What's Involved in Becoming a Prison Ministry Volunteer


Rev. Ralph WardMinistry in the prison system in Illinois is one that is not seen as a viable ministry by many people.  You work with men and women who are convicted felons. I worked in the Illinois Department of Corrections for more than 20 years and my chapel programs were enhanced by volunteers.  They provided various types of programs for the inmate populations at John A. Graham Correction Center in Hillsboro and the Vandalia Correctional Center that I served.

We had Bible studies, prayer groups, A.A., N.A., and A.C.O.A groups, stress management, parenting classes, anger management, and choir.  Some of the work was done during the day and others met at night. One lady had a group that was called, Music and Art. The group read a hymn and then talked about what they heard. The hymn was sung and then they put their thoughts on paper by drawing a picture of how it made them feel. They would share with the group about their art and what it meant to them. Another volunteer taught a Bible study series similar to the Disciples Bible Study that The United Methodist Church uses. When they completed the course, the inmates would receive a certificate.
Other volunteers brought music through individuals or groups to share with the inmates in the chapel. We had various types of music that ranged from a Christmas program to a Christian Rock Group that would fill the gym with inmates. A church choir came once a quarter to present music that they had done in their congregations.  Worship services were also utilized to give extra service for the population. Volunteers also conducted religious retreats that were similar to The Walk to Emmaus.  It was one day shorter in length and did not conflict with other ongoing programs in the prison. These are just a few examples of volunteers programs that I have seen and used.
There are two types of volunteers in prison. One is considered as a full-time volunteer which conducts regularly scheduled programs, and the other type conducts a one-time event and must be escorted at all times when moving in the Center. Applications for both types can be received from the volunteer coordinator of the Correctional Center where you wish to provide services. I was the coordinator at both institutions where I worked, but other institutions have different persons doing this work.
You will need to contact the chaplain and talk to them about your desire to help out in their programs. You can share your gifts and skills to help people who are incarcerated.  They should ask you to send a description of your program and how this or these programs will enrich the lives of the inmates.
You will be required to go through a background check. The full-time volunteer requires fingerprints and a full check and part-time volunteers check is done with a LEADS (Law Enforcement Agency Systems Data System) check, which is using your Social Security number to do an instant background check. The full-time volunteer will be drug tested.  All volunteers will be required to do training in the procedures and policies of correctional personnel. Full-time volunteers are considered similar to that of employees in what they are required to do. Part-time volunteers will do training in only the procedures you will need to know while working in a Correctional Center.    
You will work with men and women who have had substance abuse problems. However, if God could use a murderer like Moses and Paul, who actively persecuted Christians, He can help these inmates who need His help.  Friends and family will worry and wonder about what you are doing.
You might hear, “I do not understand it.” If God gives you a nudge, listen and pray. Talk with your spouse if married, and other trusted Christians. Your minister could also be a sounding board. If it is a nudge from God, you will learn a lot about how God works through others.   You will also be blessed with your personal growth and faith in Christ Jesus. The most important thing is to listen to God, and follow His direction. If you believe you are to do this type of ministry, there is always a place for you to help the chaplains as they direct their ministry.
(Rev. Ralph Ward is a IGRC retired clergy member who was appointed to serve as chaplain at the Vandalia Correctional Center and the John A. Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro. He lives in retirement in Hillsboro.)