March 20, 2012

Prison Ministry: Taking The Next Step

A little over a year ago I wrote about my involvement in prison ministry. The point was to stress the importance of taking on new challenges as an part of building a satisfying retirement. That article is the one included in the 65 Things to Do When You Retire book that I posted about a few days ago. It is too easy to get into a routine and never really explore all we may be capable of doing.

That particular post has been one of the most viewed on this blog. I'm not sure whether readers were reacting to the specific story I told, or found the idea of pushing against our self-imposed boundaries meaningful. But, whatever the case, that article, along with a follow up one a few months later, has shown an interest in the topic.

I'd like to bring you up-to-date on where my involvement with prison ministry has gone since the last posts, especially after a decision I made a few weeks ago. Until now I have been involved in writing several inmates on a regular basis, as well as acting as a one-on-one mentor to other men after their release.

This mentoring is a rather intensive, personal relationship with one guy at a time that lasts for at least six months. We have telephone contact several times a week and personal time together at least once every seven days. I help the man adjust to life outside prison in any way I can, including learning to budget and spend his money, staying employed, developing his walk with God, and handling anger or self-esteem issues. I am available 24/7 for guidance and help when he feels he may be on the path back to jail. It is a rewarding and humbling experience to help someone in that way. 

The Next Step

Last month I was asked by one of the fellows at Along Side Ministries to consider a major step up in my participation. Would I consider traveling to one or more of the prisons in the state, on a regular basis, to act as a mentor to a fellow who was still incarcerated? That would mean I would have to go through a screening and background check by the state. I'd have to be fingerprinted, undergo a urine test, have a badge made with my photograph, and agree to rather strict rules inside a prison facility.

After thinking and praying about it, plus asking Betty for her opinion, I agreed. At least initially, that meant a once-a-month round trip of over 400 miles of driving to a prison in northwest Arizona. I would be assigned one inmate as a mentee and spend an hour with him during these visits. I might also be called on to interview other fellows who were interested in learning more about Along Side Ministries. There was a possibility of adding additional monthly trips to facilities closer to Phoenix, but still involving 5 or more hours for each commitment.

A Long Commute

After getting approval and my badge from the state department of corrections I made my first trip last week. As I expected it took my volunteer work to a much deeper level. The prison I visit is large: over 3,000 inmates are housed. The main exercise yard is huge, probably 3 football fields, filled with hundreds of men in orange jumpsuits exercising, jogging, walking and talking, or simply sitting and staring at the activity. A few times a day every inmate must return to his cell to be counted, so the times I have for visiting are rather restricted.

After going through various checkpoints, removing everything in my pockets, my belt and shoes (sounds like plane travel!), I and the two other fellows from the ministry I was traveling with made it to the first series of interviews and visits. One of the reasons for making the trip was to decide if one inmate was right for our program upon his release this summer. After at least 40 minutes of questions and conversations, we determined he was the type of man who would benefit from the type of environment Along Side Ministries provides.

The decision to accept him sealed my schedule for the next 12 months because I agreed to be his mentor. That meant weekly letters between us starting now and once-a-month trips to spend some time with him in person inside the prison, It meant a minimum of 6 months after his release being the man who would walk with him and support him in his transition back to a society that makes being an ex-prisoner very difficult.

But Wait, There's More

On the drive back to Phoenix I was also asked to pay a visit to a fellow who is in the Along Side program but in a facility even farther away: a 5 hour drive each way. He has had no relatives or family visits for several years and has not had a mentor. I said yes only when I was assured that wasn't going to be a once a month jaunt.

What started out as an occasional letter to a fellow I'd probably never meet, and certainly never visit inside prison, has taken on a life of its own. I found just letter-writing wasn't enough, so i agreed to mentor fellows once they were released. Now, I am spending full days traveling all over the state to visit with men inside the jails while continuing the letter writing and mentoring duties.

I would never have envisioned me being part of this type of ministry. As the first post mentioned, my concept of inmates was the same as most of society: damaged goods who got what they deserved. But, my eyes and heart have been opened. To a man, they admit their guilt and failings. But, each is a human being who is attempting to turn his life around and stop repeating the mistakes of the past. If I can do anything to help each guy in that process I must do so. It isn't an option, my faith demands it of me.

I would love to talk with anyone who wants to know more about prison ministry. If that is where your heart lies, I can't think of anything more rewarding and meaningful you could do.

But, there are countless other ways for us to use our skills, talents, and personalities to help others who are less fortunate. A satisfying retirement not just about us and our families. It is about caring enough to make someone else's life just a little bit better. What are you waiting for?


  1. Hi Bob,

    I haven't commented for quite some time, but still enjoy reading your posts. I thought I'd weigh in here just so you know I'm still around.

    My friends who have participated in prison ministry speak about it with the same enthusiasm that you do. Glad you are in a sweet spot with this.

    I do have some experience visiting prisons in a different context. In the mid 1990s I was appointed by the federal court to serve as counsel to a death row inmate. As a result, I visited him at various times in prison. Oddly enough, even though I did not have experience with the criminal justice system it never struck me as strange and I never feared for my safety (although looking back I was left alone with him in a small room with no guards nearby on many occasions).

    I was able to take his appeal to the US Supreme Court, and although they denied to hear his case our state law was changed prior to his execution date so that mentally handicapped offenders would not be executed, and he was not executed on that basis.

    Take care.

    1. That is a tremendous story and one I'm very glad you shared. To be able to literally save someone's life is truly special.

      I am not afraid for my safety once I am inside, though there could always be some sort of incident that could put me in harm's way. But, the people I deal with are not going to do anything to put their release or involvement with the ministry service at risk. That said, it is still a surreal experience when the gates slide open and then clang shut behind you.

  2. I admire your commitment to something like this. It is certainly not for everyone but I am glad for you that you have found something so satisfying to do in your second career.

    1. Thanks, Roberta. I hope others are inspired to help someone or some group in our society that is hurting or under served. We all have something to contribute.

  3. It is great work that you do, Bob, God's work if I might say. As Roberta states it is not everyone's cup of tea, but your point around doing something/anything to better our fellows rings true. All of us have a desire, some larger and some smaller, to give back to society. Deb and I do it through our involvement with the Elks helping veterans and those less fortunate, while other can beautify their communities or something they find interesting. The point is to do something worthwhile for the world, and not just be someone taking up space and complaining about all the inequity in the world.

    1. Complaining seems to be the service of choice for too many. All of us...every single person, has something to contribute. Thanks to you and Deb for helping vets and the less fortunate.

      There will always be inequity, there will always be poor people, there will always be unfairness. We can't change it all by ourselves, but we can change our little corner.

  4. Very inspiring post Bob. Thank you for our work in this area. Putting a face on something definitely changes your perspective. It is easy to make rank judgements on a group in general but when you deal with an individual you see the person and not the statistic. I find the same to be true at the soup kitchen where I volunteer twice a week. My friends there are just ordinary people who have been caught up in one problem or another. Unfortunately the U.S. has the highest percentage of its citizens in the world under lock and key so there are many opportunities in this area to be your brother's keeper.

    Keep up the stories in this area. Maybe, just maybe, you will entice someone else to go outside their comfort zone and help someone else.

    1. Soup kitchen or homeless shelter volunteering are excellent examples of something that almost anyone can do, and the need is very real. My men's Bible study group serves dinner at the Phoenix Rescue Mission every few months. The people who we wait on are uniformly gracious, polite, and grateful. In many cases they are there through no fault of their own, they are just caught up in a downward spiral. But, as human beings they deserve to be treated with respect.

      Hats off to you, RJ, for your involvement. You don't use your deafness as an excuse to avoid serving others. Rather, I bet you know how blessed you are to be in a position to do what you do.

    2. You bet I am. I thank the Lord everyday for giving me these opportunities