Volunteering with Prison Fellowship® opened actor Scott William Winters' eyes to a reality that TV can never fully capture.
Actor Scott William Winters has appeared in two Oscar-nominated films and close to 100 episodes of TV, including a recurring role as a prisoner in the HBO series "Oz." Off-screen, one of his greatest passions is prison ministry. He recently shared with Prison Fellowship about his experience volunteering behind bars—and how prisoners are much different than what we often see depicted on screen
Prison Fellowship: How did you first get involved in prison ministry?
SCOTT WILLIAM WINTERS: I've been volunteering with Prison Fellowship for about two years. I had heard a recorded message from [Prison Fellowship founder] Chuck Colson a long time ago, probably after college. I was drawn to his story, his voice. I love ministry and have wanted to engage prison ministry for a while, so I Googled prison ministry, and Prison Fellowship came up. I submitted an application online and started the whole vetting process.
What kinds of classes do you lead in prison?
Oddly enough, the first class we taught had the title of a movie, but on another level it's super practical—Anger Management. The next one was a marriage course. We've taught a lot of life-skills and reentry courses. I go weekly into Terminal Island Federal Prison, and I always get totally ministered to when I go in and teach.
Scott William Winters is an actor and Prison Fellowship volunteer.
Did you have any reservations going in?
I went in with a field director the first time. I have one colleague that I go in with regularly now. It's good to know you aren't alone, but I wasn't really concerned about my safety. But I would have to ask myself the question, Is the blood of Jesus powerful enough to completely redeem even sex offenders? I knew the answer was yes, intellectually; but I kind of had to sit with it so I could know it experientially.
How is prison different from what people see in movies and on TV?
There's a real stigma against prisoners because of film and television. Our culture is so performance-based. What comes with that is a culture of inauthenticity and appearance. The favorite question becomes, "What do you do for a living?" What you do seems to define people in our society here in the West. That stigma was shattered as I rapidly developed a deep affection for the prisoners. The biggest misconception is that they're different than us. We all fall short of the glory of God.
Has anything surprised you about volunteering in prison?
As an actor, I did an HBO series called "Oz," which was one of the first dramatic TV series about prison. I played a prisoner on it. I was around that atmosphere, where the set looked like it was based on a real prison. There were COs [correctional officers], every element of a real prison, but ultimately it was a TV show. When they called "Cut" [to end a scene], we could walk over and grab a coffee and a sandwich. Obviously, that's not how it is in real prison. It was a massive difference. I've always had compassion, but I didn't know what it was like inside. I don't think anybody does unless they've been there.
What are some of the challenges of volunteering in prison?
This sounds like a greeting card, but until you've walked in someone else's shoes, you don't know what they've gone through. Some of the stories make your stomach curl. There were times when I just cried in the parking lot with my colleague. I see prisoners living in a tiny cell, separated from their families—a living nightmare. They become heroes to me, knowing that they can still get out of bed and choose to believe that Jesus is King and that He has redeemed them.
What are some of the most memorable moments you've had?
This one particular guy just has a grin on his face whenever we come. I'll just start talking and he'll start smiling because we're discussing what God's already been showing him all week. God really prepares their hearts before we come in. I also remember a time when I was going around the group discussion circle, just giving them a blessing and assuring them how much their Father in heaven loves them. A lot of them have wounds from their earthly fathers. So I love reminding them of who the Lord says they are, as opposed to culture—as opposed to what they've carried with them their whole life.
What would you say to someone who is considering a volunteer role at Prison Fellowship?
I think it would serve everybody who reads this to engage in prison ministry, even as an experiment they don't have to commit to yet. Start with a day and see what happens. Jesus says, in Matthew 25, "I was in prison and you visited me," and whatever you do for others, you're doing for Him. It's a total privilege to let your light shine to people who are living in really horrible circumstances. They need your love and your light. If it feels risky, that's OK, because the greatest rewards come with risk.
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