Reaching Out: Prison Ministry In The Parish

By Dennis Dunn

“I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,

And will hold Your hand;

I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,

As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prison,

Those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” Isaiah 42:6-7

More than 2 million prisoners are being held in federal or state prisons or in local jails. Building and maintaining prisons is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Yet many of us feel that prison ministry is better left to the “professionals,” prison chaplains, or those specially trained for this kind of work, and has no place in normal parish ministry. When most people think of prison ministry, they envision a scene out of the television show Oz or the movie Dead Man Walking.

The greatest scriptural mandate for prison ministry is given in Matthew 25:31-46.“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Here we see our Lord Jesus Christ identifying Himself as the one who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner - and calling us to ministries of caring, outreach, witness and justice. Thus, any so-called “prison ministry” will be an outreach of Christian love and compassion not only to prisoners and their families, but also to crime victims and their families, and to the community at large, encompassing the criminal justice and correctional system, and the people who work in it.

Society says, “Lock them up and throw away the key.” Yet we know that people come out of prison only to commit more crimes, return to prison, and get stuck in the cycle of recidivism: the “revolving door” of crime, prison, and release. The answer is not more prisons so that we can lock up more people. It is not even the death penalty, as studies have shown that even this is not an effective deterrent.

The answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemptive and transforming power of God’s love.


1. Prison Ministry is commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46).

2. Many jails and prisons have no full-time or even part-time chaplains or any religious services at all. Even in prisons that have chaplains, they cannot possibly minister to more than a small percentage of inmates there.

3. Statistics tell us that for every person incarcerated, there are three to five other people affected: families, loved ones, children.


The spiritual goal of jail and prison ministry:


  • To share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s unconditional love.
  • The social goals of jail and prison ministries:


  • To help the inmate function more positively within the prison environment.
  • To provide connection between the community and inmates.
  • To assist and support families of inmates.
  • To prepare inmates for re-entry into society (physically, mentally, morally and spiritually).
  • To provide practical re-entry assistance to ex-offenders and their families.

    Only a small number of Orthodox Christians are involved in ministry to prisoners and their families, despite the fact that jails and prisons are found in almost every community. Yet our Lord’s mandate is clear. My purpose is not to convince you that your parish should become involved in prison ministry, but to help you organize and begin such a ministry.

    Prison ministry does not necessarily mean you are called to actually go into a prison. Not everyone feels comfortable visiting a prison, yet everyone can participate in other ways. It is important that people have the opportunity to participate at a level with which they are comfortable.

    The first questions to be asked are:

    What are the needs and resources of the parish and the community?

    Is there already a priest or parish involved in prison ministry in your area?

    Do you know of Orthodox inmates or families who need your assistance and support?

    How many people in your parish would want to be a part of this kind of ministry?

    How does your parish want to become involved and on what level?

    You can find information about your state Department of Corrections either on the internet or in the phone book. Your first step should be to contact the Chaplain Program in the Department of Corrections and determine what procedures you need to follow and how your parish could be of assistance.

    Some Suggestions for Parish Prison Ministry Activities:

    1. Worship Services and Bible Studies

    These will generally have to be jointly coordinated with the chaplain of the correctional facility. Training and authorization may be required, through the Department of Corrections.

    2. Orthodox Correspondence Courses

    Correspondence courses on Orthodoxy can be sent directly to inmates from Fr. David Ogan or the St. Athanasius Academy. (See Resources)

    3. Pen Pal Program

    Perhaps the simplest way to become involved is through a pen pal program, since less than 20 percent of inmates receive visitors or mail regularly. Some studies have shown that pen pal and visitor programs have reduced the recidivism rate of the participants by as much as 34 percent. Parish members simply “adopt” an inmate as a friend, writing letters and sending birthday and holiday cards. Parish participants should commit to writing at least twice a month for one year. Write on a regular schedule, possibly every two or three weeks. Think about your letters, and prayerfully consider the impact of your words on an inmate. Pray for your pen pal.

    4. Visitor Program

    You may be able to find a few people who are willing to visit inmates inside the correctional facility. They should make a commitment to participate as a visitor for at least one year. The chaplain will be able to advise you about the policies and procedures of the correctional facility. It is very important that you know the rules of the prison governing visitors. For example, in almost all prisons, it is illegal for an inmate to possess any money or for you to give an inmate anything.

    Your responsibility is to become a friend, not a pastor, lawyer, or banker. Do not get involved in his or her case; do not lend him or her money. This is a ministry of sharing Christ’s love through your actions, not preaching.

    However there are some common sense guidelines that should be followed:

    Don’t give any inmate your address or phone number. Use the mailing address of the church or a post office box.

    Don’t stop writing or visiting without an explanation. Honor your commitments.

    Don’t tolerate offensive or threatening language or behavior. If letters or behavior become offensive, report the incident to the chaplain or the correctional facility administration.

    Don’t send or provide money, stamps or other items of value. All prisons have regulations governing these items, which are called contraband, and the inmate can get into serious trouble for receiving or possessing contraband. Many prisons do not allow inmates to receive books or other materials from anyone except directly from the publisher.

    Don’t get involved or take sides in the inmate’s legal affairs, or problems with the correctional facility or staff.

    5. Re-entry and After-care

    Ninety percent of inmates are released to return to their communities. Within four years of release, three out of four will be back in prison—most for crimes committed during the first three weeks after their release. As taxpayers, we pay an average of $20,000 per year per inmate to keep someone incarcerated.

    If we were sent somewhere with no job, and no family or friends to rely on, with only a few dollars for food, shelter, and transportation, even if we were well-educated and experienced with no criminal record, we would have a very difficult time finding a job and a place to live. So the reality is that ex-offenders are being asked to do the impossible!

    One of the best ways that parishes can minister to ex-offenders is to develop a resource manual for newly released offenders, and assist them in accessing programs designed to assist them with re-entry through job training and other assistance. This resource manual could include maps, bus schedules, and addresses of ex-offender programs and ministries. Part of the process of putting together the resource manual would be to research and contact the various ministries and programs available to assist ex-offenders in your area.

    Catholic Social Services in Atlanta, GA has a program called “One Church—One Inmate.” In a given parish, several members work as a team with the local parole office. They take on an ex-offender and assist him/her with individual needs. The relationship between the parish and the ex-offender usually lasts six month to a year.

    6. Ministry to Families

    Some of the needs of inmates’ families are obvious. Loss of income means that obtaining food, clothing and shelter have now become critical in what was probably a difficult situation to begin with. One huge problem for families is transportation for visitation. Generally, prisons are located in rural areas, far off the beaten path, for obvious reasons. Many times, families do not have the financial resources to fund these trips to visit inmates, and sometimes they travel long hours by bus, only to be turned away, if the inmate has been transferred or is not allowed to receive visitors.

    The families suffer in many other, less obvious ways. Often the families report that they feel as if they are imprisoned along with their loved one, even though they, themselves, committed no crime. They report being ostracized by friends, family, neighbors, and even their church. Almost half of all inmates come from a family where a member of their immediate family was in prison while they were growing up.

    There are many opportunities for ministry with families of inmates, but you will probably have to seek them out. Shame and fear of rejection will keep inmate’s families from contacting you. One of the best ways is to simply be a caring and compassionate friend, a brother or sister in Christ.


    1. Be yourself.

    2. Be an understanding friend and a good listener.

    3. Be honest.

    4. Be consistent and dependable.

    5. Be willing to learn.

    6. Be prepared for the reality. Have a plan and follow it.

    7. Always be respectful of and work with the chaplain and the correctional facility administration and staff.

    8. Dress appropriately.

    9. Know and follow the rules of the institution.

    10. When in doubt, ask.

    11. Develop the trust and confidence of the staff and administration as well as the inmates.

    12. Honor your commitments.

    13. Respect confidentiality.

    14. Be punctual. Both the inmates and the correctional facility will expect you to be on time, arriving and leaving.

    15. Be cautious. Some inmates will try to con you or manipulate you.

    16. Make sure that you have permission to distribute Bibles and Christian literature before doing so.

    17. Encourage the inmates to study the Bible and to enroll in correspondence courses.

    18. Always invite the inmates to pray with you.

    19. Talk to the inmates about general topics as well.

    20. Do not become involved in an ego trip.

    21. Do not make promises that you cannot or will not keep.

    22. Do not do errands for inmates or act as a go-between. Do not send money or anything else to inmates.

    23. Do not bring anything to an inmate or out from an inmate without checking with the authorities first.

    24. Do not ask about an inmate’s crime.

    25. Do not get involved in the inmate’s legal problems.

    26. Do not give out your personal address or telephone number. Use the church address or a P.O. Box.


    Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

    Fr. David Ogan

    PO Box 822169

    Vicksburg, MS 39182

    Phone and Fax: 601-636-8392

    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Provides icon prayer cards, catechetical workbooks, and Orthodox prayerbooks that help the imprisoned faithful. Aside from the Bible, the most requested books are the “Orthodox Christian Journey” series, consisting of four books: Orthodox Christian Journey, Orthodox Christian Catechism, Orthodox Christian Prayerbook, and Orthodox Christian Readings, written in everyday language, easily read and understood, filled with profound truths of the Holy Orthodox Faith. A self-directed study book to be used in conjunction with Orthodox Christian Catechism is also available. By using these materials, many prisoners transform their prison cells into prayer cells.

    Dennis Dunn, Director of Job Development for Ex-Offenders

    Atlanta Enterprise Center

    81 Peachtree Place NE

    Atlanta, GA 30309

    404-874-8001, ext. 12

    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


    Prisoner Education Project: Correspondence Study Program for Prisoners

    CS 100 - Basic Christian Spirituality I: Gaining and maintaining an Orthodox Christian spirituality

    CS 101 - Basic Christian Spirituality II, (Continuation of CS 100)

    CS 102—Prayer: Developing and maintaining a meaningful prayer life within prison walls

    If the above are all completed successfully, the prisoner may, with the guidance of the faculty of St. Athanasius Academy, continue with appropriate courses selected from the St. Athanasius Academy Correspondence Studies Program. Upon the completion of a program of studies under the direction of the faculty, the prisoner may earn the Diploma in Orthodox Christian Studies. Application forms for admission and for scholarship assistance can be obtained from:

    Prisoner Education Project
    St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Suite 170
    10519 E. Stockton Blvd.
    Elk Grove, CA 95624


    Will provide Bibles free to prisoners:

    Scripture Press Ministry
    Miss Helen Gorges
    P.O. Box 513
    Glen Ellyn, IL 60138

    International Prison Ministry (IPM)
    P.O. Box 63
    Dallas, TX 75221
    E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Bible Alliance, Inc.
    P.O. Box 621
    Bradenton, FL 34206
    (NKJ New Testament and tapes, sent to chaplains only)

    Free Forever Prison Ministry, Inc.
    P.O. Box 1073
    New Haven, CT 06504 (Spanish only)

    Dennis Dunn is a member of St. John the Wonderworker Parish, Atlanta, GA and is the OCA representative to the agency, Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, newly formed by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.