Is The Door Closing?
By Don Smarto
For many years, I heard prison ministry leaders talk at conferences
about the "open door in prison ministry". That was back
in the 1980's. They were right. The open door was an unprecedented
accessibility of faith based programs into the prisons, jails,
and juvenile facilities of America.
There were several reasons. Many wardens and superintendents
were Christians and bold about their faith. As an example, Norm
Carlson the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons would welcome
Charles Colson and ex-offenders into his Washington, DC office
with discussions about the role of faith in regeneration. Chaplains
were often strong evangelicals like Harry Howard of San Quentin,
Manny Craig of Leavenworth, Al Worthly of Springfield, and Emmett
Solomon of the Texas Department of Corrections.
In the 19th Century, the Pennsylvania Prison System adopted principles
from the Quakers. Reflection was seen as a key factor in rehabilitation.
Go back 130 years and you will discover that most wardens in
America carried a Bible and shared their faith openly. Read the
proceedings of the National Prison Congress and you will discover
so called "secular" officials talking about Jesus Christ
as the key to rehabilitation. I personally own an original copy
of the 1886 proceedings. Clearly no one hid their faith. These
officials (Rutherford B. Hayes was the Prison Congress President,
after serving as President of the United States) That organization
was the forerunner of the American Correctional Association. A
lot has changed since then.
You and I know the word "rehabilitation" is seldom
used today. Paid chaplains are declining and most juvenile facilities
have "volunteer coordinators". Most are good people,
but their first interest is security and screening, usually not
the quality of religious programs.
Many would not know how to evaluate a good religious program
because they lack any seminary training, degrees in theology,
or pastoral experience. Many are good people but do not take marching
orders from the Lord.
Because many states take volunteer chaplains, often warm bodies
without clinical pastoral education, we witness some who teach
"universalism" which says "All Roads Lead to Heaven".
I do not agree. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, The Qu'ran, The
Vedas, The Talmud, and The Tao-te-ching are not the same and do
not all contain truth. Non-Christian religions cannot lead to
salvation. Intolerant, you say? Too narrow, you protest? Well,
Jesus said in John 14:6 "I am the Way, the Truth, and the
Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
It is time for Christians to stand up for their beliefs! Is that
intolerant? Well, I answer, truth is narrow. It says in Matthew
7:13,14 "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads
to Life and only a few find it."
I believe in mutual respect. I believe we should practice tolerance.
I welcome Muslim religious leaders in prison. I will defend the
right of a Wiccan to preach about Satan, or a Scientologist to
put Ron L. Hubbard on a lofty pedestal in a prison cellblock or
yard. That's because I believe in the First Amendment of the United
States Constitution which protects religious freedom and freedom
Our Christian rights are being eroded. Surely you have noticed.
Many cannot pray in public buildings, no religious gifts are allowed
at Christmas in most public schools, Gospel songs have been banned
in many senior citizen centers, states want to exercise control
over curriculum in seminaries, and many new churches are banned
from strip malls and areas of commerce.
Why would anyone not think the penal system is affected? It is
and the blocking of faith based groups is growing. Let me give
some example from Youth Direct Ministries' ten years in 250 juvenile
facilities in 15 states.
In one state, a felony as old as ten years restricts volunteers.
That includes some of our best speakers who are ex-offenders and
have so much to say to prisoners. In another state, a five year
old misdemeanor keeps volunteers out. That can be a speeding ticket.
Crossroads, an excellent Bible correspondence course was recently
rejected by a prison system. Some prisons have gone as far as
dictating the content of the message. They want "fun &
uplifting" sermons. I guess that excludes "the wages
of sin are death" or mentioning hell and eternal damnation.
Did the First Century Disciples water down the Gospel? Of course,
not, even to the point of martyrdom. You cannot compromise the
message of Christ. It brings hope. It brings true freedom. It
also brings a cross, trials, testing and tribulation.
Only the pleasures of the world are exclusively fun. And that
is called sin. "Sin" is not a politically correct word
in many circles. Just watch MSNBC or CNN and see if you ever hear
the word "sin". You will not. "Evil" is as
close as they come and the television guest is always a forensic
psychologist. Crime is simply bad human behavior. In fact, most
juvenile "prisons" use behavior modification and resocialization
as their chief form of therapy. Is it working? Well, what does
73% - 85% recidivism tell you?
We in ministry know that spiritual growth and faith in Jesus
is essential for criminals to turn away from crime, addicts to
turn away from drugs, and predators to turn away from pornography.
Programs are useful but failure rates in drug programs are 80%
and higher, so something more is clearly needed.
Faith is not simply a quick sinner's prayer. It includes growth
through Bible studies, daily prayer and Bible reading, a spiritual
mentor, and a good church after release from prison.
After thirty years in prison ministry, I'm not surprised the
door is closing. I am concerned that many brothers and sisters
are accepting unreasonable restrictions, rolling over, and letting
their constitutional rights be taken away.
Here is another example. Our ministry brings a quality program
to a facility. About thirty minutes before the program begins,
some staff put on an entertaining video for the youth or start
a basketball game. Then ten minutes before our program, they the
stop the game or the video and say "There's a religious group
in the chapel that want to preach at you. Do you want to go?"
Yes, the youth have a choice but I call that planned discrimination.
If staff show no motivation and do not even encourage youth to
turn down the television when our volunteers try to share their
faith in the dorm day room, what is to be expected? At some programs,
the staff radios are so loud, they interrupt speakers. In psychology
that is called "passive-aggressive".
If you have been in prison ministry for a few years, you know
the "slow walk". The inmates are not brought on time
to a Bible study. Volunteers cannot get through security because
of searches, book and case examinations that take an excessively
long time. "Security" is the catch phrase for everything
a prison or administration does not want to do. How can you argue
with security in a prison?
The question becomes, do they interpret their rules & regulations
for religious volunteers in the strictest and most narrow terms
or the widest and most broad interpretation? So far, the courts
have said that religious freedom must be broad.
From the point of view of the correctional facility, the major
reason to restrict religious programs has been maintaining the
security and order of the prison. It may be true that an inmate
wearing a cross is a problem if he uses it as a weapon. But have
you ever viewed homemade weapons confiscated from prisoners? They
often use metal bed parts. It is true a prisoner can hit an officer
with a Bible, but prisoners can also use much heavier books in
the prison law library. If religious literature is a "security
risk", then a much greater risk are the hands and fists of
Studies by sociologists like Dr. Harry Dammer have demonstrated
that religious programs in prison "reduce verbal and physical
altercations" and increase the stability of the prisoner
In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates have the
right to freedom of religion.
In 1993, Congress passed (unanimous in the House and 97 - 3 in
the Senate) the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In essence,
federal and state government was required to accommodate religion.
The law reinstated the Sherbert Test (1963) to eliminate a substantial
burden on a person's right to religious freedom.The Supreme Court
in 1997 said Congress could not impose regulations on states but
it stayed in force for the Federal Government. For ten years,
this standard has applied to correctional facilities who must
"prove religious practices are a threat to safety and order."
Ultimately, this is about spiritual war. Our enemy is not flesh
and blood. The evil one does not want prisoners to put their faith
in Jesus. It is as simple as that.
Can the system be used as the Devil's tool? Absolutely. Keep
in mind; from Prison Fellowship and Operation Starting Line to
any mom & pop jail ministry, we are one Supreme Court decision
away from losing our "right" to proclaim the Gospel
What can we do? 1) Do not feel helpless, 2) Pray for Christian
administrators, 3) Pray for Christian staff and Correctional Officers,
4) Support Godly Chaplains, 5) Make friends with a state legislator,
6) Do not be apologetic about your faith.
Let's be bold followers of Christ. If a prisoner wants prayer,
pray for him right then. If a Bible is requested, send him or
her a Bible and be sure it is delivered.
Demand time for Bible studies. If AA and NA and other programs
get time, so should we. If you tutor, tutor. You don't have to
preach to prove you are a Christian. Prisoners should see Christ
And when it comes to religious services and faith based programs,
you are the authority on what is needed and how much time is required,
not the volunteer coordinator. Their job is to help you facilitate
what you need for the fulfillment of the prisoner's religious
Some facilities will not allow baptism (for security reasons)
or visiting isolation. I don't agree with not letting youth come
to faith programs because of "bad behavior" that week.
It should not be a punishment. The youth who is acting out, or
disruptive, or angry are exactly the kids I want to reach for
Christ. He is exactly the prisoner who needs hope. Look behind
the anger and there is usually a reason for it. Perhaps no family
members come to visit, his father abandoned him, he is put down
by staff, or he is bullied by others. Whatever the reason, I want
him to attend a faith program. Security risk? I'll take that risk
to reach him with the Gospel. I have never seen a prison ministry
volunteer attacked or injured in thirty years. Can it happen?
Of course, but why do missionaries go to third world countries?
Is not the Great Commission for Jerusalem, too? With or without
risk, we are called to be faithful.
Christ is returning. Tribulation may be coming soon. The doors
of prison ministry may be closing, so put on the full armor of
God. Do not weary in the face of opposition. Proclaim the Gospel
to captives with boldness and let God take care of your enemies!