The Need for Changing Prison Culture
Mid-America has begun its second prison ministry, establishing a fully accredited degree program at the Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colorado. The article below is an update from Dr. D. L. Jones, Director of the Colorado Prison Initiative.
The current life expectancy of those who work in correctional institutions is 59 years. To put that into perspective, the average life expectancy in our country is almost 80 years. The research shows that many take their own lives, with some killed at work. Additionally, when someone retires from correctional work, I am told that the average life expectancy after retirement is 16-18 months. These statistics are not surprising when you learn about what happens inside prison. The stress caused by the culture of our prison systems has to change.
At the facility I work in, a correctional worker was assaulted and had their throat cut with a box cutter. They survived and continue to work to this day. There was also an inmate who had planned to kill someone in the infirmary. Thankfully, officers searched the inmate before entering and found two homemade knives preventing his attempt. Additionally, another officer was stabbed multiple times in a surprise attack. They survived. There was no provocation for the attack. The officer was simply a convenient target, as it was described, “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
These individuals returned to work, often before they should have, and continue to serve to this day. Many who work in these environments express how they feel called to work in the correctional vocation and help those incarcerated. However, some do not return. One individual was attacked with physical violence in their workspace. Attempting to return to work, they were unable, having panic attacks and being unable to get past the facility lobby.
This past spring semester, my students have faced many hardships. Some hardships are due to regular life in prison, others due to doing ministry in prison.
Four students have lost loved ones this semester. In the first week, one student found out his mother had died a week before. The communication was delayed because he had been transferred from one facility to ours. One student lost his father, and one lost his mother before Midterms. One student’s teenage daughter was shot and killed.
Many of these men are fathers. We regularly pray for their children to come to faith in Christ and stop heading down the same destructive paths they saw their fathers take.
In prison, any actions taken by an individual or group can be interpreted as aggressive. Tables, wall-mounted phones, and gym equipment can all be “claimed” by gangs. If you are in the wrong gang, or no gang at all, or viewed as the “wrong race,” or have committed certain crimes, you may or may not be able to use certain items or sit at specific tables in the dining hall.
Before our program began, a new transfer student sat at the wrong table. He was told, “Move or fight.” He sat at a second table. Another group told him, “Move or fight.” There is also a risk of sexual assault; while rare, it exists.
Even coming to faith in Christ has risks. Coming to faith in Christ means leaving a gang, associating yourself with another group, and opening yourself up to hostility. Even getting into our program and being a “seminary student” can be viewed negatively.
Our program is already having an impact on changing the culture after one semester.
How our program is changing prison culture
Upon arriving, an individual viewed our program negatively, saying ignorant things. However, God silences the ignorance of the foolish (1 Pet. 2:15). This same individual would later tell me they see all the good work our students are doing and now see the value of our program.
A student accepted into our program is benefiting greatly. He is a believer, and the interview team felt led to help him during his interview. He barely met the program requirements and had a poor writing sample. I assigned one of our students with a master’s degree to be his tutor. This student is now thriving and writing on a first-year college level. He has been sharing the gospel with other inmates and helping them improve their lives.
One student, who I believe is close to coming to faith in Christ, was trying to mold Christianity with another religion tied to his heritage. He stated, “I now realize that Jesus is the only way.”
The students were moved to a different living unit that housed inmates nearing their release dates. The inmates in this unit know the system and how much they can get away with without impacting their release date. They are often disrespectful to the officers, gamble, and use very foul language. This living unit had a culture of segregating tables by race while eating in the dining hall.
There are three pods in the living unit, and my students live in one pod. The pods are generally not allowed to be open for interaction. However, our students requested of the staff that the pods be open so that they may interact with other inmates and even hold Bible studies.
Due to our students’ influence and the staff’s intervention, the dining hall is no longer segregated, respect has increased, and the language has improved. One of the officers who has worked in this living unit for many years told me he is amazed at what the seminary students are doing. They said doing their job is now more accessible; they worry less, and the students help positively influence the other inmates, creating a safer working environment. This officer has told others how the program works to improve things.
Our students are allowed to go into other living units to influence the lives of other inmates and even hold Bible studies. Many are seeing the progress of our program and want to make sure it succeeds.
The chaplains at our facility work with the inmate church and have done great things in this facility for many years. I asked the chaplains how many confessions of faith they normally have each year. They track confession with baptisms. Being publicly baptized in prison is a public identification with the church and being a Christian. As mentioned earlier, this can be a difficult transition for the inmates. They normally have 1-2 baptisms yearly [even before the pandemic]. Easter Sunday, they had 19 baptisms. The church previously met in a 30-person room. They now meet in a 70-person room and anticipate outgrowing it before next semester.
Praise and Pray
Praise God that Moodle [our online learning platform] and EBSCO [a research database] were approved, and other opportunities will soon be available. One student got to see his wife and children in person for the first time in at least 12 years. Many are expressing appreciation for the work our students are doing. Some have expressed the students are helping to create a safer working environment.
- For student applications to continue to come in for the next cohort
- For the employees at our facility
- For the students sharing the gospel and conducting Bible studies
- For the fathers in our program, as they share the gospel with their families
- That both DOCs in Arkansas and Colorado will continue to support our programs
- That I will be able to conduct interviews
- That I will be able to continue to minister and counsel inmates who are experiencing loss
Thank you all for your prayers for our safety and success.