Ministering to the Imprisoned

By Deacon Rodney Torbic

The following is a presentation given to members of the St. Gregory Palamas Theological Society in Pittsburgh, Pa., in November of 1989. It offers insights into the life of prisoners and those who work within the prison system. Deacon Torbic, as a member of a parole board, has first hand knowledge of the need prisoners have for sustained human relationships. He sees their spiritual hunger and restlessness as no different from that of the suburbanite. The Orthodox Church needs to be there to witness to them as well. (Other articles on Prison Ministry in the Resource Handbook are “Prison Ministry - A Way to Reach Out” by Fr. P. Baktis, and “A Ministry to Orthodox Inmates” by Fr. T. Mueller.)

Recent events in the Pennsylvania prison system have drawn attention to the national problem of imprisoning large numbers of people. In 1980 there were 329,831 individuals in our jails and prisons nationally. By 1988 this number had increased to 627,402. In Pennsylvania there are 20,000 imprisoned. In Allegheny County there are more than 3,000. There has been a call by the Pennsylvania governor for the construction of 4,000 new cells.

Among this large group of people behind bars, a certain number are clearly identified as Orthodox Christians. A large number of prisoners are not active in any church and might possibly be interested in becoming Orthodox Christians. The regular presence, however, of an Orthodox clergyman, religious services and religious material in penal institutions tends to be the exception. The more common chaplaincies that exist are Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic and perhaps Jewish. I often wonder how many individuals who enter the prison system get classified as Protestant simply because they are not clearly identified as Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Orthodox. Such a ready designation can lead to support of a Protestant chaplaincy when in fact the individuals are not so committed.

Certain fundamental points have occurred to me as I have thought about the prisoner. The prisoner is limited in who he or she can see, talk to, touch and share activities with. The prisoner’s choice of clothing, personal belongings, reading material, occupational activities, educational and religious experiences are limited. Freedom of movement, choice of cell mates and neighbors are limited. The prisoner’s access to fresh air, the regulation of his or her time, and choice of food is controlled. Penal institutions tend to have constant potential for violence, placing the prisoner in a higher “at risk” group. Medical care and opportunities for therapeutic counselling are limited. It is within this framework of limitations that those engaged in prison ministry are called to work.

Those normally imprisoned have behaved in a way which is offensive to the community. The nature of the offense can be extreme or minor, but even in the most minor of offenses, there must have been sufficient negatives in the person’s situation to have him or her removed from the community at least temporarily. For those whose lives are spent behind bars, either through “regular” periodic returns to prison or those experiencing extremely long sentences, the challenge to the pastor is significant. In each instance, a pattern of life has developed or there has been something within the person’s structure which has caused him or her to severely harm others.

When considering the prisoner, it is important to take notice that each prisoner is different, that each is unique as an individual. Some of this is apparent in dress, in personal appearance, in demeanor. Prisoners are of all sizes and shapes. They are male and female, young and old. Some are blind, others are deaf, perhaps in a wheel chair or on crutches. Each comes from a different family background. Each has developed a value system, a way to perceive and relate to others. The dreams and hopes, the job opportunities and job skills differ. Some have educational, vocational or artistic talents equal to or superior to many people living outside the walls. Many come from financially poor circumstances, but the circumstances may range from living in a rural primitive dwelling to living in an inner city ghetto.

The financially well-off find their way into prisons as surely as the poor, though in much smaller numbers. Those who have held public trust and erred, live in prison along side those who are there chronically. Their offenses vary as do their reasons for committing them and the circumstances under which they were committed. When dealing with the large numbers of prisoners as well as with the extended period of time many of them are in prison, caution needs to be exercised in not routinizing the relationships and in failing to respond to the uniqueness of each person.

The prisoner’s family

In most instances prisoners have family members outside the walls. In the clamor over dealing with prisoners, it should not be lost that the prisoner is someone’s brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, lady or man. The attitude one takes in dealing with prisoners may be directly influenced by whether or not one is related to a prisoner. More importantly, the incarceration that occurs will certainly impact on the family. If it is the husband/father who is incarcerated, the wife and children are deprived of the physical presence, the emotional and financial support and the natural wholeness which could be theirs as a family. Furthermore, the stigma that may be involved, the role model identification, the anger and the frustration generated by the incarceration may negatively influence the wife and children as well as the prisoner. If it is the wife/mother who is incarcerated, the same kinds of negatives can be involved. In both instances, the one parent / spouse is placed in a position of trying to fulfill the roles of both whereas the incarcerated person must try to live up to role expectations within the physical limits imposed by incarceration.

Other kinds of life situations play themselves out depending on whether the prisoner is son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, lady or man. When the prisoner is a son or daughter, parental concern can be heightened regarding the safety and care existing in the institution. Parents may be examining themselves in terms of where they might have gone wrong or contributed to the negative development of the prisoner being locked up. When the prisoner is the female or male companion of one on the outside, there is often the question of whether or not to continue the relationship. Fears can be developed regarding the other’s safety. Financial and emotional hardships can occur as life crises develop.

For the family members of the prisoner, life is difficult as well. As a family member of a prisoner your visits are limited, your contacts are limited. You may be separated by hundreds of miles in addition to being separated physically by walls and bars. Others may view you in a demeaning way as if you were the one who committed the crime. If your husband or wife testified against other persons, your safety may be in jeopardy. You may be torn as to what to do if a long sentence is involved or you were the victim of physical or sexual abuse. What if your father killed your mother and plans to return to care for you? What if every time your spouse drinks, he becomes physically abusive? What if your father had sexual relations with you and plans on returning home to live with you and your younger brothers and sisters? These are the kinds of tough questions family members must face.

Parole and Prison staff

It is the responsibility of the prison staff to provide for control, custody, educational, recreational, occupational, and religious services as well as for specialized treatment programs. Medical services are an additional requirement of the institutional staff. The prison staff has the most contact with the inmate/residents during their incarceration. For some, this contact can extend over periods of years on a daily basis. There are negatives and positives to this situation. The stress of working in a prison over an extended period of time can take its toll. At the same time, the prison staff has an opportunity to develop positive, constructive human relationships with the prisoners in a way that perhaps no others have had, at least in terms of regularity and extended personal interchange. The potential negatives should be a point of consciousness to the clergyman, both in his own situation as well as in the need to stay close to prison staff members in ways that might ward off stress taking a toll. Clergymen working in prisons can examine ways of dealing with the general prison staff to capitalize on the positive opportunities which exist in the relationships occurring with inmates.

Parole staff begin their relationships with the inmate/resident shortly before the person is paroled or shortly thereafter. The relationship begins at a transition point, and may be intended to exist for years to come. There is a crucialness in what occurs in the relationship, for the parole officer has the power and the opportunity to intervene in the offender’s life as he or she returns to the community. Handled well, this effort holds the potential for turning the return to the community into a positive experience for the parolee, the parole officer and the community at large.

Parole officers need to know and utilize the full range of community resources to aid them in their efforts. This is particularly true in their use of counselling and treatment facilities as sources of referrals for parolees. Soundly religious-based facilities and counselors should be known and make themselves known to parole officials for such purposes. Furthermore, the resources of local churches should be considered, not to force or impose religion on anyone, but to capitalize on the resources available in the community that can help the parolee. There certainly is a role for the local church in reaching out to and welcoming into her midst, the newly returned prodigal son or daughter.

Parole officers and prison staff members have increasingly complex jobs and work under difficult situations. At times they jeopardize their own physical safety and that of their families. Their lives are by necessity and choice influenced by and have an influence on the lives of prisoners. The emotional and spiritual needs of the parolee and prison staff members should be part of the thought of those involved in prison ministry or interested in the plight of prisoners and those with whom they come into contact.

Chaplaincy in jails and prisons

The superintendent of a correctional facility for youth put this choice before a group of chaplains:

You’ve got to choose between the passive, traditional approach that places religion in a compartment somewhat removed from the rest of the program—or an aggressive and inspirational use of God’s greatest gift, his love for us, through a revitalization of religion as the basic core of all our treatment approaches. There is time for one or the other. What is your choice?

This is the choice all chaplains face. Bringing the fulness of the faith to reality is the challenge.

S.G. West, President of the Canadian Correctional Chaplains Association, took the position that the chaplain should not be a civil servant, but rather he should be supported by the religious body of which he is a part. In this way he would have the accompanying freedom to report to the religious body and to bring theology to bear in the correctional field. The importance of the insights of the chaplains coming through to the church, and from the church to the community was recognized. West’s position causes me to wonder at what point the Orthodox Church might be ready to make clergy readily available to the incarcerated?

Byron Eshelman, in his article on prison ministry, portrays it to be “specialized” and to a certain extent “offbeat.” He is not reluctant to say that prison ministry is not widely acclaimed in organized religion and that the organized church has a minimal interest in the prison chaplaincy. “Criminals are considered the dregs of society and the least likely prospects for respectable churches.” He sees a spiritual hunger, however, and a restlessness that is common to both the prisoner and to the suburbanite. It calls for a common mission of ministry to both groups. Augustine of Hippo is cited as describing this common ground: “God has made us for Himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”

Realism, expectations and considerations regarding changes in prisons and prisoners

One look at the physical structure of prisons will indicate very quickly that a lot of thought, planning, financial investment and effort has gone into their construction. It is not uncommon to find structures in use that appear to be a hundred years old or older. Many are constructed of large, thick stone blocks in a fortress-like manner. They were built to last and to endure efforts to penetrate them. Seldom are escape attempts successful. The structures reflect the commitment of a significant portion of the community. Changing the direction of or overcoming that commitment with alternatives is exceedingly difficult.

As the structures and their nature are difficult to change, so are the inhabitants. Many would not be there if they were open to change and efforts to help them to change. Many have been subjected to the best “rehabilitative” efforts the communities could provide. Some literally have been raised by public and private agencies, beginning first as foster children, then in children’s institutions as dependent, neglected or delinquent children, and later as adults in correctional facilities. Change for them and for those working with them comes hard.

The more I see of those who have been raised in public and private agencies and those who spend major portions of their lives behind bars, the more I am struck by what they lack in human relationships of a constructive, long term consistent manner. They lack relationships of a voluntary nature, formed in neighborhoods, on the job, in churches, in families, in interest areas. I am struck by the waste of talent. I am struck by the tragedies in their lives.

I see the great need for people to be there to care—to care for the individual—not to guard him or to feed him, or to teach him or to work him or to give him medicine—but to care enough to hear out his or her hopes and dreams, his or her hurts, his or her triumphs, his or her loves and hates, and through this listening process, to bring the person a little closer to the Kingdom of God. It is not a matter of romanticizing the situation or of ignoring the obstacles. There is no adequate substitute for sound human relations that are Christ-centered to bring about changes in life. And there is no ambiguity in Christ’s command, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world . . . I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt 25:34-46).

Orthodox people and programs offering POSITIVE examples

During the course of my travels and studies, I have met or learned about Orthodox Christians who, though few in number, have been making an effort to better things for the imprisoned. I have heard of accounts of parish priests who have taken a pastoral interest in various parishioners who have been incarcerated or may have a family member who is. Certainly there have been sermons that have been given particularly on Meat-Fare Sunday. Some priests and even choirs have traveled to institutions in order that Vespers or the Divine Liturgy could be experienced. There have been articles written in current books and church papers addressing the Church and the imprisoned.

At least one jurisdiction has developed a residential haven for those coming out of prison with no place to go. One Orthodox seminary provides a prison internship for interested seminarians. At least one county jail has had an Orthodox Chaplain who has made a difference. One inmate I spoke to was glad to receive her parish bulletin while she was many miles away. I will not forget the inmate who came to his parole interview with his Orthodox prayer book. In jails and prisons you don’t often see identifying marks of Orthodoxy. When you do, you remember them.

Remaining positive in the midst of the negative

Entering a prison can be a lonely and frightening experience. Prisoners are challenged and exhorted to change their lifestyles, to become productive citizens. To help them make the change, the resources of the Orthodox Church and the opportunity to be an active part of the Church should be available on a regular basis. The prison system and prisoners provide many reasons for gloom, frustration and anger. But somehow these emotions are not adequate. Hope and faith and love and peace seem more promising . . . They are available through the Orthodox Church and should be accessible to all!


1. Is there a prison in your area? If so, find out if there are Orthodox prisoners in it; whether an Orthodox chaplain visits there on a regular basis.

2. What would be some of the fears, some of the benefits, of working in a prison? Of visiting prisoners?

3. If you and other parishioners are interested in a ministry to prisoners, ask someone from the prison to come and talk to you about ways in which you can be of help.

Deacon Rodney Torbic is a hearing examiner for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is also the Religious Education Coordinator for the Eastern Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Deacon Torbic would be happy to give further information to anyone who would like to know more about prison ministry. He can be reached at (412) 741-4230, evenings.