When Jesus Goes to Prison
How the grace of God is at work behind bars.
Christians who preach about Jesus Christ in prisons point out that Jesus told us to care about these “least.”
“Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” (Matthew 24:40). He was also specific: “For I was … in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35, 36). Thus, visiting prisoners is a corporal work of mercy.
According to Evelyn Lemly, CEO of Kairos Prison Ministry International, Jesus can transform the lives of prisoners, and that also makes the world a safer place, by reducing recidivism. The interdenominational program started in 1976 when nine men, after attending a Cursillo retreat, became fired up to take the Gospel into prisons. They named their outreach Kairos, which is Greek for “God’s Special Time.” They serve incarcerated men, women and youth in 400 correctional institutions in 37 states and nine countries through a staff of 12 and 30,000 volunteers.
“We start with a three-day retreat, twice a year, and do continuing ministry in between — ideally, once a week — to help them stay on the journey,” Lemly explained. “We teach them how to pray and to hold themselves and each other accountable, living it every day.” She pointed to a study by the South Carolina Department of Corrections, which reported: “In looking at a five-year average (2011-2015) the Kairos recidivism rate was 13.9% versus the state recidivism of 25.1%. For a 10-year average, (2006-2015), the Kairos rate was 17.4% versus the state rate of 29%.”
During the recent shutdowns, while Kairos has been unable to enter prisons, Lemly hoped that prisoners dedicated to Christ would continue to spread the message of love, mercy and transformation to each other.
Prisoner Pen Pals
These prisoners are also getting some help from “outside.”
Rebecca Lengenfelder from Bismarck, North Dakota, supports prisoners who have attended a Kairos retreat by letter-writing. Her grandmother wrote to prisoners in a Texas prison for 10 years, beginning when one of her own sons (Lengenfelder’s uncle) was sent there on drug charges. Lengenfelder took over these correspondences in 2017, after her grandmother died. She sends a letter before the retreat, a monthly newsletter, personal cards at Christmas and Easter and birthdays, and responds to anyone who writes back.
Sometimes Lengenfelder sends books. Favorites are The Shadow of His Wings and booklets from Peter Herbeck. “I average about 145 people a year,” she said. “One guy had not had mail in 30 years. They are in other programs but express that staying close to God helps them to heal. And they help me to grow in my faith.”
Past experiences in prison ministry highlight the current need for continual outreach to the incarcerated. Retired priest Father Richard Wise, 72, from Fort Oglethorp, Georgia, has been a priest for 39 years and was a religious brother for 11. He began ministering to prisoners in 1972 at juvenile detention centers and has worked in three prisons. Due to his age, he is prevented from entering the prison, where he would be able to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and anoint the sick, in the time of COVID-19.
Father Wise worked on death row for seven years and prepared five prisoners for execution. “They were afraid but were at peace with God,” he said. “I talked with them about heaven and helped them to repent of their sinfulness. I assured them of God’s mercy. We also prayed for their victims. One guy, I went to see the day before his execution. He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Father, thank you for preparing me to see Jesus.’ He was in his early 30s and had been in his late teens or early 20s when he committed a murder. Our job is to provide the sacraments, not to judge. God does the judging.”
Father Wise’s own childhood laid the groundwork for prison ministry. His father took him and his brother for haircuts on Saturday mornings from Grandpa in an Indiana state prison. After his grandfather was released, Father Wise visited him at his home and sometimes heard him praying the Rosary from his bedroom.
Prisoners initially hostile toward religion sometimes come around, according to Father Wise. “I have seen guys who wanted nothing to do with me or religion and they would start taking with inmates who were coming to Mass,” he said. “[In 2019] I baptized and confirmed 13 men in prison, because of God’s grace, because of what they saw going on in the life of other inmates.”
Since COVID prevents him from entering the prison, Father Wise has been recording Mass. It is delivered to a Catholic inmate who watches it with others. “I have received correspondence about how much they appreciate that someone on the outside is still caring for their spiritual needs,” Father Wise said. One card had about 30 signatures on it.
The prison may still not be open for Easter this year, but inmates are using RCIA materials to help two other prisons prepare to be baptized into the Church as soon as it will be possible. This past Advent, a prisoner who had earlier prepared to enter the Church with Father Wise was released after serving his time.
“He called and still wanted to come into the Church,” Father Wise explained. “One Saturday evening at the parish Mass, I announced he had been an inmate and wanted to come into the Church but was nervous about how he would be received. Everyone stood up and applauded. He was baptized, confirmed and received Communion. It’s nice to know that God’s grace is still working.”
Christian Employees Minister
Even those who work for prison systems around the country find an opportunity for outreach. James Fisher (not his real name) was a correctional officer for more than 22 years, including 17 at a maximum-security prison in Carson City, Nevada. Most were murderers. Nonetheless, he said he witnessed some true conversions during that time.
“An example was a man who had been in prison around 25 years,” he told the Register. “He was 40 and was in for a murder from when he was 15 or 16. He became a Christian in prison. People called him ‘the mayor.’ He was always organizing things for the good. Some people fake it, hoping to get parole, but he was genuine.” The man was eventually given a pardon by the governor.
A man he prayed with on death row, Baal, had murdered a woman while stealing her purse. “I heard you were a Christian,” he said to Fisher. “I want to talk to you about my soul.”
Fisher explained: “He asked, ‘Do you think God will forgive me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ So we prayed, and when we were done, he said he felt like God forgave him. He was executed that evening.”
Dr. Bryon Herbol, a retired psychiatrist and also a Catholic, worked 25 years as a forensic and correctional psychiatrist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in North Carolina. According to him, research shows that people with mental disorders do better when they have faith. “In prison, my role was helping people to understand suffering,” he said. “Religion helped them to cope.”
He was prohibited from promoting specific religious beliefs but incorporated spirituality by asking people: “What is your background? What does your faith say about suffering?” One prisoner raised in an alcoholic family and trained to steal by his father told Herbol, “I don’t understand why my life is so horrible.” Herbol pointed him to Chapter 7 of Romans, where St. Paul admitted he was doing the things he did not want to do. “He was uplifted by that,” Herbol said.
Free at Last
The prisoners who have experienced the grace of God through these opportunities for outreach have perhaps the most profound testimonies when it comes to the value of prison ministry. Eric Loh, a graduate of a Catholic high school, was sentenced to a North Dakotan prison for 20 years after his third drug offense. Just before serving time, a car crash that should have taken his life opened his eyes to God and transformed him. Yet prison still awaited. “I was so miserable,” Loh said. But while in prison, volunteers came to teach catechism class, and a group called Residents Encountering Christ put on weekend retreats.
“When I went into that room [for faith instruction], it was so peaceful,” he told the Register. “I learned so much, about Mary and incorruptible saints. … There was so much I was in the dark about.” Loh sponsored four people who became Catholic. His sentence was eventually reduced to nine years. He has been out for three years; and last December, the governor pardoned him, thereby expunging his record.