Thursday, January 2, 2014

Prison Ministry

Several years ago I wrote this brief guide to "prison ministry", as an idea/proposal for discussion groups and also to share Shane Watson's story. I reprint it here, (updated for accuracy) as a means of stimulating conversation and thought about a subject easily overlooked by church and civic organizations.



There but For the Grace of God Go I: Prison Ministry

Will Duchon
 

To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good and no-one in his right mind will believe this today.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) French novelist, essayist and dramatist. 
 

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) American naturalist, poet and philosopher.  

“I am holding on and encouraged each time I hear from you, my brother. Pass my regards on to the family and the “Team”. I love each one of you like family because you all are the true meaning of family.”

Shane Watson (1965- ), inmate at Green Haven Correctional Facility. From a letter to Will Duchon in 2004

  

I. INTRODUCTION: with some personal thoughts on “ministry”, “prison ministry’, statistics and discussion questions.

 

For obvious reasons prison ministry is a specialized form of ministry.  But to begin with, I need to share a sentiment with you.  I am suspicious of anyone who claims to be a “minister. I say this because it seems to me that the essence of “ministry” is most vivid when ministry is understood to be a verb. In this sense, to “minister” is to give service, care, or aid; attend, as to wants or necessities. One who is truly “doing ministry” is not concerned with being perceived of as a “minister”; others may think of her/him this way, but the question is really unimportant. So to keep it simple, I choose to define the topic of “prison ministry” as simply the act of caring for someone who is in prison. In my visits to Green Haven Correctional Facility, I have witnessed many acts of “prison ministry” performed by people of all ages and races. I doubt these people would define themselves as “ministers”. To the imprisoned men on the receiving end of these visits I am certain that these “ministers” are truly sent from God.
 

Here are some cold statistics which can serve as a foundation for this study. The danger of statistics, of course, is that eventually one loses touch with the fact that these statistics represent actual people. But in order to keep the lofty term “prison ministry” in context, it is important to have a basic idea of what is going on in the United States prison system. So take a few moments to ponder the following statistics, gathered in June of 2006. Let’s preface these statistics with an alarming fact:

The United States imprisons more people than any nation on the planet.

U.S. incarceration rates by race, June 30, 2006:

  • Whites: 409 per 100,000
  • Latinos: 1,038 per 100,000
  • Blacks: 2,468 per 100,000

  • Females: 134 per 100,000
  • Males: 1,384 per 100,000
  • White males: 736 per 100,000
  • Latino males: 1,862 per 100,000
  • Black males: 4,789 per 100,000  

 

  • For White males ages 25-29: 1,685 per 100,000.
  • For Latino males ages 25-29: 3,912 per 100,000.
  • For Black males ages 25-29: 11,695 per 100,000. (That's 11.7% of Black men in their late 20s.)

 

These statistics clearly indicate the racial and gender bias permeating the criminal justice system. 
 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

 

  1. Why do you think prisoners are by far Black and Latino males?
  2. Have you known anyone who has spent time in jail or prison? If so, what are your perceptions of this person? If not, what image do you have of a “prisoner” or “convict”? 

II. SCRIPTURE REFERENCES FOR DISCUSSION:



Isaiah 58: 6-9 in this passage, the prophet Isaiah warns against empty ritual; and again reflects the essence of ministry.

 
“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?
 
“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
 
“Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
 
“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ 

 

III. “Two gathered in my name...” Personal Reflections and Shane Watson
 

Each person in prison has a story. Each person in prison has a personal history, and a tale to tell. The circumstances surrounding individual cases may vary, but there are probably more similarities than differences. What I have learned from my experience with getting involved in “prison ministry” is that the common themes shared by those incarcerated are these: drugs, lack of education, and poverty.  We talk of the Untied States being the most violent nation on the planet, in terms of the crime rate and the murder rate. I’ve come to believe that poverty is the worst form of violence, because it breeds desperation and loss of hope. 

In 2003 I began my correspondence with Mr. Shane Watson, who is currently serving 25 years to life sentence at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, NY. Over time, many letters and visits, I have come to know Shane very well. He is now 48 years old, a father,  and married to a special woman by the name of Paula  (Prisons allow inmates to marry and even have “honeymoons” of two days together in a trailer on the prison grounds.)  

Shane was convicted of second-degree murder in 1993, related to a shooting in the Bronx, NY in 1991. His case is a perfect example of an eyewitness case; the jury convicted Shane on the basis of the testimony of three eyewitnesses, and their subsequent ID of Shane in photo arrays and lineup procedures at the police precinct. There is no DNA evidence in Shane’s case. The victim, Mark Johnson, was shot three times at 11:30 PM on Schefflein Avenue in the Bronx.  Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend was standing about ten feet away from the victim, and could not identify the shooter. The other “eyewitnesses” gave conflicting statements to the police. None of the eyewitnesses claimed to see the face of the shooter, yet each identified Shane from a photo array and a lineup.
 

This is not the place to delve further into the details of Shane’s case. My point in relating this information is to illustrate a sad reality that exists in the criminal justice system. To me, what makes Shane Watson’s case so compelling is that his case is so “ordinary”. By this I mean, there is no celebrity, no high-priced lawyers, no scandal; just a simple case of the District Attorney’s office wanting to close the case of yet another shooting in the inner city. The victim of the shooting, Mark Johnson, was on parole for a homicide at the time of his death. He was known to be a drug dealer in the neighborhood. The police investigating Mr. Johnson’s death never bothered to check anyone connected to Mr. Johnson’s victim (the person he killed). The police also never bothered searching Shane Watson’s home for a gun or clothing with gunpowder residue. After studying Shane’s case (trial transcripts, police reports, etc.) it is very clear to me that his case is just another example of someone being wrongfully convicted of a crime.
 

While the majority of people in prison are in fact guilty of the crimes they have been convicted of, there are many cases like Shane Watson’s, where due to a flawed prosecution and/or suspect police procedures, someone is serving time having been wrongfully convicted.
 

What does this all have to do with “prison ministry”? I can say that despite the frustration I have encountered in my attempts to exonerate Shane, there has also been much healing and a deepening of friendship between Shane and me. We both talk of our families, and discuss problems and frustrations we have felt as fathers. I have come to know Shane’s mother, Joan, as well as Shane’s wife Paula, and my life has been enriched through these encounters. I have learned to be grateful for my freedom, and the ability to come and go as I please; something Shane has not known for fifteen years now. I can honestly say that in every meeting with Shane at Green Haven, I have felt the quiet presence of God. And when I’ve left the prison and walked through the parking lot to my car, I’ve always wondered who was being “ministered to”; Shane, or me?


 

IV. RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY

 

To begin a prison ministry of your own, I suggest first praying about it. There are several online resources you might investigate: 



Of course, you may also feel free to write to Shane Watson:

 

Din# 93A9384

Fishkill Correctional Facility
Box 1245
Beacon, NY 12508

 

 
For information/statistics about the prison system in the US:
 


 

Finally, there is an excellent book by Alan Elsner titled “Gates of Injustice” which examines the inconsistencies and bias that plague the prison system. Here is a link to Mr. Elsner’s book: 


 

 

I know not whether Laws be right or whether Laws be wrong; all that we know who live in prison is that the wall is strong; and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet and dramatist.

 

 

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