The Bible clearly teaches that prison work is a part of the program of God for the church on earth today. When here on earth, Christ said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me." The context shows that prison work was included in the list of things for which a final reward will be given.
Ten years ago an older minister, who had been visiting San Quentin State Prison in California for a number of years, asked me to accompany him to the prison and assist in a public service for the men there. Later this minister, Elder Brorsen (now deceased), had to lay down his work on account of advancing years, and he asked me to take it in his place. He had laid a good foundation for the service that has been carried on through the years, and several of our ministers have had a part in it at times.
The work is conducted through public services, literature distribution, personal interviews, and special Bible classes, including Bible correspondence courses, such as that promoted by the Radio Bible School of the Air. A regular religious service, similar to a church service anywhere, is held once a month in the library chapel or another room provided for that purpose. Formerly this meeting was held on Sunday, but for the past year it has been held on Sabbath afternoon at two. Usually the religious adviser of the prison, a free man, has the program typed out, including the songs, etc. A copy is handed to the visiting minister, who can carry it out to the letter or change any items desired,
Special musical numbers are provided by the prison choir, and at times instrumental selections are played by one or more prisoners. At other times someone accompanying the visiting minister sings a special song. I have found it a good plan, however, to have the prison choir present the special numbers, as this form of participation in the service helps them in their own Christian experience and gives them increased confidence in themselves and their efforts to find the better way of life.
In the public service we never say anything about the prisoners' crimes, but rather emphasize what God can do for the greatest sinner. In other words, we treat them the same as we do any sinner and try to show them the way of life through Christ and His word. We select subjects in the line of practical Christianity, combining them with the doctrines as may seem advisable, and try to make the whole strongly evangelistic. We never present the outstanding, controverted topics, such as the mark of the beast, the state of the dead, etc. These studies are taught in personal interviews and in Bible classes conducted by converted prisoners who are sufficiently instructed to carry on that work. At the close of the service, an appeal is made for those who wish to give their hearts to God, or consecrate their lives to His service.
During the public meeting we announce a day when we shall return for personal interviews. These are conducted in a small room just off the prison library. The men wishing to interview the minister arrange with the prison officers to go to the library, and wait their turn to see the minister. Each man brings a slip of paper, called a "ducat," which allows him to be absent from his work for the time noted on the "ducat." A sheet of paper which lists the names and prison numbers of the men to be interviewed, is handed to the minister by the library secretary. All denominational groups working in the prison are allowed to have their work represented by a prisoner, who is called a secretary. He is the inside contact man for the group, under the supervision of the religious adviser of the prison.
Personal Interviews Once a Month
The personal interviews are conducted from
:30 A. NI. to 2:30 P. M., One day a month, following the public service. One hour is taken off at noon for lunch in the prison officers' dining room, where meals are served much as at any first-class eating place. (This lunch is free to the minister, as a guest of the State.) A pass to the dining room is furnished by the office of the captain of the prison guard.
When a man comes to the interview room, he is escorted by the Seventh-day Adventist prisoner-secretary and introduced if not already known. He takes a seat at a small table and remains for five to ten minutes, or at times longer. I usually ask him what he has on his mind, and then I enter into his problems with proper counsel. He may ask me to try to contact some relative or friend on the outside, and if the request is for a reasonable and legitimate purpose, I do so. I tell the men I am there to help them spiritually and cannot enter into the legal aspects of their cases. However, we find it is well to try to get some relative or friend on the outside interested in the man, as that always helps in his rehabilitation and self-betterment.
We also help in small favors, such as furnishing writing paper, envelopes, and postage for the prisoner's correspondence, or paper for classwork in Bible instruction. We supply our inside secretary with a limited amount of paper and envelopes ; he in turn, after investigation, distributes it to those who seem worthy.
We likewise furnish literature to our secretary, who judiciously supervises its distribution to those desiring it. Any man wishing a Bible may get one through the religious adviser's office, as he always has a supply furnished by the Gideons or other organizations. At Christmastime we send in a supply of greeting cards and home missionary wall calendars, which are also dispersed by our prison secretary. This secretary has charge of an assortment of our Own books, which are lent to those desiring to read them. These books are kept separate from those in the regular prison library, so that we can administer their use to better advantage.
We also send clubs of our church periodicals and magazines, such as the Review and Herald, Youth's Instructor, Liberty, Life and Health, Health, Watchman, Signs of the Times, Sabbath School Quarterly, Sabbath School Worker, The Church Officers' Gazette, Present Truth, etc. The Signs club is the largest, and this paper is doing a wonderful work in the prison. This literature is furnished by our churches and by individual members who send their donations to the conference office, or pay the church missionary secretary annually at the time special calls are made. About once a year I prepare an article for the Pacific Union Recorder, appealing for help, and this brings a generous response. These funds are held in the conference office and paid out from there.
A Sabbath school is conducted once each week at x . M., under the supervision of an outside man—a layman or a minister—and a regular church service is held monthly. Some of the prisoners assist in the Sabbath school as teachers and in other ways, but we must have an outside man to supervise their meeting. No donations are taken up at the Sabbath school, but the spirit of the men makes one feel rewarded for the effort made to keep this work going.
In addition to the services held on the Sabbath, a Bible class is conducted on Sunday by one of the converted prisoners, who follows a systematic course such as the Community Bible Lessons. A number of men are following the Radio Bible School course promoted by our conference office.
In all our efforts we keep a close contact with the religious director and the officials of the prison, so as to co-ordinate our program with their wishes. No article of any kind, whether a personal item or supplies for the work, is given directly to the men, or even to our secretary. All supplies are sent through the mail to the secretary or prisoner individually, so as to pass the regular censorship or prison inspection required for such matters. By paying an annual fee of $5 for a membership in the American Prison Association, I receive valuable bulletins and counsel on prison work. The Protestant ministers who work in the prison also have an association to which I belong. I attend their monthly meetings, in which problems and plans for better work are discussed and voted upon.
I have noted that the prison authorities take a larger percentage of men from our group for special, trusted duties than from any other group in the institution. We depend upon those converted to help us in the work, and we find that many of them are good personal workers. Much literature is sent to the prisoners' relatives and friends after the men themselves have read the material. Thus the work is not limited to what we do in the prison itself. I also visit some of the families of the prisoners when possible, and in this way form helpful contacts in handling the case of the man concerned.
In my personal work for the men, I always try to direct them to Jesus, and at the end of each interview I offer a short word of prayer before dismissing each one. At times the prisoner also prays. Altogether, I have found this work quite gratifying because of the results of what we have tried to do. I have seen direct answers to my prayers for funds to keep the work going. Changed lives are the greatest reward. Even though we meet with disappointments in some of the men we try to help, we press on with good courage.