When South Carolina began locking down its prisons in March, the ministry Jumpstart had to quickly adjust. The organization’s leaders and volunteers typically partnered with about 150 trained inmates across 16 different prisons to run a 40-week discipleship program. But in response to COVID-19, prison officials began restricting the inmates’ movement, banning gatherings, and blocking visitors, including Jumpstart volunteers. The group is now limited to sending letters to its inmate leaders, many of whom are doing their best to carry on with classes from their dorms. Tommy Moore, the group’s executive director, said the system isn’t optimal, but lockdown leaves them few options.
“It is extremely difficult right now to communicate with inmates and assess what they’re feeling, how are they doing,” he said. “It’s just difficult.”
Inmates are not only vulnerable to contracting the virus because of the close quarters they live in, but also to the mental and emotional strain of isolation as facilities close their doors to visitors and programs. As the lockdown has stretched on for months, prison ministries have adapted to continue serving inmates. Some have even had new opportunities as prison officials reached out for help.
Just over 64,000 prisoners and 14,000 prison workers had tested positive for the coronavirus across the country as of July 14, according to the Marshall Project. More than half of those recovered, but the situation is ever-evolving. In March, April, and May, San Quentin State Prison in California reported no coronavirus infections. But after a prison transfer at the end of May, a third of its inmates contracted COVID-19 in June. “The sense of worry and anxiety is extremely high,” said James Ackerman, Prison Fellowship president and CEO.
Some organizations, like Prison Fellowship, have shifted their focus to providing inspirational materials for inmates. After the California Department of Corrections reached out to Prison Fellowship for material to use across its internal television network, the ministry established an online portal of digital content that it offered to other wardens and states. Now, prisons in 41 states and more than 400,000 prisoners have access to sermons, concerts, and other content.
Other ministries have followed the lead of churches and gone virtual. Church Unlimited and God Behind Bars in Texas used to hold nine meetings in four prisons with about 1,500 attendees each week. After prisons shut their doors to visitors in March, the ministry partnered with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to send DVDs to more than 100 prisons across the state.
Changing policies have left many inmates in need of a completely new kind of support. To limit overcrowding, the federal Bureau of Prisons has moved more than 7,000 prisoners into home confinement since March 26. At the same time thousands of prisoners were granted early or temporary release, many shelters and halfway houses closed due to the pandemic. During the first two weeks of April, Ministry on the Margins sheltered dozens of people, many transitioning out of prison, in motel rooms, according to Catholic Extension.
Prisons around the country are starting to open up, but the process, like with schools, will vary. Ohio is opening six state facilities to visitors throughout July, and Missouri, Oklahoma, and Delaware have also partially reopened some prisons with restrictions. But Moore has seen signs that the experience could have a positive, long-term impact on prison ministry. He said the pandemic has opened new conversations with churches about serving inmates and those recently released: “One thing I’m seeing is the body of Christ really reaching out to us and saying, ‘How can we serve you?’”