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Prison ministries shift focus to mail-in and digital content for inmates

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As the coronavirus pandemic lengthens and positive tests surge in some places, prison ministries have been racing to adapt in the face of continued restrictions. Many have turned to digital means to minister to those incarcerated in United States prisons.

Men and women in prison have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Overcrowding and close quarters make social distancing difficult. Mid-July saw an all-time high of positive cases among prisoners, according to research gathered by The Marshall Project. As of July 21, there were more than 70,000 reported cases of coronavirus among prisoners and more than 700 related deaths. Among prison workers, more than 15,000 have tested positive.

To reduce the risk of outbreaks, many states began locking down their facilities in March and April, banning gatherings and blocking visitors. The restrictions have forced prison ministries to find creative solutions to continue serving inmates, who now face the added emotional strain of increased isolation.

Jumpstart, a prison ministry in South Carolina, works with trained inmates across 16 prisons to lead a 40-week discipleship program with their peers. When volunteers were barred from entering in March, they switched to written letters to support the inmate leaders. The group’s executive director, Tommy Moore, told WORLD it’s not an ideal situation, but options are few.

“It is extremely difficult right now to communicate with inmates and assess what they’re feeling, how are they doing,” he said. “It’s just difficult.”

Most ministries have shifted focus to providing materials that staff and inmates can use inside. Prison Fellowship, founded by Chuck Colson, is facilitating the delivery of Bibles sent directly from the publisher. They also produce a quarterly publication for inmates with inspirational articles. “As events and other in-prison programs are canceled, this positive reading material will be more important than ever before,” their website says.

Prison Fellowship also pulled together Floodlight, a digital platform with content from Alpha, Celebrate Recovery and others, at the request of the California Department of Corrections, according to WORLD. Prison staff can download sermons, concerts, and other content to show on prison televisions.

Crossroads Prison Ministries relies heavily on the U.S. Postal Service to mail in Bible studies and Bibles. With mail rooms inside prisons still open, Crossroads’ Vice President of Programming, says they haven’t seen a decrease in their programs in U.S. prison since the pandemic. They also partnered with Daily Bread to send more than 20,000 devotionals.

“We’ve received lots of communications from our students saying thank you,” McGowen says. “They are grateful, hopeful, [and] they’re sharing with other inmates in the prisons.”

Yet, Crossroads has lost much of the volunteer force who used to have face-to-face interactions with inmates. To engage mentors, however, the ministry has set up video conference calls. “We’ve had a number of weekly virtual community gatherings and have engaged over 1,000 mentors in conversations, discussions, [and] lots of prayer,” McGowan said.

Instead of mail-in material, Church Unlimited and God Behind Bars have gone virtual. Where they used to hold nine meetings in four prisons with about 1,500 attendees each week, they’ve now partnered with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to send DVDs to more than 100 prisons, via WORLD.

Another prison ministry, Fourth Purpose, developed the initiative Visitation 2.0 to gather music and inspirational messages from Christian and secular voices, including Michael W. Smith, Rick Warren, Lacrae, actors David and Christina Arquette and Danny Trejo, rapper Common, and Elevation Worship.

The messages are being compiled into 40-minute episodes for inmates to watch inside more than 6,000 prisons and jails. They include short homemade videos from family members sending encouragement to their loved ones behind bars.    

Fourth Purpose Founder Josh Smith spent five years in prison for drug crimes before building a company that grew to more than $30 million in revenue. He sold that company to start Fourth Purpose and focus on prison ministry. “I know too well how hopeless prison can be.” He says he hopes these videos will “spread light into a place that’s very dark.”

Moore, with Prison Fellowship, told WORLD that changes sparked by the pandemic restrictions could bear good fruit for prison ministries, opening new conversations with churches. “One thing I’m seeing is the body of Christ really reaching out to us and saying, ‘How can we serve you?’”

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Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.