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Prison Ministries Try to Break Back in After COVID-19

Staffing shortages and ongoing pandemic restrictions have kept volunteers out—and left the incarcerated craving the kind of spiritual support they had before.
Prison Ministries Try to Break Back in After COVID-19
Image: Courtesy of Jumpstart
Jumpstart ministry managed to meet in person at a South Carolina prison this summer.

James Hyson hasn’t had access to ministries, classes, or mentoring groups since before the pandemic.

That’s because the ministry staff who volunteer at the New Jersey prison where he is incarcerated haven’t been able to return.

Though pandemic restrictions have loosened in most parts of American life, many state prisons and jails still limit outside volunteers. Ministries reported to CT that states have either not lifted their 2020 ban on volunteers, blocked volunteers whenever there is a COVID-19 outbreak, or cut the number of volunteers allowed in.

Some states and individual facilities have restored full access to volunteers—ministry leaders reported Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma were very open—but many across the country still cannot get through prison doors.

Jumpstart, a ministry that works in 17 prisons in South Carolina, has seen temporary shutdowns at 75 percent of the facilities it serves over the summer because of COVID outbreaks. Kairos Prison Ministry, which operates in 37 states, said it still can’t send volunteers into Connecticut facilities.

State prisons and local jails—which house the vast majority of the 1.9 million people incarcerated in the US—have been slower to open up than federal prisons, which have been letting volunteers back in since November 2020.

“There are certain things out of our control, and we have to trust God to provide. We would love to be in there and be ministering and providing tools,” said Evelyn Lemly, the CEO of Kairos Prison Ministry. “But we honor and recognize that it’s [the state’s] house. And we serve at their pleasure.”

Prison ministries, motivated by the scriptural call to “remember those in prison,” can offer anything from an accountability group to a class to a Bible study. Their involvement has been shown to reduce recidivism and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to various studies. While facilities permit personal visits now, most prisoners do not receive any in a given month, so ministry volunteers represent important relationships and sources of connection.

“For two and a half years we’ve been absolutely wrecked,” said Kent Whitaker, who leads the Celebrate Recovery Inside team for six states in the Northwest. “Family members have passed away, and they can’t have someone come talk to them. It’s been really awful.”

Whitaker used to go to Washington County Jail in Oregon every week for years, but that was closed down in March 2020 and hasn’t reopened to volunteers since.

At South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey, Hyson said only state employees (including chaplains) were allowed in. There are no Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but “the chaplains are trying to do as much as they can,” he said. The New Jersey Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

The prison population at South Woods is tested for COVID-19 weekly. There is an “air of tenseness” on test day, Hyson said in an email interview with CT, because a positive test means quarantine. In some states, a certain level of outbreak within a facility or in the surrounding area means the facility shuts down to outsiders.

Charles Johnson, also serving a prison sentence in New Jersey, said his facility recently began allowing volunteers for classes and worship services. But in short order a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, and everything shut down again.

Bill Antinore, who leads a prison ministry called South Jersey Aftercare serving a handful of prisons in the state, said he and his volunteers were finally allowed back at the start of August.

He remembered the last time they’d ministered inside a state correctional facility: March 6, 2020. “We didn’t know it would be our last day,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Antinore had a regular roster of ten volunteers, but under the new restrictions, his ministry can send two. They have to be the same two people for each visit; he can’t have a bench of volunteers to rotate out. Two volunteers can lead a Bible study and mentoring group inside, but the rule prevents him from adding another team to facilitate another group. He has a good relationship with prison staff, and he is hopeful that restrictions will ease more as the months go by.

In Illinois, Les Alderson with Celebrate Recovery Inside said his group is also limited to two volunteers during visits.

Ministry staff don’t see a clear correlation between states’ strict responses to the pandemic and restrictions on volunteers. That’s what surprised the heads of both Jumpstart and Kairos about South Carolina, which had a very lax approach to COVID-19 but kept tight rules for volunteers in prisons.

Prisons have released less and less public information about COVID-19 cases and deaths inside as the pandemic has worn on, but the Marshall Project documented 2,715 coronavirus deaths among US prisoners through June 2021.

Often the volunteer restrictions aren’t just because of the infection risk. Many ministries reported that their state prisons were so short-staffed that the facilities couldn’t safely host volunteers. Correctional staff have to be on hand to provide security for volunteers during programs.

Cary Sanders, who leads Jumpstart, said the South Carolina Department of Corrections encouraged his ministry to develop a digital curriculum for a tablet, but Jumpstart declined.

Jumpstart has a 40-week discipleship curriculum that more than 100 volunteers teach, and graduates are eligible for Jumpstart’s reentry services. Annually, about 1,000 inmates participate in the program, and usually about 400 graduate. Of the thousands who have graduated from Jumpstart over the last 10 years, the ministry says only 4 percent have reoffended, compared to the national rate of 75 percent.

“We believe in relational discipleship,” Sanders said. “We believe that the volunteers are the face of Christ to the incarcerated. It’s their love and support week in and week out, whenever everyone else has given up on them.”

Sanders thinks that with ongoing COVID-19 cases, an aging prison population, and a lack of medical care in a communal environment, extra precautions for inmates are understandable. But he said face-to-face ministry is irreplaceable.

“I think it’s in states’ best interest … to find innovative ways to let volunteers serve in the prisons,” he said, whether that means requiring vaccines, having volunteers do rapid tests at their own cost, or having them sign an additional liability release since correctional staffing is an issue.

Correctional facilities post visitation policies but usually don’t publicly share their volunteer rules. Those restrictions vary state by state and sometimes facility to facility, depending on the warden. Some have required volunteers to have a complete COVID-19 vaccine series and a rapid test before a visit.

Meanwhile, personal visits are happening at all prisons at some level, according to an informal survey by Prison Policy Initiative staff. Prison Policy Initiative’s Wanda Bertram said she has heard from families anecdotally that visiting hours have been reduced, likely because of staff shortages. Jails, she added, have been moving more and more toward replacing in-person visits with video chats.

“It’s putting a lot of stress on people,” said Bertram.

Whitaker with Celebrate Recovery Inside (CRI) has seen slow progress in facilities across the Northwest. CRI’s Alaska leader recently received permission to go into a few prisons around Wasilla. In Oregon, most facilities he knows of are closed to volunteers, but Coffee Creek Correctional Facility has allowed a few CRI meetings per week. It’s still fewer meetings than before the pandemic.

We’ve certainly been hampered,” said Lemly from Kairos Prison Ministry. “It’s been a slow but somewhat steady trickling of reopening. We’re nowhere near 100 percent of our norm.”

The lack of programs means ministries have also lost volunteers. And volunteers’ passes have expired, which means volunteers have to clear bureaucratic hurdles again to go back in.

When Prison Fellowship was locked out of prisons, the organization turned to a virtual teaching option it calls Floodlight. Though in-person visits are better, those live video classes with volunteers were a lifeline for some prisoners.

Ryan Frey was incarcerated in South Carolina when COVID-19 hit, but he was eligible for parole and let out early. He was supposed to go into a state addiction recovery program upon release, but it was closed because of the pandemic. He said he “made mistakes” and ended up at Trenton State Prison a few months later.

That facility had virtual classes from Prison Fellowship, and Frey attended every day of the week. The facility let the participants do a Bible study on the weekend.

“Those were the kind of things that kept me in step with the Spirit,” he said. In the dorms, “you’re not necessarily surrounded by Christians or likeminded people. … [The classes] allowed us to fellowship and meet as a community.”

The classes were also a bright spot after repeated quarantines in his dorm whenever someone tested positive for COVID-19. At one point his dorm was quarantined for a month and a half, he said.

Over the summer, the South Carolina facility started letting Jumpstart in again, and Frey signed up. Even as outbreaks interrupted its access on the inside, the ministry was ready when people like Frey were released.

When Frey got out on August 1, he applied for Jumpstart’s transitional housing and moved in upon his release. The first week, ministry volunteers took him to get important documents, visit an eye doctor, and get new clothes.

“These people really care about us,” he said. “It’s a support team and a family of believers.”

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