Setting Prisoners Free
A day in jail
by Tina Galeana –
AT THE HEART OF THE ARMY…people are touching lives. Serving quietly, faithfully and prayerfully, these officers, employees, and volunteers take to heart the programs they administer. The West’s Extension Studies Bureau Prison Ministry is a case in point.
Established more than 40 years ago, the program offers correspondence Bible studies about salvation, discipleship, the life and teachings of Christ and select biblical books in English and Spanish. A team of volunteers from corps, other churches, and staff grade the completed lessons and respond to biblical questions.
Under the direction of Captain Faye Nishimura, the program has grown to more than 8,000 students (active/inactive). They minister to both men and women in 440 correctional institutions throughout the Western Territory’s 13 states. Approximately 1,000 students are Spanish speaking and 7,000 English.
With a staff of four and the help of 40 volunteers (25 for English and 15 for Spanish lessons), more than 30,000 lessons were graded last year. Most of these volunteers work at home and some in the office.
Prayer, said Nishimura, is a big part of the program’s success. “We pray daily for the students. We are a strong prayer team and we have had prayers galore answered.”
Students begin the program by requesting a pre-enrollment packet, she explained. The evaluation of “lesson one” allows graders to better advise student needs for completing the courses successfully.
Remaining lessons are sent to volunteers for grading. They record constructive comments to help students gain a better understanding of the material and receive spiritual guidance.
Students receive certificates for each satisfactorily completed course. When they have completed the basic series, they are presented with final certificates and Bibles in recognition of achievement. If they would like to proceed to the advanced courses they may do so with a minimum grade of 70 percent. Many students complete their studies after they have been released.
The staff members provide Bibles to those who need them and send Christmas and birthday cards to each student. The birthday cards strike a deep emotional chord. Some say the Army is the only one to recognize and remember them on their special days.
Due to the personal nature of some student’s needs, individual contact is necessary. These requests are forwarded to the local area where they can be best addressed. Many express interest in becoming involved with The Salvation Army.
“We are now in the process of combining two comic books into one called the Kingdom Adventures,” said Anne Burnham, assistant to Nishimura, “which will help inmates with little or no Christian background and who read at a lower elementary level.”
LOS ANGELES COUNTY JAIL AND TWIN TOWERS
Picture the American flag without the red, white and blue. What kind of flag would it be to you?
That is how I was looking at every piece of mail written by an inmate. Not one letter, application card, post card, thank-you note or even Bible lesson had any color until I was confronted with the reality of prison life. Now I have a clear picture, an understanding, a glimpse of what it is like to be behind bars.
Chaplain Don Dickinson is the head coordinator of 126 other chaplains throughout California jails and institutions. Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail is the largest in the nation. Almost every inmate goes through here to be registered, uniformed and transported to their assigned modules. Here the inmates are classified and housed as follows:
Gang members: Because of excessive fights, riots and anger the officials have restricted their freedom to go outside their cells for play, education and religious time. They are fed inside their cells, and because they throw things at the guards, an inmate is chosen to distribute food. There is no chaplain in this high-risk section.
There are many fights in the large homosexual section, which divides newcomers from the rest in big dormitory rooms. There are not enough Chaplains to minister to them.
In the physically challenged section there is more freedom. Between 80-90 percent of them are in some type of drug addiction. Chaplains minister on a limited basis.
The mentally challenged section is the biggest jail mental hospital in the U.S. The institution doesn’t know what to do with them, so most are under heavy drug doses to keep them calmed down. There are not enough chaplains to minister here.
Everyone else is dispersed according to crime. Many volunteer to work inside cleaning or using different talents such as cooking or painting.
All the inmates want someone to listen to them, someone to whom they can release all of their frustration and disappointment. They write to us; we are their only hope, and the only ones who can make an eternal impact. People in our department can imagine what our students are going through.
We have the perfect tools, and we have the answer to all of these problems–we have Jesus Christ.
R. J. DONOVAN CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
Unlike other institutions, R. J. Donovan does a marvelous job in working closely with the chaplains to provide a better living environment for the inmates. Volunteers play an important role in keeping all the evangelistic programs running.
When entering the prison–home to 4,700 inmates–I was presented with numerous regulations, most of which were for my safety. Visitors must sign in and out of each yard. Guards check every hour to make sure you are okay. I was asked to sign a hostage policy, stating that there would be no negotiating for my release.
Only one prisoner was available for an interview–Randy, who has been our student since 1993, and wants to continue when he gets out. Tossed back and forth by drug addiction, he was taking Bible courses because he realized his way wasn’t working. He liked the feedback he received from the courses. It meant someone was really taking the time to read his answers.
“The feedback you gave me helped me realize my self-worth. As a prisoner, I’d be always beating myself up, feeling guilty of the bad decisions I’ve made and all the people I’ve let down…to know someone out there wants to help me do better brings up my self-esteem,” he said.
Randy is now able to pick up a Bible and feel more comfortable with it. He has recommended our Bible studies to several others.
Chaplain Buzz Brewer does a great job introducing and preparing volunteers for the reality of serving God inside a prison. I discovered serving God in a prison ministry is very challenging, and it keeps you in touch with the reality of this dark world. You come face to face with desperate, thirsty souls.
I was impressed to see how God uses The Salvation Army’s elementary Bible courses to feed the spiritually hungry brothers in prison and their families.
A TOUR OF DENVER COUNTY JAIL
While attending the American Correctional Conference in Denver, Colo., I visited the Denver County Jail. Built in the early 1950s, it is home to nearly 2,000 inmates, 700 more than originally built for. Despite its 46 years of service, it is clean and neat, with a controlled, healthy and peaceful atmosphere. It is a maximum-security detention facility designed to house pre-trial misdemeanor and felony offenders.
It was unusual to see males, females and juveniles in the same facility. Everyone is housed in the same building, with males and females using different yards and cafeterias.
Most of the females share dorm housing, which can be dangerous because a female serial killer awaiting trial, who is supposed to be in maximum security 24-hour locked cell at a prison, can be sharing the bathroom with 80 other women and sharing a bunk-bed with someone just caught for failing to appear in court for traffic violations.
After I was thoroughly searched for weapons, I passed through a metal detector and then met Chaplain Abdul, a very charming man who was happy to help me get in contact with our students.
When we got to his office, I met Oscar, one of our Spanish students. He had an “I don’t believe this ” look on his face and said, “So you’re the one who grades my Bible course and sends it back, huh?” We sat down to talk, and it was as if we knew each other…Earlier in his life, he had been very involved in a church in Texas, where he led the teen ministry with his wife and helped coordinate radio evangelism. Pride led to marital conflicts, divorce and heavy drug trafficking and finally capture in Hawaii. He became suicidal and was led back to God by an inmate.
Jesus was an ex-gang member who had been stabbed 17 times and has six bullet holes in his body. Artemio also joined us. All of the students were enthusiastic about the courses, and shared they were helping them walk closer to God.
“When I’m with friends and they talk about the things they have done, I tell them about the things God is doing with me,” one said. “I learn more about God’s Word through these studies, and that makes me feel like I’m listening to God. When some people give me a cold shoulder, I try not to get attitudes toward them because Jesus wouldn’t do that.”
Most of what I heard was focused on serving God, which tells me these men do have some convictions about doing what is right before society and , most importantly, before God. They seem to be deep-rooted Christians, which was noticeable in our conversation and in their prayers.
CALIFORNIA REHABILITATION CENTER (CRC)
Located in Norco, Calif., the CRC was a luxurious hotel in the 1930s; during WWII it was a Navy base/hospital; and in the 1970s became a coed prison. Today it houses 4,200 men and 900 women.
It is one of the few institutions with an actual chapel, built for the military and able to hold 400. Unfortunately, the windows are decorated with lead paint, which has been peeling off and poses a health hazard. There are no funds to replace the windows.
Chaplain Scott is a full-time volunteer who started working here in early 1999. Previously, there was only one full-time chaplain for the men and none for the women. Scott is a strong supporter of the Army’s work, and has been encouraged to learn of the many programs and services the Army offers.
She considers the Army’s elementary Bible courses a blessing because they are well organized, with challenging questions that guide the inmate to examine the Scriptures carefully. She uses our courses as an essential tool to keep the Christian inmates in the Word on a daily basis.
Most of the inmates in this rehab center are at the lowest point of their lives. They have tried every type of drug, alcohol and cigarette in their pursuit of happiness, finding themselves in a deeper hole. I strongly sensed and felt the necessity of spiritual food, spiritual guidance, and unconditional love for all the inmates.
The first of February I will be celebrating my first anniversary with The Salvation Army. The past 12 months have been really exciting, challenging and very rewarding for me. From sitting at the office grading a Bible course to sitting inside a prison talking (face-to-face) to an inmate/student has helped me to grow spiritually in my personal walk with God. The six different institutions I have visited have really changed the way I view my work, my everyday attitude when I wake up in the morning to come to the office and most definitely the relationships with my co-workers and my boss.
Never in my life have I visited prisoners. Especially without knowing the reasons why he/she is locked up and kept away from society. Now I have learned to see those prisoners as people. I learn to look beyond the handcuffs, the tattoos, their funky uniform, their choice of gender and their religious beliefs to sit down with them and talk about how The Salvation Army correspondence Bible courses are helping them to walk closer to God. From listening to their testimonies and seeing their tears I learned that my job was not just about coming in for eight hours in the office to grade Bible courses, make copies and file papers; but it’s all about doing God’s purpose, to seek and save the lost. Changing lives and restoring the lost sheep back into the family is the job God has blessed me with. I would not have understood this clearly if it weren’t for being out in the real prison world. I realize that I did not get much training on how to talk and approach inmates, but with God’s help every visit has been successful and has helped our department to understand who we are serving.
FLORENTINO GALEANA * Extension Studies Bureau