The church behind bars in prisons and jails is alive and well. In a place that most people wouldn’t expect to find humble, faithful servants, there are a surprising number. These are men and women who have hit rock bottom and were saved when they looked up and found God. But they can’t grow and live without community. Lone ranger Christians don’t last long in the hostile environment of incarceration.
Outside ministries provide essential assistance in cultivating and growing disciples in the church behind bars, everything from preaching on Sunday mornings, leading addiction groups like Celebrate Recovery, teaching life skill or spiritual development classes, to Bible studies. The church behind bars benefits from the diversity of religious perspectives brought by the various denominations and independent churches represented. In fact, the demand for professionals and volunteers to go inside exceeds the available pool of individuals.
Responding to the call to minister to those in prison is part of the call that all Christians receive and for which we will be judged by God (Matthew 25:34-40). For those that step forward in faith and enter prison ministry, not only will they have eternal rewards but also blessings from interacting with fellow Christians in the most unlikely places.
For myself I had the privilege of interacting with dozens of people who came to preach, teach, sing, pray, and encourage me and my brothers. They treated me as a human, not a convict; as a fellow Christian, not an outcast; as worthy of redemption, not deserving of condemnation; as a child of God, not the spawn of Satan. They uplifted, edified, encouraged, challenged, and educated me in my Christian walk.
In the overcrowded yet lonely confines of prison I looked forward with great anticipation for the weekly callouts to the Sunday Worship Service, Tuesday night Bible Study, Spiritual Development classes, and Keryx. It wasn’t just something to do in a vast wasteland of monotony. It was an opportunity to chew on spiritual meat, to sharpen iron, and to be renewed in my inner being. All of this was only possible because of the dedication of faithful, Spirit-filled, gifted pastors and laymen; retirees and businessmen. These were missionaries, clergy, and volunteers from all walks of life who have given up much to bring light into darkness, hope to the hopeless, wisdom to the foolish, and the love of God to the least of these.
Saying thank you somehow seems inadequate for these superheroes of the faith. The English language doesn’t contain enough words of admiration to express what these men and women of God mean to me. I can speak of the miracles that have occurred; the lives changed; the tears cried and dried; the power of prayers spoken, and the answers received; and the peace of God imparted, and only scratch the surface of the impact that they have had on my life.
But try to tell them and their humility immediately redirects any praise to God. Certainly, gratitude warms their hearts and expressions of appreciation encourage them to come back again and again. While it was strictly against the rules, I wanted to hug these saints. God used these ministers to prepare me for my own ministry. To place in me the desire to step out of my comfort zone and see the world through Jesus eyes. To speak Truth without cast stones. To be an encourager of the brethren. To write what the Holy Spirit gives me and not one word more.
My heartfelt gratitude, admiration, and loves goes out to these ministers of the Gospel. While we may not cross paths again in this life, I look forward to seeing you again in heaven.
The expression was popularized by US President Harry S Truman to tell someone that if they cannot deal with a difficult situation, they should leave that situation. Somewhat insulting, it implies that the person addressed cannot tolerate pressure and that they should leave others to deal with it rather than complaining.
While on parole I worked in a commercial kitchen. I started out as a dishwasher and moved up to be a prep cook. I can tell you that the kitchen is an extremely hot place to work, especially in the summer. Hot stoves, ovens, deep fryers, and dishwashers coupled with limited staffing, space & time, and combined with high output workloads during meal service creates an incredibly stressful situation that few people can thrive in. At times it felt like it was an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay berating young inexperienced cooks competing for an opportunity to work in one of his restaurants. High pressure and high stakes, no room for error and no tolerance for the smallest infraction of the rules. Either you learn the most efficient and food-safe method of completing your tasks or risk falling behind and poisoning someone. There were days when I didn’t think I was going to make it, but every day I kept showing up and gradually I got stronger, smarter, and wiser. Unfortunately, working in a commercial kitchen doesn’t pay very well, the hours can be somewhat erratic, and holidays tend to be worked and not celebrate. I look back on my time in the kitchen and appreciate the things I learned that made me a better cook at home. I miss some of my coworkers and how well I ate. I don’t miss the heat, the stress, or the hours.
As I write this article, we are amid a week of 90-degree days and I’m thankful for air conditioning, ice cubes and shade that keeps me calm, cool, and collected. However, most prison housing units in America don’t have air conditioning or even adequate ventilation. The driving factor in prison design is control, not comfort. In some places millage’s to build new jails specifically stated that air conditioning was not included as a way of gaining votes from people who think that inmates don’t deserve it. There is a mentality that says that if some people in the general public can’t afford air conditioning then prisoners don’t deserve this luxury.
True the electrical expense associated with cooling large buildings can be expensive, but this way of thinking fails to see the whole picture. To prevent being an easy means of escape many windows in correctional facilities don’t open and the ones that do are either too small to allow an average sized inmate from climbing thru or have some type of grated cover on the outside. This significantly limits the access to fresh air inside or the ability to create cross ventilation or breezes. Some places compensate by adding commercial sized exhaust fans, ceiling fans, or personal fans to create any air movement. But by and large these in my experience had little effect in hot weather. In the Level I pole barns where I stayed the exhaust fans created such a significant amount of negative pressure that it required a lot of effort to open the exit door, even when all the windows in the unit were open.
Iowa inmates endure summer heat as lawmakers put off prison repairs
The primary construction materials for prisons are brick and steel. These tend to absorb and retain heat in the summer adding to the building heat load. Many prison buildings are over 35 years old, have poor insulation and lack thermal pane windows. I have written previously about how cold it got in my county jail cell with not just frost but ice forming on the inside of the window. Given their inability to heat the cells in the winter in the medical wing, how could they possibly cool them in the summer? Quarantine in the MDOC utilizes part of the old walled Jackson prison complex. Those housing units have 4 galleries of cells facing large windows many with broken or missing panes that let in plenty of light, bugs, weather, etc. They also do little to regulate the heat or cold since they are made of individually glazed divided light single pane glass which comprise roughly 50 percent of the exterior wall.
In many parts of the country including Michigan, climate change has resulted in longer hotter summers that were not a consideration when many prison buildings were designed. I recently read the account of a man who spent nearly 35 years in a north Texas prison. He recalls how during the winter there was occasionally snow on the surrounding fields and that summer had relatively few days where the temperatures went above 90 degrees. However, over time the winters got warmer and the summer heat lasted much longer. The change in weather resulting in unbearable living conditions. In fact, there have been several lawsuits brought against various states and the federal prison system claiming that the lack of air conditioning is cruel and unusual punishment.
Inmates who are elderly, have medical conditions or take medication that place them at elevated risk for heat related illness are particularly likely to have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to building temperatures that can remain 10-15 degrees higher than the nighttime low. The thermometer in one of my housing units would still be in the upper 80s at 11PM on summer nights after the daytime temperature soared into the 90s. It could stay like this for several weeks at a time during July and August. Like most lawsuits brought by inmates they have a difficult time prevailing in the courts and when they do the gains are either short lived when overturned on appeal or simply ignored by the prison administrators without some form of judicial oversight. An aging prison population with a disproportionate number of inmates with chronic health conditions was also never factored into the building design.
How Global Warming Makes Overcrowded Prisons Even More Dangerous
Even as evidence of climate change mounts, little is done to address the problem except when the corrections officer’s union gets involved because it’s not just the inmates that contend with the heat but anyone who has to work in buildings without the benefit of air conditioning. In Michigan prisons the administration, school, medical buildings, and the chow hall generally had air conditioning. It was the housing units that were unconditioned, except for the housing unit counselor’s office. One of the perks of my job as a tutor was spending seven hours a day in the school, where it was relatively cool. I dreaded going back to the housing unit to endure the stifling hot air that left the aftertaste of BO in your mouth.
It was difficult to imagine that due to the efforts of the Humane Society, dog pounds and many livestock barns are air conditioned while prisons are not. I’m all for treating animals humanely but the very term involves the concept of treating other species in ways that we would treat people. Yet the concept of humane treatment for prisoners doesn’t rise to that same level. I wonder if the Humane Society realizes that all the Leader Dog for the Blind and Service Dog training programs that are being run in prisons expose the dogs to inhumane living conditions. Also, there is irony in that prisons are a great place to socialize dogs but do little to socialize the inmates.
In many communities there are cooling centers set up to accommodate people who don’t have access to air conditioning during heat waves. Libraries and community centers welcome people to come in and cool off. In prisons there are also cooling centers of a sort. Places like the chow hall are opened to those who have a potential to suffer from heat related illness to go and cool off. This is only during times when the chow hall isn’t serving food and the inmates aren’t allowed to bring anything with them to occupy their time. No playing cards or books, they can only sit quietly at the tables. They are not free to come and go but must remain there until dismissed back to their housing units. During the current Covid-19 pandemic many prisons aren’t running regular chow hall schedules to accommodate a limited form of social distancing, so using them as cooling centers may not be an option this year. I’m not certain but using the visiting room might be an option at some facilities since visits are currently banned.
I have written previously about the relationship between the hot summer months and the increase in violence and suicides. Hot weather brings out the worst in people and when the worst of the worst are forced to live in hot cramped living conditions things only get ugly. You’d think from a security perspective the administration would want to keep the violence to a minimum and reduce the number of suicide attempts, however it doesn’t appear that this type of rational thinking applies.
Hot and bothered: Experts say violent crime rises with the heat
It ultimately boils down to how inmates are viewed by not just corrections staff, but by the governor, legislature, and the general public. Are inmates to be considered as people with certain human rights that the rest of society takes for granted or are, they somehow disqualified by virtue of their behavior which was deemed as inappropriate? There seems be a dichotomy where inmates are expected to rehabilitate themselves, yet they are treated as being unredeemable. We sentence people to serve time for their crimes in places that are as dystopian as Mad Max’s Thunderdome and then expect them to reintegrate back into society after their release.
Summer Heat Kills Inmates in Prisons, and That Needs to Change
When inmates who are not serving life sentences die in prison, it is common to say that they weren’t given life sentences and shouldn’t have had to die there, which is ridiculously obvious. But the system as it is currently operated doesn’t allow for different standards for inmate care based on their sentences. Medical care is like that of third world countries where there are many needless deaths and pointless suffering. In Michigan for example there is no early release program to reward prisoners for good behavior due to the Truth in Sentencing provisions of the Michigan constitution. Compassionate release programs also don’t have much compassion since most who apply are denied or the considerations are so deliberately slow that the petitioner dies while waiting for an answer. Much of this boils down to a lack of political will, indifference, and outright animosity toward those assigned to their care. So why should something like air conditioning receive any consideration? Because when you can’t get out of the kitchen there isn’t another option.
I first started to write this post in late June/early July when the summer heat was at its worst and the USA was just starting to venture outdoors after a prolonged period of quarantine. My job had just called me back to work and I went from having too much time on my hands to working seven days a week. In fact, my company had placed me into a machine shop where the indoor temperature was routinely in the mid to upper 90s. While it was hot and uncomfortable at work, when I got into my car to go home, I could turn on the air conditioning. It reminded me of how hot and uncomfortable it can get in prison and that for those incarcerated there is no break from the heat. Now that it’s almost spring it may seem out of place, but it is still truth and is something worth blogging about since it will repeat itself in a few months.
This blog is an example of how I could feel that what I had to say might not be all that important at the time that I was writing it. The first outbreaks of Coronavirus that triggered lockdowns in the spring seemed to be easing but by the time I was ready to post this essay cases were on the rise and only accelerated into the fall and winter. I was stunned as I watched infection rates and deaths spiral out of control. Prisons and jails were locked down and conditions only got worse for those trapped inside. It felt trivial and insignificant to write about the heat, but I am certain in the context of the pandemic that the summer heat did add to the misery index.
“When Job’s three friends heard about all the trouble that had come upon him, they met together and agreed to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”
As the pandemic unfolded it became apparent that jails and prisons were going to face a horrific situation. Visits and programs were suspended, activities canceled, routines were upended, and lives changed forever. Many individuals were getting sick and dying alone as prison officials were either unwilling or unable to respond to the humanitarian crisis as the conditions worsened and suffering increased exponentially. As I watched the news, scoured the internet, and talked with others involved in prison ministry I struggled to put into words my frustration, sorrow and ultimately grief at what I saw happening in prison. I became like Job’s friends, as all I could do was sit silently in solidarity with my brothers and sisters behind bars.
For ten months I have been unable to write. My prison experience was now so far removed from what the current conditions are like that it was almost as if my experience couldn’t possibly provide useful insight. My words of encouragement while needed now more than ever couldn’t begin to empathize only sympathize with the plight of those incarcerated. My desire to write dried up to some extent and instead I found myself engaging in prayer taking my complaints directly to the throne of the Almighty. While I believe in the power of prayer, I’m not so sure about the effect of complaining. To my understanding God is inscrutable, as His ways are not our ways. My belief is that as Christians we are called to have faith that all things work to the good of those who love Him. Asking “Why” is not the question we as Christians should be focusing on but rather seeking discernment about what our role is in bring healing to a hurting world.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 famously says in verse 1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” The writer goes on to list the activities contrasted with one another which do not frequently occur together including: “A time to be silent and a time to speak.” I believe that my ability and desire to write are a spiritual gift from God and that the silence I have experienced wasn’t because I didn’t have anything else left to say about Christ, Crime and Punishment, but rather a time for me to mourn, to monitor, and to meditate. The Lord has seen fit to once again open my mouth and I will faithfully trust that my words will honor Him, raise awareness of the plight of those who are incarcerated, and motivate others to likewise demand more from our leaders to address this humanitarian crisis.
As of March 2, there have been at least 386,765 cases of Covid-19 and 2,459 deaths reported among prisoners in federal and state prisons nationwide according to The Marshall Project in collaboration with the Associated Press. There have been at least 25,277 cases and 138 deaths from the corona virus reported among prisoners in Michigan. In the state of Michigan 2 out of 3 prisoners have tested positive, which is 10.2 times the rate in Michigan overall. Michigan was one of the first states to begin testing in prisons and there have been at least 713,430 total tests conducted for prisoners and staff according to the MDOC website. Reporting and testing requirements vary significantly among the prison systems, however it is still clear that infection and mortality rates are much higher than in the general population.
Jails and prisons like other high density housing situations including nursing homes have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Highly contagious diseases have always been a problem. Tuberculosis, norovirus, influenza, and the common cold virus rapidly spread when introduced into confined populations. What is different about COVID is that there were initially no effective treatments and the routine cleaning and disinfectants used in prisons did not work. In prison there are always tradeoffs- facility security and safety versus efficacious chemical use. The best disinfectant available for use in prison is bleach in a dilute form. Unfortunately alcohol that is at least of 70% concentration is the best agent for sanitizing and this is strictly forbidden in prison, therefor no hand sanitizer. Like in the general public it took several months for masks to catch on as a way of reducing transmission. Prisons which use inmates to make garments began to make masks for both the staff and inmates to wear.
There have been many calls for the humanitarian release of non-violent offenders and particularly those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greatest risk. Some states and the federal Bureau of Prisons did make some attempts to grant early and companionate release, while others like Michigan could not. Reducing over-crowding was also accomplished by prisons refusing to accept inmate transfers while at the same time paroling those who have been granted parole. Sick wards were established to quarantine those who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus. Unfortunately these and many other efforts failed to prevent COVID from burning through prison populations like a western wildfire through dry grass.
While a lot has gone wrong with the pandemic response, a few things have changed hopefully for the better. There will be finger pointing, data evaluation and legislation purposed for some years regarding the correctional systems response. There will be second guessing, arm-chair quarterbacking, and persistent questions of responsibility and accountability for how those in positions of authority managed and cared for those in their care. Job’s friends ended their silence and began to speak after Job gave his assessment of the situation. They made many unfounded, unfair, and unhelpful accusations and turned from supporting their friend. Sometimes it is better to remain silent and to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I’m going to let the future judge how we as a country handled the pandemic and specifically how prisons did. Pray for those who are incarcerated.
After 15 months of reporting on Covid-19 infection rates in prison the Marshall Project and the Associated Press ended their weekly update because the states and federal prison systems have stopped consistently reporting the data. As of July 1 the count of Covid-19 infections stands at 398,627. That total is a significant undercount. In the early months of the pandemic, testing was inconsistent in many prisons, leading to cases going undiagnosed. Reported cases first peaked in April 2020, when states such as Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee began mass testing of prisoners. Though later waves of the pandemic led to far higher numbers of cases, those initiatives suggested that the coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known. Nationwide there were 2,715 deaths related to coronavirus reported among prisoners through June 2021. In Michigan 2 in 3 prisoners have tested positive, this is 7.0 times the rate in Michigan overall. 1 in 271prisoners has died which is 1.8 times the rate in Michigan overall. By the end of June, more than 54% of prisoners nationwide had received at least one dose of the vaccine. In Michigan 3 in 5 prisoners has been fully vaccinated and 1 in 3 prisoners has been at least partially vaccinated.
While visiting rooms and programming slowly start back up there have been significant changes. For instant the new rules for visitation make it very difficult for families to have meaning times together. Rapid Covid-19 testing and masks used to reduce the chances of transmission haven’t been successful in eliminating outbreaks associated with visits. A difficult to use on-line reservation system to schedule a limited number of visits during the available times which are limited to 2 hours have made arranging visits harder. Plexiglass barriers separate people and vending machines are not available. Video visits have been slow to roll out and are still not available at every prison. I recently spoke with a family that has had a in-person visit with their loved one and they concluded that regular phone calls were better than what they had to go through to be there in person.
Prison ministries and volunteers report that there isn’t a concrete plan in place to restart programs. In some prisons religious services have begun while in other prisons the chow halls are still closed. One concern expressed by the prison ministries is that after being out of the prisons for 15 months they have no idea how many volunteers will be able to enter. Early information indicates that the MDOC will be requiring that all volunteers must be fully vaccinated. This is something that they can’t even mandate for their own staff. It is also unknown if inmates who previously attended will return once programming is available. MDOC rules have prohibited outside volunteers from communicating directly with their program participants to maintain relationships.
As the pandemic eases and life returns to the “new” normal it is unclear whether the MDOC or any other correctional system has learned anything that will change the outcome of future infectious disease outbreaks. The return to secrecy instead of transparency so quickly in the reporting of Covid-19 infections doesn’t bode well for the future.