TLC Jail Ministry
by Paul Muller
How does jail ministry work? Here is a short description of what we do when we visit inmates in the county jail.
The Ventura County jail consists of two facilities operated by the Sheriff’s Department – the main jail at the government center that holds some 1100 male inmates and a separate facility at Todd Road in Santa Paula where about 500 men and women are housed. The jail ministry is conducted by Chaplain John Gatlin, who reports to the Sheriff, and who supervises about 50 volunteers drawn from churches throughout the county, including Trinity Ventura and Ascension Lutheran in Thousand oaks. Each week volunteers are assigned on a rotating schedule to visit inmates at the two facilities, and we s serve in the main jail roughly twice a month.
On the assigned Sunday morning, volunteers arrive at the main jail at 7:30 AM where the Chaplain assigns us to one of the eight residential sections of the main jail. When I arrive at the assigned section the deputy electrically opens door to a small interview room that is maybe 8 ft by 10 ft. There is a metal table bolted to the floor and some plastic chairs. A typical session for me is to visit with 4 to 5 inmates for about 45 minutes, and we try to get two sessions in each Sunday.
So what do we talk about? This varies from volunteer to volunteer but generally takes the form of a bible study. Some of us use the lectionary readings for the day and some focus on specific bible verses. Most of the inmates I meet in jail are Christians – they grew up in the church as children and want to reactivate their spiritual lives. They generally have received Gideon bibles from the Chaplain and so we try to get some kind of overview of the bible and how to read it most effectively. My goal is to bring the Lutheran message of forgiveness and about how we are all in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We talk about how the sacrifice of Jesus redeemed our sins, how this is a gift received through faith and how we are simultaneously sinners and saints. I tell them that putting God first and serving our neighbor is the best way for Christians to act, and we discuss how this can be done inside the jail, in state prison or outside in society.
The bigger challenge, I believe, is for those inmates about to be released. Inside the jail there are comparatively few distractions – and I encourage inmates to use their stay as a time for spiritual training. But once back in society, the responsibilities and complications of life multiply exponentially, and this is when it becomes overwhelming for many. Frustration, anger and escape through drugs set in, and the cycle of incarceration repeats. It would surely be better for all of us if we actually treated drug addiction instead of punishing it with jail time. It would surely be better if our economic system could provide enough jobs with a living wage, as well as accessible educational opportunities and affordable housing. As Christians we need to work for these things because the increasing concentration of wealth and privilege in our society is unjust as well as immoral.
Some of the strongest Christians I have ever met are in jail, as are some of the most vulnerable. Please pray for the inmates and our jail ministry as we try to bring encouragement and God’s word to a place that needs to hear the Good News.