Alabama Prison Ministries Encourage Personal, Spiritual Growth

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When an inmate enters Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., she loses her old life. But in Alicia Smallwood’s eyes, she also gains an opportunity for a new life in Christ regardless of past or present circumstances. 

“She (the inmate) can’t see her kids, can’t help the person who is taking care of them. She thinks she has lost everything,” said Smallwood, a chaplain. “I tell her that God has cleared her mind of drugs, of men, of stealing. In here it’s just her and God, and it’s up to her whether she takes advantage of that.”

In prisons throughout Alabama, chaplains and ministry volunteers share the same message of hope and freedom in Jesus Christ that pastors preach from the pulpit every Sunday. In the setting of a prison, the message of forgiveness of sins is a powerful one, Smallwood said. Not every inmate wants to hear it, but that doesn’t stop Smallwood and other Christian chaplains from trying.

A forgiving God

“Each woman here (at Tutwiler) has made mistakes. Some of them have made terrible mistakes. But God is a forgiving God and what I say to them is that God has placed you in timeout. He has taken you away from everything and everybody, and it’s time to look inward and concentrate on you. And that’s what a lot of them do,” Smallwood said.

Nearly 46,000 inmates were in Alabama prisons and local jails in 2014, according to the most recent statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. Another 61,400 individuals were on probation or parole at the end of 2014. With 1,220 prisoners for every 100,000 legal residents age 18 or older, Alabama ranks third behind Louisiana and Oklahoma, respectively, on the list of states with the highest rate of incarceration based on population. The national average is 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents. The total U.S. prison population is 2.2 million, with another 4.7 million on probation or parole.

Those are big numbers but each person represented in the number is a human being made in the image of God who must be respected as such, said Harold Dean Trulear, national director of Healing Communities, an organization that seeks to provide tools for prison ministry and prison re-entry programs. The Bible is clear on how followers of Christ are to treat the prisoner, which is why the church has to be involved in prison ministry, he said.

“We’re trying to say to the church, ‘The prisoner is as valuable as the sick person.’ If we want to distance ourselves from the prison population, we have to distance ourselves from the Bible,” Trulear said, noting Jacob’s son, Joseph, the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, John the Baptist, the apostles Peter and Paul, as well as those who escaped prosecution for criminal acts, including King David, as prisoners in the Bible. Jesus was a prisoner when He died for the sins of humanity, Trulear said.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Carrie Brown