Prison Ministry History
"THEN JOSEPH'S MASTER TOOK HIM AND PUT HIM INTO THE PRISON, A PLACE WHERE THE KING'S PRISONERS WERE CONFINED. AND HE WAS THERE IN THE PRISON. BUT THE LORD WAS WITH JOSEPH AND SHOWED HIM MERCY, AND HE GAVE HIM FAVOR IN THE SIGHT OF THE KEEPER OF THE PRISON. AND THE KEEPER OF THE PRISON COMMITTED TO JOSEPH'S HAND ALL THE PRISONERS WHO WERE IN THE PRISON; WHATEVER THEY DID THERE, IT WAS HIS DOING. THE KEEPER OF THE PRISON DID NOT LOOK INTO ANYTHING THAT WAS UNDER JOSEPH'S HAND, BECAUSE THE LORD WAS WITH HIM; AND WHATEVER HE DID, THE LORD MADE IT PROSPER. Genesis 39:20-23
God has a long history of working with downtrodden people. In Egypt the king kept a prison. Prisons or jails were not as common back then and were used primarily as a holding place till trial.
In the KJV there are a total of 126 references to prison(s) or prisoner(s). Another form of prison is captivity, being taken away from one's home to live in a foreign land, usually as slave labor. The words captive(s) or captivity occurs 229 times in the KJV. Some of the prisoners were guilty, some were not; many were guilty, as was their nation, of sin against God. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Another "prison" term in the Bible is being bound or bondage. On this point the Bible is clear, the bondage that is the worst is the bondage of sin; for one can be released from physical bondage in several ways, the bondage of sin can only be released by the blood of Jesus Christ washing away sins in baptism.
In Old Testament times, at least for the Hebrews, punishment for crime was either restitution or death, so there was no need for prisons.
We are more familiar with the NT stories of imprisonment; John the Baptist, the apostles, Paul and his fellow-workers, and the many letters that came while he was imprisoned. Philemon verses 8-11 gives a good summary of prison ministry. "Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you - being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ- I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was UNPROFITABLE to you, but now is PROFPROFITABLE to you and to me." (NKJV, capitals my emphasis).
The word Onesimus means profitable or useful, he became unprofitable due to his sin, but once in Christ became profitable again. Many of those we work with in prison are useless; to themselves, to their families, and to society. When they become Christians, their lives change and they become profitable.
The treatment of prisoners in the Roman times depended greatly on their financial and social standing at the time. Roman citizens, as we know from Paul were given much better treatment than a commoner. The first known system was the vast Mamertine Prison which were dungeon cages built under the main sewer of Rome in 64 BC. In many circumstances a prison sentence was a life sentence, in that the prisoner would be given slave labor until he or she died.
The Christian custom of sanctuary, or asylum, dates back to the 4th century reign of Constantine. Wrongdoers were placed in seclusion, which was considered conducive to penitence. More formal places of punishment were developed during the Middle Ages within the walls of monasteries and abbeys as a substitute for imposing the death sentence. Prisons built to lock up religious heretics (those that opposed the church of the time) were built during the 14th and 15th centuries AD. They were similar in concept to later cellular prisons in America. These early prisons with their concept of reformation by isolation and prayer, had some influence on the first penitentiaries in the United States. With the development of gun powder, the fortress cities built during the Middle Ages lost their defensive status and were used to house prisoners.
The construction of jails or gaols was authorized in 1166 AD by the Constitutions of Clarendon under Henry II. Basically persons were put in jail and expected to pay their way out. The sheriffs extorted high prices for food and if the prisoner didn't pay they died there.
If you remember American history, banishment was also a popular punishment for serious offenders. Russia sent its prisoners to Siberia, Spain and Portugal sent theirs to Africa, England sent theirs to America and after American independence to Australia. France sent theirs to the infamous penal colonies in French Guiana, Devil's Island not closing till shortly after WWII. Americans are down on prisoners today, they forget that many who established this country were themselves banished to this land as prisoners.
In 1779, England passed the Penitentiary Act, largely due to the efforts of reformer John Howard. It provided for secure and sanitary structures, systematic inspections, abolition of fees for basic services and a reformatory outlook. It was in the close of the 18th century that prisons took on the philosophy of correction rather than strictly punishment.
In early America hanging, burning, dunking and being put in the stocks were common punishments. William Penn developed a new system for prisons stating that: all prisoners were to be eligible for bail; those wrongfully imprisoned could recover double damages; food and lodging was to be free; the lands and goods of felons were to used for the victims and all counties were to establish houses of detention rather than the stocks.
What most consider the first "state" prison was the Newgate Prison, an abandoned copper mine in Simsbury Connecticut established in 1773. This prison had a regular planned menu, had the first prison hospital, pharmacy and first full-time doctor.
Most consider the first true correctional institution in America to be the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, established by the Quakers. A preacher, named William Rogers began teaching the Bible there in 1787. It was realized that the Bible provided the best possible means to correct the individual of their erring ways. Chaplains were appointed at most prisons and Sabbath schools were organized to teach Bible lessons as well as reading and writing. Distribution of Bibles was common and revival services were held regularly.
As prisons grew they became known as the "big house" by the turn of this century. Much of the architectural design of these big houses with interior cell blocks became the standard for the next 150 years; Sing Sing being an example of that being built in 1825. These big houses had the philosophy of silence and penitence.
The Civil War saw some of the harshest and most inhumane conditions in prisons both for regular inmates and soldiers. It helped the public to become more interested in the fate of those in prison. In 1871 the National Congress on Prison and Reformatory Discipline said this; " Crime is...a moral disease, of which punishment is the remedy...punishment is directed not to the crime but the criminal... in order to reestablish moral harmony in the soul of the criminal...his regeneration-his new birth to have respect for the laws. They also said punishment was for the purpose of reform not revenge.
The American Correctional Association was founded in 1870 and is, as we know the foundation of all standards and guidelines to this day.
Reformatories that had no set sentencing guideline but rather were determined by the behavioral change of the inmate reached their peak in 1910. These include what we would call boot camps today. The reformatories thought that education was the answer and looked less to organized religion for help, both silence and penitence took a back seat to industrial production; whether the prisoner changes or not lets get our money's worth from him. Prisoners were often leased out as a labor pool for business, railroad, road work and construction.
Women prisoners received some of the harshest treatment, the idea was that a woman who committed crimes was beyond hope. Thus little was done to help them, but some religious women did much not only to help female inmates but also to influence the treatment of all prisoners. Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, demonstrated that even the most depraved women were redeemable with the right Biblical principles. The forerunner to the modern half-way house came from religious women who helped the female prisoner re- integrate back into society.
It was 1899 before juvenile justice was taken seriously and began its own set of standards, again often with strong religious teaching.
The debate of building prisons has gone on since the Quakers built the first prison in the US. The first year that accurate statistics were kept, 1840 there were 4000 inmates in the US population of 17 million. By 1900 there were 57,000; by 1950, 166,000; by 1980 321,000; now about 1,500,000.
Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah that He would proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who were bound (61:1,2). Jesus said to visit those in prison as we would visit him. The Hebrew writer said; remember the prisoners as if chained with them. Prison ministry has ALWAYS been a part of God's plan and should be viewed as just a part of the Great Commission.
Christians provided for the needs of those in prison, providing food, clothing and even reading material as Paul asked Timothy to do. They met the needs of the families while the individual was imprisoned. Throughout history Christians were people who cared for those that society has forgotten, so ministering to prisoners was taken for granted.
Nobody really thought to call it "prison ministry" until the last 30 years or so. I might suggest that designation probably does us more harm than good, separating us as a distinct work and causing others to think that it is not a Biblical imperative, but rather a voluntary ministry.
Probably the number one catalyst for the churches of Christ to be involved in ministry to prisoners came from Clyde Thompson, the meanest man in Texas, as one warden called him. He was converted while in prison and established a prison ministry in Huntsville Texas. The effectiveness of his work interested other congregations to get involved. Clyde died in 1979.
On May 17, 1974 the Burbank Gardens church of Christ in Grand Prairie Texas hosted the first Jail/Prison workshop for the churches of Christ. Every year a different congregation hosts it, though Burbank Gardens hosted the 20th anniversary workshop in 1994. Florida hosted the 1992 workshop at the Beville Road church of Christ in Daytona Beach.
In 1974 there were about 30 in attendance with only a handful of full-time prison or jail workers, now over 200 attend with scores of workers, many of which were converted in prison.
The Windsor Park church of Christ in Corpus Christi Texas puts out a nationwide directory of churches of Christ involved in jail or prison ministry (see home page). There are about 600 congregations in 47 states.
Because of congregational autonomy, it has been difficult to get accurate statistics on the work. It is known that over 2000 men and women are baptized every year due to the efforts of the churches of Christ in the United States. About 150 are baptized every year here in Florida alone.
It is an international work as well. Several men leaving Federal prisons have gone back to their home country as Christians and established congregations. There is also work that did not originate in the United States; in at least Zimbambe and Nigeria.
The Lake Butler church of Christ (sponsor of this web page) began prison ministry in 1971, provided Bibles for everyone coming in the Department of Corrections. In 1975, Sam Long the pulpit minister devoted one year to the establishment of a state- wide prison ministry. Florida had its Statewide workshop for the first time in Lake Butler in 1976.
As long as there are prisons, Christians should minister to prisoners. Ministry is first and foremost preaching and teaching the Word of God; converting the lost and encouraging the saved. It is a noble work with a long honored heritage.
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