Ellen Carter has a dark, smooth complexion that enhances two straight rows of pearly teeth, and her smile could light up a dungeon. Weekly, it lights up a jail.Often mistaken for a 30-year-old, this grandmother of eight is striding back and forth across the tan and chocolate-colored tiles in the chapel room at Cook County (Ill.) Jail.Carter paces emphatically through rows of rough-hewn benches, demanding the attention of 100 women in steely blue scrubs. As a prison preacher, and soon-to-be director of the first Koinonia House aftercare program for women, Carter exemplifies the trends and struggles of prison ministry to the ever-increasing female population of American prisons.The incarceration rate for women in the U.S. has climbed 516 percent since 1980, and now Christian prison ministries (which traditionally have focused on men, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in America) are running to catch up with the alarming growth. Between 1985 and 1995 the number of women in prison almost tripled from 40,000 to 115,000. Currently 130,000 women are behind bars.
To combat these numbers, Carter and hundreds of women like her are redefining prison ministry, so that it includes more women ministers, a deeper level of discipleship, and aftercare that supports women as they try to reconnect with their families and communities.Ideas about how to best help female offenders are changing. Richard Bundy, director of the Billy Graham Center's Institute for Prison Ministry at Wheaton (Ill.) College, says women's prison ministries are independently developing three similar characteristics: Many women's ministries are being restructured to focus on one-on-one discipleship. Many are also developing aftercare opportunities ...1