved in one-on-one regular visits with inmates and directed me towards that and other programs. I got involved.

Fast forward 15 years. After doing a few events at some of the state prisons I found out more about volunteering at the county jail. I now lived 2 or 3 hours away from the nearest prison, and the state I live is has started having some of the people serve their time at the county jail rather than in a state prison due to chronic overcrowding of the prisons.

I meet weekly with the guys in the maximum security unit of the jail. Some are waiting for their trial, others are waiting for sentencing, and others are now serving their time.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the group that I meet with on an almost weekly basis. In some respects this group in jail has been more challenging to deal with than guys in prison. It’s not that these guys have done more serious things than the guys I met in prison — I recall one time meeting with a dozen guys at a state prison. It turned out that I was the only guy at the table who hadn’t murdered someone.

But there is a key difference in the “culture” of prison vs. the jail situation.

In prison there is far less change. The guys you see around you today will probably still be there tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year, and possibly even the next decade. There is an established rhythm and social pecking order, for better or worse. There is also the presence of the long-time Christian inmates who pray for each other and encourage each other.

In the maximum-security section of the jail the guys are in their cells most of the time so there is little social interaction, except for the volunteer chaplains who bring them the Gospel.  In the dorms where Bible study is permitted, men gather to learn how to live their lives different, even though they are segregated by gang affiliation. They learn to rely on God and God’s guidance because different people move in and out of the unit, affecting the structure.

While some of the guys will be in that section for several years as they serve their sentence, there are people coming and going each week. So there really isn’t time to establish a stable social order. It isn’t always firmly established who is a threat or not.

I believe that some of the stress I see in the guys each week is that sense of uncertainty — how should they act, and who should they follow. This is particularly difficult for guys who want to break of out the gang culture and the cycle of addiction that they have been living under up to this point.

This is why they need to hear the healing message of the Gospel and how the words of Jesus can help them heal the sorrows they have suffered and the pain they have endured – not just physical pain but the pain of separation and loss of those they love.

This is the place where Jesus told us we would see him. And it is true.

Orange Jump Suit