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Is There Really a Shortage of Bibles in Prison?

Prison Fellowship Says Yes. Others…Not So Much.

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The message is compelling, even heartbreaking: “Bibles are desperately needed in America’s prisons.”

Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

That’s the opening line in a recent fundraising appeal from Prison Fellowship Ministries, the nation’s largest prison ministry.

The letter goes on to say, “Every gift you give will put Bibles and Christian content into the hands of a waiting prisoner.”

The only problem with this message: the need for Bibles doesn’t seem to be as acute as this urgent fundraising appeal makes it seem.

Stephen Wilson is Pastor of Prison Ministries for Gateway Church in Southlake, Tex. He told MinistryWatch, “In Texas prisons we are not seeing a shortage. In the prisons where we serve, they have closets full of Bibles. Our prisons are asking us not to send any more Bibles.”

Texas and California have more people in jails and prisons than any other states.

Cary Sanders is the CEO of Jumpstart SC. He told MinistryWatch, “Our team serves prisoners in South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and North Carolina” and he said he does want to see more “study bibles” in the hands of prisoners. But he said the biggest need in prisons now is not a shortage of materials, including Bibles. “The biggest discipleship needs in prison are relational,” he said. “Too many organizations primarily focus on evangelism or ‘talking at’ those incarcerated.”

Evelyn Lemly is CEO of Kairos Prison Ministries International. She said the availability of Bibles varies by location, but Kairos operates in 37 states and Lemly said “we have what we need.”

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“The biggest need is not Bibles, but people,” she said. “Prison ministry is a relational ministry. We need volunteers with a willingness to serve.”

John Byrne with Crossroads Prison Ministries said his ministry has an “ample supply” of Bibles for the 28,000 people going through its program. “It’s hard to imagine that a chaplain couldn’t get a Bible,” he said. “I have worked in prisons for 22 years and I have never seen a shortage.”

In an email to MinistryWatch, Prison Fellowship’s Jim Forbes wrote, “Prior to 2019, Prison Fellowship distributed an average of 5,000-6,000 Bibles annually. Since then, we have sent an average of more than 250,000 Bibles each year.” That means that since 2019, Prison Fellowship has distributed more than 1 million Bibles in prisons. About 2 million people are currently incarcerated in American jails and prisons.

Forbes added, “This dramatic increase in requests for Bibles continues today, which is why we continue to regularly fundraise to provide the Word of God and other Christian content to those in prison.”

This fundraising strategy seems to be working. Prison Fellowship’s income has gone up more than 50% since 2019. Its revenue in 2022 was about $61 million. Its net assets increased at an even greater rate, from $14.5 million in 2019 to $23.9 million by the end of 2022.

But the fundraising strategy also has a huge price tag. In 2022, Prison Fellowship spent $14.7 million on fundraising. That represented 25% of its total expenses. Ministries in its peer group spent about 5% on fundraising.

Editor’s Note:  Steve Rabey contributed to this article.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.