Alabama has an incarceration crisis. In 2018, 946 out of every 100,000 residents were incarcerated, placing the state in the top five within the United States. More than half of the state’s incarceration population is black.
Women and people of color constitute a frightening rise in the number of Alabama inmates over the past 40 years. Between 1978 and 2017, our state’s number of female prisoners increased more than sevenfold. Black imprisonment increased 193%.
In the U.S., incarceration has increased more than fourfold since 1970. One in every three people (approximately 77 million in 2018) has a criminal record and as a result most likely suffers discrimination, as well as limited access to education, employment, housing and other opportunities.
The number of women inmates in the U.S. also has soared. Currently, almost 1 in 4 of the nation’s prison admissions is female.
What do these statistics mean for the Church? Half of all Americans have a loved one who either is or has been incarcerated. Men and women in the nation’s congregations have been greatly affected by crime and imprisonment, even if they don’t talk about it.
After serving a prison sentence and being released back into society, a returning citizen can face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, is high, with more than 75% of returning citizens re-arrested within five years.
In 2017, Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by the late Charles Colson, a convicted criminal who served time in an Alabama prison, launched the first Second Chance Month.
The organization designated April as the month for churches nationwide to raise awareness about the problem of incarceration and to help people with criminal records unlock a better future. Second Chance Month has the potential to reach 70 million Americans who have paid their debt in prison to society.
Prison Fellowship Ministries works on the belief that “no life is beyond the reach of God’s power.” The organization envisions “a future in which countless prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families are redeemed, restored and reconciled through the love and truth of Jesus Christ.” To that end, PFM seeks “to prepare Christian inmates to become leaders of their families, communities and churches once they are released back into the community.”
It also endeavors “to support prisoners’ families, helping them become reconciled to God and one another through the power of the gospel and supported by transformative relationships with local churches.”
What can your church do? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Identify people in your congregation who are, or have been, in prison.
- Pray for them and their families, especially their children.
- Write regular notes assuring them your church loves and prays for them. Send cards on special occasions.
- Show acts of kindness, including them in church activities, becoming knowledgeable about and helping them with specific individual, personal and family needs.
- Invite newly released prisoners and their families into your church. Let them know they are an important part of the congregation.
- Educate church members about the problems caused by imprisonment. Research the increasing national and state incarceration rates and the barriers faced by returning citizens as they try to integrate back into society.
- Form special groups within the church to study and discuss how to appropriately minister to prisoners and their families.
- Investigate and partner with agencies and programs in your community that actively address prisoners’ needs.
- Invite speakers to your congregation to talk about the challenge incarceration brings and to provide practical ways the church can respond.
- Host a Second Chance Sunday emphasis in your church. Prison Fellowship Ministries will provide a free Second Chance toolkit, a carefully cultivated guide with material and activities that will enable your church to create a climate where everyone feels loved, embraced, cared for and remembered in spite of painful past experiences.
PFM’s free Second Chance toolkit includes:
- sermon notes
- a discussion guide for small groups
- sample bulletin inserts
- children’s coloring pages.
Scripture calls and encourages Christ’s followers to minister to the imprisoned. The writer of Hebrews urges: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb. 13:3).
To receive the free Second Chance toolkit from Prison Fellowship Ministries, go to tabonline.org/toolkit.
For more information on prison ministries in Alabama, go to tabonline.org/prisons.