article and photographs By Joe Westbury
I told people that God was just a fairytale and anyone who believed in
Him was a fairy. But when I met Him through a Bible study my life
Gene Jenkins stopped outside Johns residence on a Saturday morning, noticed
he was home, introduced himself and launched a conversation. Before that day,
the two men had never met but that didnt slow them down as they explored common
John had been homebound for 25 years and didnt get many visitors, so he
relished the encounter. His physical needs were being met, but he had other
needsspiritual and emotionalthat could only be met through human contact. Johns
greatest need was to hear that Christ loved him and had died for the
forgiveness of his sins.
Thats why Gene stopped by Johns cell at Louisiana
State Penitentiary at Angola. John didnt accept Christ on that first visitfew
dobut he did ask Gene several probing questions about eternity and how God
could forgive even a convicted felon of his sins.
Gene chalked up this first visit to preparing the soil and planting the
seed, steps required before the harvest. Subsequent visits would be dedicated
to tending the soil, watering the seed and being a Christian friend.
A growing number of men and women are discovering the joys of prison
ministry as the government opens the doors of faith-based initiatives to
Christians. Christians working on the inside of the razor wirefrom wardens to
chaplains to security officersare counting on churches to respond with mission
teams who will bring spiritual awakening to the nations prisons and jails.
Whether they come to lead Bible studies, present gospel music concerts, lead
revival services or just serve as a listening ear, volunteers are needed to
walk alongside chaplains in the nations prisons and jails.
Becoming involved in what are today known as
faith-based initiatives is not tied to the current political climate.
Regardless of what occurs in the political arena, prisons such as Louisiana
State Prison at Angola will continue to use chaplains and volunteers in varying
capacities to bring spiritual healing.
Angola Fast FactS
On the dark sideThere are 5,108 inmates at the
state facility, which is the nations largest maximum security prison.
The prison is spread out across a massive 18,000 acres, half of which once
was a slave-breeding plantation in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
90 percent of the inmates will die at the facility due to the length of
The average sentence is 90 years.
3,200 inmates are serving life sentences.
On the bright side98 inmates have completed
seminary degrees through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary since the
first graduation ceremony in 1998.
92 inmates currently serve as inmate pastors.
13 inmates are on two-year missionary assignments to other prisons within
Several churches currently meet at the prison, with a portion of their
tithes and offerings going to fund the missionary program which sends inmates
to state churches and Bible studies at other prisons.
Faith-based initiatives in prisons, such as that being modeled at Angola,
have half the recidivism rates of traditional prisons. In Louisiana, that means
55 percent of inmates in traditional programs return to prison after being
released, while that number drops to only 25 percent for Angola inmates.
In Louisiana, inmates who dont return to Angola after serving their time
save the taxpayer roughly $48 a day in incarceration fees, or $17,520 annually.
Thus, Warden Cain maintains that faith-based programs are good for the
All facts provided by Louisiana State Prison, Angola
What sets Angola apart from other correctional institutions is that its
approach of moral and spiritual rehabilitation is nearing its first decade and
shows no sign of slowing down. The crime rate at Angola continues to drop,
inmates continue to come to Christ and start churches, and the phenomenon is
giving jail house religion a new meaning.
Angola, known for decades as the nations bloodiest maximum security prison,
has become the poster child for showcasing how the gospel can redeem hardened
criminals. When Warden Burl Cain set foot on the sprawling complex in 1994,
conditions were so bad it was under martial law. Today it literally houses the
same violent offendersthe average sentence is 90 yearsbut they are more at
peace with themselves, and they credit the gospel with the transformation.
Warden Cain has made a believer out of many skeptics who maintain jailhouse
conversions mean nothing to long-term rehabilitation.
One of the greatest challenges we face at Angola is giving hope where there
is no hope. Thats where God comes in, he says in his blunt, unapologetic
Cain, a Southern Baptist, for nearly 10 years has allowed Christians of many
denominations to come into the prison and share the gospel on a regular basis.
It all began with an Experiencing God Bible study with the inmates and
continues with inmates, armed with degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological
Seminary, being transferred as two-year missionaries to other prisons within
A movement of new churches began to spread and the original handful of
churches has grown to nearly 30, with the number of inmate pastors mushrooming
to about 80. The result is multiplication: those won to Christ through the
interaction of volunteers with inmates, and inmates with inmates, have resulted
in other new believers receiving seminary degrees and starting churches in
This is no longer the bloodiest prison in America, said inmate Donald
Biermann. You cant even see a good fist fight anymore.
Biermann should know; he admits to starting his fair share of them.
I had no biblical knowledge before four years ago. At age 44 my life was
controlled by hate and indifference. I had been in prison in three states and
had been locked up more years than I had been free.
I came to Angola functionally illiterate and could not read or write, just
fight. There was no solution to any problem I had met outside of severe
violence. I told people that God was just a fairytale and anyone who believed
in Him was a fairy. But when I met Him through a Bible study my life
Angola has become a place of radical transformation, and we owe a lot of
the credit to the volunteers who have helped to turn this place upside down for
Incarceration: A hidden cancerThe cost of
incarceration extends far beyond the one individual who has been tried and
sentenced for his or her crime against society. Here is a look at the national
toll as it affects society at the family level.
An average of three immediate family members and numerous extended family
members of the victims are affected by each incarceration. For example, the
human toll approaches 500,000 in the state of Louisiana.
Nationwide there are more than 2 million children who have one or more
parents who are incarcerated.
Children of inmates are six times more likely to be incarcerated than
others. Warden Burl Cain says many of them are the next generation of Americas
prisoners. The solution? Churches are being handed a golden opportunity to
reach out in ministry to the children and spouses of those behind bars.
A church meets somewhere every day of the week at Angola. Those inmates like
Biermann who show a commitment to such a fellowship are allowed to enroll in
the seminary program and receive a full degree. Once that is completed they
become inmate pastors and can help start a church in one of the cell blocks or
Those who have proven themselves are allowed to be transferred to other
prisons within the state to start Bible studies that will grow into
churcheschurches that reproduce themselves within the facility. The approach
has become so popular that staff from other prisons visit Angola to study the
strategy and are requesting that inmate pastors be loaned to their facilities.
(Inmates are not allowed out of state because of the complicated extradition
Chaplain Supervisor Robert Toney, a Southern Baptist, who supervises the
program and oversees chaplains of all faiths at Angola, says the miracle at
Angola defies explanation outside of God.
When you put these inmate pastors all over the prison system and allow them
to perform one-on-one ministry and counseling, lives begin to be changed.
Angola has become a place of radical transformation, and we owe a lot of the
credit to the volunteers who have helped turn this place upside down for
Toney stresses that inmates spiritual activity is monitored to assure that
they are serious about their conversion and are not participating to gain favor
with the administration. Once there is evidence of a conversion, the inmate is
slowly allowed more freedom to interact with other inmate pastors and be
mentored in church-starting methodology.
Chaplain Robert Toney speaks to a crowd of inmates at Angola prison during a
Cain agrees with the role of volunteers in making a difference at the
maximum security facility. He has seen impressive results from the efforts of
Weve removed some inmates from suicide watch after volunteers have worked
with them for a while. At the height of Angolas violence we saw 40 murders in
one year. Now things have improved so much that weve gone as long as seven
years at a stretch with no murders. You cant argue with the facts.
John Yarbrough, vice president of Evangelization at the North American
Mission Board, spends time with an inmate on death row.
Cain attributes this relative calm to the common sense observation that
prisoners need to have peace restored to their lives.
What needs to take place in the prison is the creation of an atmosphere of
spiritual healing. These people are woundedit doesnt matter why they are
Restorative justice is whats at work at Angola, largely due to volunteers
who regularly come to share their faith with the inmates. Cain knows that he
and his staff are limited as to the degree that they can make a spiritual
difference at the facility due to the roles they have to play. But thats where
the role of volunteers comes into focus.
The staff and I cant plant the seed. Were the taskmasters whose job it
is to see that these inmates remain in prison, he explains. But the chaplains
and volunteers can step into that gap and bring hope.
Volunteers include Tim King of Watson, Louisiana, a member of Greenwell
Springs Baptist Church. King is typical of volunteers who step behind prison
razor wire for the first time and are surprised at what they find.
I talked to some inmates who were not believers, and we had a good visit,
but I also found several who were growing in their faith on a regular basis.
That was a surprise I didnt expect to find at a prison, he says.
Prisoners bow their heads as the chaplain prays during an outdoor revival at
King has been so blessed by the encounters that hes not content to settle
for an occasional visit.
Ive decided that I want to make a long-term commitment. Those guys arent
going anywhere theyll be there 20 or 30 years from now and theyre counting on
Taking the first steps to prison ministry
If you feel the Lord is leading you to become involved in a prison ministry,
share your vision with those in your local ministry groupwhether it be a
Baptist Men on Mission fellowship or Womans Missionary Union meeting. Determine
if any individuals in these groups may be open to this exciting avenue of
Next, ask your pastor if he is aware of any such ministry that currently
exists in your county. If so, perhaps he can provide you with a contact person
to explore your joining that ministry.
If he is not aware of any such group, visit your associational missions
office to determine if there are any Southern Baptist chaplains serving in a
correctional facility in your area, or if there are existing ministries with
other evangelicals. Your associational missions office is a wealth of
information for becoming personally involved in evangelistic ministries.
Another option would be to call your state convention office and inquire of
the department that coordinates chaplain ministry. That department should be
able to provide you with names and phone numbers of pastors or laypersons who
serve as fulltime or volunteer chaplains.
If there is no ministry option in your area, consider starting such a
ministry from scratch. The best way would be for you and your pastor or
associational missionary to schedule a visit with the chaplain at the local
facility to explore launching a ministry. The chaplain will explain the
protocol regarding allowing laypersons into the facility and will help pave the
way within the guidelines established by the sheriff or warden.
For more information from NAMB, click HERE or call 770-410-6365.
Joe Westbury is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC