Kelsa Battig is a training and learning services intern at Prison Fellowship Ministries. She is currently studying English at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
My first step on the grounds is memorable for two reasons: it was my first time inside a federal prison, and I was stung by a bee. My swollen foot gave me one more reason to be nervous. I kept walking, glancing with surprise at my surroundings.
The prison grounds were beautiful. Leafy trees offered their shade to the prison yard. Flowers bloomed (hence the bee). Even birds flittered about, chirping.
The warden explained what I was seeing: “The community wanted the prison grounds to mirror the rest of their town. … They insisted that the trees stay.”
His assistant added that the peaceful environment eases tension, with which I heartily agreed.
Bold Faith and Compassion
When we entered the dining hall, I was hesitant to speak with any of the prisoners. I had no idea how to start a conversation. I was relieved when a Prison Fellowship staff member motioned at me to join his conversation with an inmate.
“This is my second time.” the prisoner was saying. “I don’t want to come back here anymore! I have a life to live out there!”
I was amazed by the hope in his eyes. I listened as the staff member told him to make a plan so he didn’t end up in prison again. He advised him to get involved in a life-skills program.
After we got some food and sat down in the Officer’s Mess, I immediately began to eat, reasoning that I would pray in my heart. After all, we had just explained that we were here to learn about the role of the warden, not to evangelize.
But to my surprise, the assistant warden bowed his head to pray.
Conviction flashed through me. This man, employed by the federal government, was not ashamed to identify with Jesus, while I, an intern employed by a Christian organization, had sidestepped an opportunity to express my faith.
Later, as we toured GED classrooms, a reentry division, a drug rehab program, and some cells, I watched the assistant warden through new eyes. At every stop he took time to speak words of encouragement to each of the inmates. He made eye contact, smiled, and laughed. The prisoners were not a statistic to him. They were people with struggles and hopes and the potential to change their lives.
After witnessing the assistant warden’s compassion, I decided to talk to some of the prisoners.
First was a man working as a graphic designer in the Federal Prisons Industries factory. I learned that he had been incarcerated since he was 19.
“I didn’t grow up until I came to prison. I’m 36 now. I make $200 a month,” he told me. “The first 10 years I spent paying victim restitution. … It took a while before I matured and realized that I had a responsibility to the victim. Now that I paid the restitution, I can send money to my daughter, who lives in Texas. I only get to see her once or twice a year. It’s hard to be a good dad from far away.”
Next, I met four prisoners and their therapy-dogs-in-training. I watched as the dogs turned on light switches and helped a fallen person to his feet.
Their handlers glowed with pride. “Good boy!” one said, feeding his pup a treat.
I asked the prisoners why they were involved in the program. One handler said he loved how dogs could brighten up a day and noted that they brought a smile to even the toughest inmate.
Another explained that his dog had taught him about responsibility. “I have my dog with me all the time — she even sleeps in a crate in my cell,” he said. “I take her training seriously because I know she is going to help someone who needs her. It gives me a sense of purpose while I am here.”
Just Like Me
I heard many other stories in those five short hours: a man who glowed with joy when we pointed to the Bible in his cell, an older man holding himself accountable for his drug addiction, another man who had turned himself in for committing fraud on Wall Street, now teaching the other inmates about careers and reentry.
These men are fathers, employees, teachers, friends, and dog trainers. Many are seeking to change their lives and pursue a hopeful future.
When I first arrived, I could only see the prisoners through the lens of their crimes. However, as I watched the assistant warden and interacted with the inmates myself, I realized that they are just like me. We are all broken sinners in need of redeeming grace. None of us is a statistic to the One who leaves the 99 to seek out the one lost sheep.
Prison Fellowship Ministries works to come alongside men like the ones I met on my prison visit. Through in-prison classes and Bible studies, reentry courses, and family programs like Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship and its ministry partners are encouraging men and women as they seek to change the direction of their lives. To learn how you can join us in encouraging prisoners, please visit www.prisonfellowship.org.