Opportunities Abound for Prison Ministry Both Inside and Outside the Facility


Chaplain Ron RichterI am a United Methodist chaplain with more than 25 years’ experience in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I was asked the question, “How can a congregation get involved in prison ministry?”

My first thought was that they may already be involved and not know it. Prison ministry is much more than going into a facility and teaching a Bible study. Re-entry programs are now looked upon as the most important part of reducing recidivism and crime in the community. If there is an AA or NA group that meets in the church, not only do they help members of the community maintain sobriety, these groups offer needed support to people returning to the community from jail or prison. Programs such as a food pantry, soup kitchen or cold weather shelter also provide services to people attempting to reenter society. 
Reentry models such as the SAFER reentry model in Chicago are showing a lot of promise. People returning to the community meet with a welcoming committee that includes members from law enforcement, parole and non-profit partners. The goal is to let this person reentering the community know of the expectations of the community and what resources are available to help him or her to become a law abiding citizen. 
The model of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) for high-risk sex offenders has proven to help make the community safer by reducing recidivism among repeat sexual offenders. You may contact your local parole office to see if these groups are in need of volunteers in your community.
When inmates prepare for release they want a job, housing, transportation, and to be able to return to a parenting role. Spirituality and support is toward the bottom of their list. I try to inform them that if they put finding a spiritual support group as their highest priority, then the other things will come in time. If they do not find a good spiritual support group first, they will lose their job, housing, car and family by returning to a life of drugs, alcohol and crime. 
The United Methodist Church has a long and rich history of involvement in prison ministry and reentry. On the UMC web site under the General Board of Church and Society you find links to some resources that can help congregations with this ministry. The book, I was in Prison by James Shopshire, Sr., includes some resources for local congregations that want to engage in this ministry.
Inside of institutions there is a need for volunteers to help prepare inmates for re-entry. In addition to Bible studies, there is a need for parenting classes, basic household budgeting, anger management, and exploration on how to forgive yourself and others.
Many inmates also do not have basic skills on how to create a resume or apply for a job. 
To get involved in prison ministry inside an institution, the best way is to contact the institution and ask them what their needs are. In the local community a call to the parole office may help a congregation figure out what the local needs are. 
Where I currently reside, the Community Compassion Fund hosts a weekly brown bag lunch that is attended by representatives of local non-profit and religious organizations. Every other week one organization presents the services they can provide. On the other weeks they discuss how they can collaborate to help out a specific individual or family so their resources are used effectively and not duplicated. This type of ministry goes beyond “how we can minister to our own” and moves to “how we can be an effective voice of Christ in our local community.
(Rev. Ron Richter is an IGRC clergy member who serves as Supervisory Chaplain, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Federal Correctional Institution, Sheridan, Oreg. His charge conference membership is at Fairview UMC in Sheffield, R; CC: Fairview UMC, part of the Greater Annawan Parish, Spoon River District)