In assessing your community's needs for specialized ministries, you may have overlooked one potential means of gospel outreach—the local lockup or county jail. Many of these facilities are old, overcrowded, and dirty. They are normally used to temporarily hold men and women who are awaiting trial or legal hearings, although short prison sentences are often actually served in these institutions as well. As a consequence, all types of prisoners can be found here, from the first-time offender to the career criminal. The trauma of arrest and incarceration will occasionally jolt a new inmate into a serious evaluation of his priorities and present life style. It is relatively simple for you or your church to begin a ministry to those in the county jail. The result? An unusual opportunity right in your own hometown to reach prisoners for Jesus Christ and to minister to them at a time when they are experiencing a dramatic upheaval in life and therefore may be more receptive to God.
How does one go about beginning such a ministry? If you are considering a prison ministry, try to join a group doing such work in a nearby town for several weeks of "on-the-job" training.
When you feel ready to begin your own prison ministry, try to arrange with the appropriate authorities a special time each week when your visit will not interrupt regular family or lawyer visiting hours. Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings are among the best available times. Question officials in charge regarding how you can best fit in with their program and minister to the prisoners. Trained law enforcement officials will be inclined to help you even if they themselves are not Christians. They know that religious visits by dedicated Christians reduce the "incident rate" at any jail. There are less disciplinary problems in a prison that allows regular Christian visits. Much of your effectiveness will depend on understanding the different types of inmates held at your particular institution. To do so may require some training and experience, but those in charge can help you evaluate each classification if you ask them for help.
Certain prisoners are kept in local jails for a very short time. Your first contact may be your only chance to introduce them to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be prepared to offer an effective testimony on the very first visit without being overbearing or offensive. No one who has not experienced it can adequately understand what it is like to be locked up day after day. Prison experience is a terrible thing. Be aware, then, that you are ministering under extreme stress and trauma conditions even in the local jail. You will find it easier to start a new prison ministry if two or three concerned Christians go into the jail together. If you and your Christian associates are the only such visitors at the jail, you will get all the attention from both the staff and inmates. Your visits will be anticipated by prisoners who spend several weeks at the institution, and they will look forward to your next call.
Here are several items that you should keep in mind in order to have an effective ministry in the local jail:
1. Pray daily for this ministry and everyone involved in it. Start each prison visit with prayer.
2. Maintain a definite schedule with out interruption. Prisoners will anticipate your regular visits.
3. Dress conservatively. A suit coat and tie, although not necessary, is never out of place in jail. Clergy may wear collars for identification if they wish.
4. Don't give prisoners anything without first checking with authorities. Stay well within the established rules of the institution.
5. Don't ask prisoners for details regarding their criminal case. Often charges are pending trial or appeal. If you learn anything about a prisoner's legal status, keep it confidential.
6. Don't expect normal responses such as you might expect on the outside. Conditions in jail are not normal. You will be reaching the inmate with your Christian witness even if he doesn't respond immediately or outwardly. Don't be discouraged.
7. Whenever possible and warranted, arrange for follow-up by a local church to minister to an offender after his release.
8. Be forgiving. The justice system is tough enough without your personal judgment and condemnation. Radiate the love of God in your visits.
9. Keep your visits away from denominational sectarianism. Most prisoners have little church background and will not understand theological differences.
10. Put yourself in the prisoner's place and try to understand the way he thinks. "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them" (Heb. 13:3,R.S.V.).