SUMMARY: Prison ministries take the church behind bars to play to a captivated crowd. But inspiring, connecting and making a real difference in the lives of the inmates requires a ministry that understands the interest and abilities of its volunteers, and the needs of its participants.
United Methodist Women's groups in Kansas started a program at Topeka Correctional Facility that allows 40 to 50 jailed mothers to tape themselves reading books. They send the tapes to their children as birthday gifts.
Similar efforts are under way in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Tennessee. Groups in Philadelphia experimented with a videotaping program for a women's prison. The "Read with Me" program in Topeka traces its roots to 1997. Women from First United Methodist in Lawrence, Kan., shop carefully for age-appropriate books.
Organizers of the recorded-books programs claim dual benefits. The recordings bridge the gap between a mother in jail and children living without their mom, while increasing literacy among inmates.
In Tennessee, United Methodist churches in Nashville and Franklin put together a "Dad And Me" reading program in 2003 at the Davidson County Sheriff's Office Criminal Justice Center. The churches also donate books and provide snacks and toys for monthly visits between men in the program and their children.
Other congregations choose to immerse themselves more fully, going inside prisons to lead retreats, Bible study groups and other hands-on healing.
This year, a 45-member cross-denominational team conducted a five-day retreat with inmates at Sam Rayburn Correctional Facility in Angie, La. Some team members returned later for a reunion of inmates and members of Kairos, a worldwide prison ministry.
Team members say the inmates appreciate the simple benefits of the ministry: cookies, conversation and home-cooked meals. The retreats are physically and emotionally demanding, starting at 5 a.m. and often not ending until 10 p.m. Because of that, team members cannot participate on more than three consecutive weekends because they will be burned out, organizers say.
Of the correctional facility's 1,500 inmates, more than 500 now take part in regular Christian activities.
The Kairos teams encourage people who are not comfortable inside a prison to bake cookies, pray or make cards in Sunday school classes with messages for the inmates.
Helping inmates to stay dedicated to their faith once they're released is the focus of a program in Fort Lupton, Colo. The "Backpack Ministry for the Homeless" program gives a backpack filled with necessities to inmates leaving jail. The backpacks cost $50 to $100 each to put together.
In the Pittsburgh area, volunteers run a faith-based pre- and post-release rehabilitation program called HOPE, an acronym for Helping Open People's Eyes. Since 2002, they have reached out to minimum- and medium-security inmates serving jail time for misdemeanors and felonies committed mostly to support drug or alcohol habits.
The program admits 95 men at a time into an intensive, eight-week regimen of group work on topics ranging from anger and addiction management to how to be good fathers. Once the men are released, an after-care ministry called HOPE on the Outside offers a network of services and support systems to ease transition to community life.
HOPE measures its success by how often its participants end up back in jail. In 2008, the Allegheny County Jail's overall recidivism rate was 60 percent. For those going through HOPE, it was 12.5 percent.