As jail chaplains we are often asked a myriad of questions when we encounter people in the "free world.” When we were asked to author this article we saw an opportunity to address a few commonly asked questions.
We have to make an important distinction before we begin. Often times the words jail and prison are used synonymously. Although they are similar, they are unique entities. Jails are pretrial facilities that hold inmates while they wait to go to court or bond out and fight their cases from the street. In most jurisdictions, inmates may serve up to a one year sentence in a jail. Prisons are correctional facilities where inmates go post-conviction to serve the time that they were given in court.
This may sound like a quibble over words, but jails and prisons, especially as it relates to ministry, are quite different. In jail, inmates are there for an indefinite amount of time. The individual may bond out after a few days or be there for two or more years awaiting the outcome of his/her case. Inmates are often in states of crisis: the shock of incarceration, the stress of whether or not they will win their court battle or be sent to prison, the death of a loved one, de-toxing from drug/alcohol addiction, the fear the their loved ones will forget about them. For the chaplain or person ministering in this environment, crisis intervention techniques are a vital part of everyday ministry. Each interaction is conducted as if it may be the last contact that you may have with the individual. The volume of inmates who cycle through jails on a yearly basis, especially in metropolitan areas, is much higher than most prisons; quite possibly tens of thousands.
In summary, we are jail chaplains and have never worked in a prison environment. The answers we give will be from a jail perspective and, although similar, may not have a direct translation to prisons. Now for some commonly asked questions. "What does a minister need to know about visiting parishioners in a local jail?” It's important to remember that every jail is different and have different personalities.
When attempting to visit a parishioner or client in jail it is more important to know the right questions to ask as opposed to know an exact procedure, as this will vary from facility to facility. First, call the facility before you try to visit in person. Call the front desk and ask what the procedure is for scheduling a clergy visits. It's important to note that many jails give preference to persons who are ordained and may require credentials before you are considered for a visit. Non-ordained persons may be allowed to visit, but understand that jails are selective of who they allow to visit for security reasons. It is quite possible that you will be asked to submit to a background check. Make sure you find out who is in charge scheduling clergy visits. Get their phone number and title if possible. The person will, as some point, want to know who you are, who are requesting to visit, what your relationship with he or she is, and what is the purpose of visiting. Many facilities will not allow you to visit as clergy if you are related to the person and/or are currently on any inmate's personal visiting list in their system.
Be prepared to get many different answers from different people. Instead of getting aggravated with the person you are talking to, just thanks him or her for their time and call back later. You don't want to have your application mysteriously disappear or be given the run around anymore that is necessary.
"What makes life worth living for an inmate?” Inmates need to focus on something to deal with the monotony, violence, loneliness, and regimentation of daily living in jail. In our experience their lives are fueled by hate, hustle, or hope.
Nearly every earthly thing is stripped away from inmates, but hate is something that can't be taken away. You can take their freedom, earthly possessions, proximity to family, but they can hold on to their anger. Many incarcerated people have poor or no coping skills, other than using drugs or alcohol. With no positive outlet their frustration, sadness, and fear are channeled into rage that is unleashed on those they are surrounded by.
Gangs and groups that are strictly divided along racial lines give inmates a lifestyle of hate and warfare that they can immerse themselves in. This becomes the daily way of living that dictates how they live their daily lives while incarcerated. Every day can be consumed with hating being locked up, hating the correctional officers, hating enemies in other gangs, hating people of other races, hating their families for forgetting about them.
It has been said that everyone has a hustle in jail. A lot of time is spent by inmates plotting: how to get drugs and tobacco smuggled into the institution, how to steal others belongings, how to get an extra tray at chow, what their next scheme will be when and if they get out, how to manipulate the chaplain into giving them a free phone call, how to break the rules, how to beat the system, how to convince everyone of his or her innocence. Many people come from the hustler lifestyle on the streets, selling drugs and committing crimes.
Hope is the other thing that makes life worth living. Many people get religious in jail and some actually mean it. There are inmates who spend their time reading the Bible and deepening their faith while incarcerated. Sometimes when people reach their lowest point they have nowhere to look but up. There is a great opportunity to share the Gospel with fallen and broken people in jail, to show them that there is another lifestyle that can make life truly fulfilling and worthwhile. We can, through the guiding of the Holy Spirit, show people that there is a living God who loves and cares for them regardless of what they've done and who they've been. A God who became a man, to live as they lived, and to die on the cross to take the death penalty that should have been ours; who wants to take their hate and teach them how to cope with their hurt and frustration.
Many times inmates will only listen to you if they respect you and have tried and failed to hustle you and hate you. When we respond in care and concern, with healthy boundaries, instead of pity or contempt, we can model Jesus love. We can point them to His dedication, dedication to the point of death, which truly cares and gives a new lifestyle that is effective in their current situation and future journey.
"What are common themes that you encounter while ministering to inmates and staff?” Being arrested and sent to jail is an overwhelming experience, unleashing strong feelings of helplessness and panic. Common thoughts a new inmate might have include, ‘What will happen to my family, job and belongings?' One can do very little to help him or herself. An inmate can only make a few calls per week. Everything takes a long time to happen. An inmate has to rely on others to find an attorney or wait for the court to appoint one. Often, inmates are going through drug or alcohol withdrawal, greatly adding to the confusion and pain. One's life is suddenly taken out of his or her hands and placed in the hand of many strangers. Rules must be followed or the incarcerated person will face further confinement and isolation. Feelings of despair, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide are common. Ministers are called to provide a calming presence in the midst of a storm; a safe place to vent frustrations with someone who will share personal sorrows.
As inmates settle into the daily routine of jail, there is a lot of time to think about life. The mind begins to clear a bit from substance use: They have time to think about the lifestyle choices that resulted in arrest; time to think about how the offender's family is being affected. A person who is incarcerated may ponder serious questions: ‘What will my future be like? Will I face going to prison? If I get released, will I fall back into the same destructive life style of drug addiction and stealing to support my habit? Am I losing my family support because I continue to fail?'
Many inmates seek God's help during this time of uncertainty. They search the Scriptures looking for anything that will get them out of jail. Many believe their faith makes a difference in swaying God to give a favorable answer. If inmates succeed in being set free from incarceration, it frequently does not take long for them to forget about God, return to their former self-destructive lifestyles, and return to jail. It takes patience and trust for a minister to confront the inmate with the fact that our human will is corrupt and continues to destroy our life and the lives of those we are called to care for. Those in jail have a difficult time controlling their impulses and admitting their will stinks and that they desperately need God as the only source of goodness and hope for a healthy, well-balanced life. It is a great leap of faith to go from self-reliance, despite the negative consequences, to acknowledgment of our total dependence on God for anything good.
Life goes on while an inmate is in jail, even if it feels like life is on hold. Death of a loved one is particularly difficult for those incarcerated. Feelings of numbness, guilt, despair and isolation are intensified. It takes a court order for an inmate to be able to view the body of the loved one, alone with a few officers. Sometimes an inmate feels like exploding and doesn't think about the consequences. Any little thing can set off a grieving inmate. Providing a safe place to express the full range of grief's emotions and feelings is a great release valve, often defusing a grieving inmate's emotional bomb and promoting healing and closure. The resurrection of Christ is the only news that brings comfort to such a grieving soul.
Many who go to jail will go on to prison. Some have been there before. It is easy to think that life has lost its value. A despairing inmate may ponder, ‘What am I living for?' The story of Joseph in Genesis is a helpful reminder that God's promises are good wherever life takes us. An inmate once told me: "The past is over. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” I encourage the inmates I serve to stay in God's word and His promises for them.
For those being released from incarceration, there is a fear of falling back into addiction and destructive relationships. Common thoughts of these individuals might include: ‘With my criminal record, who will hire me? My old friends are there to help me make a quick buck selling drugs and stealing.' Ministers can point inmates to healthy, helpful resources to find work and to meet other needs for themselves and their families. Those ministering to incarcerated individuals can invite them to church, where they can join Christ's family and begin to experience a healthy sense of belonging in their local faith community.
We hope that this article has been helpful to you and answered a few of the questions that you may have had. We wish we could say that we've done more than scratched the tip of the iceberg that is jail chaplaincy. This is just a taste. In order to really understand what it's like, you have to walk the halls, feel the tension, and see tears of hardened men and women soak the floor of your office. It's definitely not for everyone, but we can't see ourselves doing anything else. To God be the glory; who gives peace to broken, direction to the lost, and hope to the hopeless. Amen.