- Interview (01:37)
- Reflection: Bespoke Responses to Universal Calls (26:28)
- Prayer (31:35)
In the spring of last year, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took a look at how the spread of COVID-19 was affecting the way Christians worked on a range of public issues. At the time, none of us expected the pandemic to go on for as long as it has. Over the past year, a lot of ministries have had to deal with the fact that a full year of sickness, death and social distancing has changed their mission field in profound ways.
We’re going to start inviting back some of those guests to give us updates on the pandemic has changed their work moving forward. A transcript of this week’s interview, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.
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If you want to learn more about Prison Fellowship’s work helping people re-enter communities after their incarceration is over, you can watch their new documentary, A New Day.
Heather: A lot has changed for folks in prison. One of the biggest changes is the lack of volunteers ability to go in. So for us at Prison Fellowship, it’s meant we’ve had to put a stop to a lot of … programming, but we’ve been able to get creative. In terms of protocols, COVID-19 has been spreading. We actually have an interactive map tracking the number of reported cases of people with COVID-19 in prisons and the number of deaths, unfortunately. That’s something we’ve been really concerned about and raising awareness about, asking criminal justice systems at the state level and at the federal level to consider releasing people who don’t need to be incarcerated to home confinement or other forms of relief so that the spread would not continue.
And certainly those working in corrections have been working to make sure that protocols are being taken, but a lot of programming has been put to a halt because of COVID-19. The world is super strange, but the world of people in prison is even more so. And a lot of people haven’t seen their family, their kids for visitation in a very, very long time.
Rick: You mentioned that you all are tracking the infection rates and the death rates among incarcerated people. All other things being equal, how does being incarcerated affect how you can expect COVID to affect your life?
Heather: You really have no ability to social distance. You are inside a locked facility. For the people working in corrections, you are coming in, going out, being in contact with lots of people. So there is a higher rate of infection happening in prisons. We finally started to see more prisons have been rolling out vaccinations for people working in prison or living in prison, which has been exciting.
Rick: And what are vaccination rates like for people who work in corrections and people who are incarcerated?
Heather: Every jurisdiction is different, but we know that most states prioritized people working in corrections as equivalent to healthcare workers or nursing home workers. Some states or jurisdictions put people who are living in prison on the same par as corrections, while some states made their vaccinations a little bit later in the prioritization line. So every state is different and there are some that I think have done a pretty good job of rolling out the vaccine to their incarcerated population pretty quickly.
Rick: You mentioned that you all have been working with state-level corrections departments to advocate for people who are able to be released to home confinement to get released to home confinement, but the nature of advocacy work, especially when you’re doing it state-by-state is that obviously some states will do this and some won’t. For people who are not able to be released home confinement, that has to be stressful at the best of times. But during a pandemic, when they are locked in a small space with many, many other people and a disease is spreading, then that has to compound both the stress and the isolation of incarceration.
How are the people, your organization ministers to holding up?
Heather: People are doing the best they can. We have been really encouraged in some aspects because we have just seen people cling to God during this time. We actually just put out a story sharing about how we have a chaplain store where chaplains can order Bibles for people who are incarcerated. And we’ve never seen such demand as there has been during COVID-19 for the word of God to come into prison. And I think that speaks to the need for communion and fellowship, even if that’s not with brothers and sisters in Christ in the same room. People are asking for God’s word to be sent in. So that’s been really encouraging.
We’ve done the very best we can to try and keep in touch with our program participants, even where our staff has not had the opportunity to go in, and have had some interesting virtual programming opportunities to connect with people. Flick Shop is an organization founded by a friend of mine, Marcus Bullock, an amazing man who was formerly incarcerated. Their app allows you to send a postcard with pictures and a note to your loved one in prison, making it really easy to stay in touch. We actually partnered with them at the beginning of the pandemic to give free credits for people to send those postcards to their loved ones. That was one way we were able to keep in touch with some of our program participants and encourage them during this time.
But it’s definitely very hard on families. People are very worried, and getting information about how your loved one is doing, particularly if they are sick, can be incredibly stressful for families.
Rick: And so how are families and how are the incarcerated dealing with that? What is being compounded by this isolation?
Heather: When people can’t contact their loved one, when they’re in prison, you can just imagine how hard it is. Even for us out in the community, right? We’re doing the best we can with phone calls and FaceTime, but it’s really not quite the same. And visits were already pretty minimal, even prior to COVID-19. You crave that opportunity to actually see your loved one, for you or your child to come and visit. So that’s been really, really hard.
Our largest program is Angel Tree, which serves children of incarcerated parents. We do a lot of programming with them, including summer camps and sports camps around this time of year. Last year, a lot of those things were put to a halt and we were calling and talking to caretakers of the children of the incarcerated that we serve. (50% of our caretakers of Angel Tree children are actually that child’s parent who’s not incarcerated.) They were experiencing a lot of hardship, not only this distance and loneliness and asking for prayer, but also economic hardship, as well. And so we couldn’t host kids for summer camps last summer, but we sent Angel Tree sports camp care packages and summer camp care packages to hundreds and hundreds of families. We were able to give them a sports ball and a gift certificate to a local grocery store. We’ve had to pivot and think about how we can still support people during this time, even when our normal course of programming isn’t possible. We’ve been blessed to be able to provide those kinds of resources though, to our Angel Tree families.
Rick: When I think about the like stress, and frustrations and challenges of incarceration, I focus so much on thinking about the day-to-day experience that I tend to not think that much about the stress of not knowing if your children are well-cared-for. That’s a form of ministry to people who are incarcerated that caught me by surprise. It made perfect sense once you hear about it, but it is thoughtful and creative in a way that’s really encouraging. You had mentioned earlier that you’ve had to get more creative because of COVID. How else have you all had to adapt over the past year?
Heather: Two points in particular I’d love to share: The first one is, shortly after COVID-19 shut down the world and we weren’t able to send volunteers in, we got a call from the California Department of Corrections to bring hope to people. So that launched what is now called Floodlight. We have compiled all sorts of Christian content: Messages of hope; the events that we would normally do inside prisons, we’ve recorded in a virtual fashion; we’ve partnered with folks like Alpha and Celebrate Recovery and others to provide digital content on this platform that corrections facilities can actually access and then put up on closed circuit networks or tablets, if the prison has tablets, which are becoming more and more popular, especially now during COVID 19.
And so it started with this request from California. We launched it, we’ve been adding things to it. We’ve been trying to model what we share on there after our Prison Fellowship Academy, our in-prison program curriculum model, and the core lessons that we teach. So we’re really trying to refine it at this point and it’s here to stay. And now Floodlight is available in almost every state across the country. So it’s just spread the country over the past year, which has been really exciting. And we’re able to provide that digital content, even though we’re just starting to get the opportunity to go back into some of our facilities.
More recently, in April, during Easter, it was a tradition of our founder, the late Chuck Colson, to visit those in prison during Easter. And we historically have hosted some Easter Hope events, which are events where we share the message of the gospel and the Easter message with folks, usually have a worship service of some kind for people behind the walls. It’s a really encouraging time. Of course, we were not able to go into many prisons, but we started proposing a new idea: Could we bring a Hope event just outside the walls? So we’ve actually done several events where we have had our worship performers or others perform just outside the fence of the prison. People who are incarcerated are able to join us socially distanced in the yard, and we’re able to worship together and pray for them and speak to them. That’s been really, really powerful.
And finally, I’ll also say for Angel Tree, our biggest activity is during Christmas. Churches partner with us to deliver a gift on behalf of the incarcerated parent to their child, with a note from that incarcerated parent to their child. And we were still able, despite COVID-19, to serve over 200,000 children, because we also pivoted to creating a virtual Angel Tree option. If you weren’t comfortable delivering the gift to the child, or that wasn’t possible for your church, you could actually be matched to a child in your local community online and we would facilitate making sure the gift, and offer of the gospel, and a note from their parent was actually sent via mail to that child and delivered to them this year. So because of that, we were able to serve 200,000 children despite COVID-19 by creating this virtual Angel Tree platform. And that’s something that we also will probably continue doing into the future, as well as Floodlight. And so the Lord, I think, has used this time for us to get creative and say, these are not just bandage measures, in some cases.
Rick: Just to get a sense of the scope, you said you were able to serve 200,000 children. That number sounded enormous to me, but what percentage of children with incarcerated parents is that? Is that most children in the country whose parents are incarcerated? Or is that a drop in the bucket? Or is it somewhere in-between?
Heather: Unfortunately, it’s not most. There’s over 2 million children with a parent who’s incarcerated right now. However, that comes down to 1.5 million when we’re looking at children who have a parent who’s in prison, and for the most part that’s who we target to serve for Angel Tree, because the in-and-out of the jail system is quite quick. Otherwise, you might sign someone up to do Angel Tree and they might be home by Christmas. That’s a better present than Angel Tree Christmas, of course! So we primarily have incarcerated parents sign up from prison. So there’s 1.5 million children estimated to be in that pool of children that we serve. And prior to COVID, we, we were able to serve over 300,000 children. This year, it was 225,000. That was primarily due to, it was really hard to get access to the prisons for parents to sign up their children during COVID-19. And then also, not as many churches participated. But it was about level with the signups, so every child who was signed up, we served last year, which was, was awesome. But we want to continue rebuilding that and growing that so that we’re able to reach more children who have an incarcerated parent in prison.
Rick: Last year, when we talked on the podcast, we spent a good chunk of it diving into the idea of restorative justice and contrasting that against the idea of punitive justice. You said a year ago that it seemed like we were starting to see the idea of restorative justice gain momentum, both among the population and among policy-makers, but that it’s got a long way to go. How has the pandemic affected that momentum? Is there less momentum for restorative movements since they’re so hands-on and interactive, or have the rates of infection among incarcerated populations highlighted the need for restorative movements among people who might’ve been hesitant about them a year ago?
Heather: It’s a little bit of both. In some ways the pandemic has forced lawmakers to think about who they incarcerate. Are we incarcerating them for public safety reasons? Or can we actually handle accountability in a different way? We have seen some jurisdictions allow for the safe release of folks who do not need to be there. Even with how pre-trial detention is handled, there has been more of a willingness in some jurisdictions to do things differently. Hopefully states will see the effect of that and some of those things will hopefully be here to stay.
On the other hand, people are often not as well-prepared to be released from prison or jail during this time. Re-entry supports are really lacking. There’s some reporting out from reentry organizations about how poorly many of them are fairing in terms of getting resources out to people and meeting needs. It’s already a difficult time, regardless of COVID-19, to be reentering the community, and there’s a lot of barriers that people face. And we certainly have seen in certain jurisdictions where crime rates are going up, that can cause a knee-jerk reaction for people to take a more punitive approach.
Rick: You said that a question that’s being raised for lawmakers now is, “Who are we incarcerating and why?” Can you give me some, any specific stories about how you’ve seen someone particularly a policymaker work through that question in a new way over the past year in light of COVID?
Heather: Relatively early on in the pandemic we saw in Kentucky the governor actually chose to use his executive powers to release over 900 people from their state correction system. Using that executive power for that type of action is pretty unusual, but he understood the risk that these people faced and wanted to ensure that no lives were lost unnecessarily to the pandemic.
Another particular story that I think has had an impact on many lawmakers at the federal level in Congress: a woman by the name of Andrea Circle Bear was incarcerated in the federal system. She was pregnant, and in the course of being incarcerated, she contracted COVID-19 and, unfortunately, she did not make it. They were able to save her child, but she passed away. That is a story that I think has given members of Congress a lot of pause, and has them asking questions about who we’re incarcerating and why and about how that case was handled and the measures that the Bureau of Prisons or other facilities are taking.
So we’ve got to make sure policymakers understand who they’re sending there. She had a drug charge. It was not a violent crime that she was incarcerated for. And then we also need to make sure that the appropriate oversight is happening, and that families are actually given the information they need about their fa, loved ones. It was very tragic to talk to Andrea’s grandmother and learn how little information she was given throughout the process. Suddenly her granddaughter died. She didn’t appreciate how serious the complications were until it was too late.
Rick: When you’re kind of thinking through what day-to-day life is like for people who are incarcerated, you don’t often truly appreciate the degree to which they have no agency or control. The Prison Fellowship website describes this really well. You say that people who are incarcerated are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our society. They’re living their lives completely by the decisions and whims of other people. But for a lot of people who have not been through the penal system, that’s not the first phrase we think of when we think of people who are incarcerated. We don’t tend to jump to immediately thinking of them as vulnerable people. In your experience, what, what factors tend to shape the way Americans think about the prison population?
Heather: You know, I was just giving a talk on the power of redemption. And we know as Christians that God created each of us in his image and that no one is beyond God’s redemptive reach. But people’s poor choices can make us start questioning that belief we know is true. And I think that pesky sin of pride can creep up and start trying to convince us that grace is available to those who have earned it and not available to those who are beyond it. And when you hear on the nightly news that a young person has hijacked a car, or when you hear that your cousin with a drug problem is back in jail for the fourth time and this time it’s for dealing, or when you hear that someone took another innocent person’s life, it can challenge that belief in redemption.
Yet the gospel invites us in to this incomprehensible understanding of redemption. We talk a lot at Prison Fellowship about Hebrews 13:3, which tells us to remember those in prison as if we were with them in prison. And then it says, “And remember those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were mistreated.” And I think that’s such an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, when you hear of those who are mistreated, you think of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the victims, and those are people God calls us to care for, and that God wants to restore. But the verse starts with, remember those in prison. Those who are almost always there for something, right? And we’re also called to remember that God can redeem them, that they’re made in God’s image too. That’s the incomprehensible nature of the gospel, right? It reaches to both.
There are definitely people who are innocent in prison and wrongfully convicted, but for the most part, people are there for something they’ve done that we’re mad at or afraid of. And for that reason, we can kind of think, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and have a lack of understanding that that person’s made in the image of God when we hear the poor choices that someone has made.
Rick: Right before we started recording, we were talking a little more informally and you had mentioned the 44,000 legal barriers people face after their sentence has been served. When we talk about remembering those who are mistreated in the context of prison, we have 44,000 ways in which, after someone has served their sentence, they are still being punished for it. We’re recording this right at the start of May, right after what you all call Second Chance Month. Can you talk a little bit more about what it’s like for people after their sentence has been served and what you all were doing throughout second chance month?
Heather: As COVID-19 hit, we were filming a documentary following three people through their reentry journey and the barriers they faced and the personal grit it took to overcome some of them. We just now released that documentary at the end of Second Chance Month, and I think it really highlights the perseverance that’s required.
It also highlights the 44,000 barriers that you mentioned. Most of them are connected to employment. For example, sometimes we actually teach people how to become a cosmetologist in prison. And then in that same state, they are barred from having a cosmetology license because of their criminal record. Or in California, we worked on legislation for people who served as volunteer firefighters while incarcerated, trained to fight the wildfires, post-release, they can’t get the occupational licensing necessary to actually be a firefighter. (And of course, while incarcerated, we paid them next to nothing for their service.)
And there’s housing barriers, education access barriers. There is the inability to vote in many jurisdictions if you have a criminal record. And that is all on top of the general stigma that people face because of having a criminal record. So in 2017, we launched celebrating April as Second Chance Month, because we believe there are some incredible stories of transformation that we have seen again and again, starting with our founder, Chuck Colson. And we want to highlight those stories and change the narrative about the possibilities of redemption and the God-given potential that people with criminal records have. We’ve had churches across the country using our church toolkit to host a Second Chance Sunday during April to talk about this issue, which has been really exciting. We’ve had prayer meetings highlighting second chance stories. We had a virtual Second Chance Month gala where Bryan Stevenson gave our keynote address. And we shared other powerful stories of second chances. And that’s the purpose of the month. We hope also that people will watch the documentary following these three individuals who came home and talk about it with their community or their church and see if there’s ways we can support people like that.
God, you are the judge of the living and the dead. You see more than we do. You know more than we do. You care about more than we do. And you are wiser, more generous, more patient, and more just than we are. When we want to write someone off, you want to redeem them. We want to admit to you, right now, that that desire to redeem is the only reason we get to talk to you. If you judged us the way we judge others, you would have cut us off from your love, your mercy, your grace and your glory.
We’re sorry for the ways in which we resist your call to invest in the people who usually get ignored, and redeem the lives that we usually write off. We don’t care about as many people as you do, and even when we DO care about people, we don’t care about them the way you do.
Thank you for Prison Fellowship’s example of what it means to live out Hebrews 12 and 13. For the reminder that serving you with piety means showing brotherly love and hospitality, even to prisoners, without greed, and without fear. A lot of times, on a deep level, we believe the lie that there’s no way to help others without hurting ourselves—that service and hospitality and generosity are zero-sum. And a lot of times, on a deep level, we believe the lie that getting too close to people who are condemned will stain us and mar us in ways we can never recover from.
We don’t believe that serving others is an investment in your kingdom. When you call us to plant seeds to grow better food, we think of it as throwing away the only meal we can imagine.
Redeem our imaginations. Give us hearts that are more ambitious for your glory to be revealed in the way you redeem the people and tribes and institutions of this world. And give us brothers and sisters that spur us on into action; who encourage us to be grateful for the powers and privileges and responsibilities you’ve given us as citizens of this country; and who help us take every thought about how we approach that citizenship captive, even when taking those thoughts captive hurts, or is scary, or shows us things that people without the assurance of your grace may deeply resent or fear.
We pray these things in the name of Jesus, who you sent to assure us that you will never let us go, and so we have nothing to fear.