Changing Lives in American Prisons: An ABS Initiative

Volunteer and evangelist Reggie Thomas distributes ABS Bibles at the Joplin City Jail. Photo by David Singer.

Shelia Smith had been in and out of prisons her whole adult life. And now she was back in, only this time it was by choice; she teamed up with Bill and Leann McLemore after they introduced her to Jesus two and a half years earlier. These three, all former criminals, are now bringing Christ and his church into the prisons, leading others to the freedom and peace they found through their commitment to Jesus.

Captive to methamphetamine since she was 11 years old, Shelia explains how one day, while using the drug, she “followed a path of feathers” that led her to Bill and Leann, whom she likens to the angels of Hebrews 1:14, “What are angels, then? They are spirits who serve God and are sent by him to help those who are to receive salvation.”

Inmates at the Greene County Jail with their new ABS Good News Bibles
Inmates at the Greene County Jail with their new ABS Good News Bibles. Photo by David Singer.

The Map to Freedom

When speaking to a group of young women at the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Missouri, Shelia encouraged them to come clean and embrace Jesus. Rev. Joe Garman, President of American Rehabilitation Ministries (ARM), walked around the room, handing out American Bible Society (ABS) Bibles and copies of the ABS magazine Elementz of Life.

Joe had just come from a gathering of male inmates at the jail chapel across the hall in which Shelia’s mentor, Bill McLemore, similarly offered men the hope found in following Jesus. There too, Joe, along with several other male volunteers and the jail’s chaplain, passed out ABS Bibles and magazines.

When Bill asked how he could pray for the men, one inmate fought tears as he spoke of his addiction — how could he be in such bondage — why couldn’t he find the strength to break free of this drug controlling his life? Bill knew, first-hand, his pain.

The Heart Behind the Program

He reminisced with the men about the many layers of hurt, loneliness and rage that only God’s love, as shown by men like Joe Garman, can erase. Garman began his involvement with inmates while serving as a missionary in Korea; he was asked to visit three American soldiers held in a Korean prison. Seeing the compassion he had for these men, the prison warden asked if he would visit all the prisoners.

As the time of sharing at the Greene County jail ended, volunteer and entrepreneur Jack Turner asked how many of the men in the group had been baptized. Six raised their hands. Three of them had been baptized in a portable baptistry provided to the jail chapel by ARM; the ministry has provided portable baptistries to more than 1,350 jails and prisons across the country. The ARM/ABS partnership is truly helping chaplains build a church inside prison walls.

The God Sets You Free partnership between ABS and ARM has facilitated the distribution and reading of Bibles in prisons and jails in all 50 states. Through this partnership, 138,000 Bibles and New Testaments were provided in 2008 to prison chaplains, who, without this program, would have no Scriptures for ministry. Since the God Sets You Free program’s inception in 2001, government-sponsored chaplains have distributed a total of 759,891 ABS Bibles and New Testaments to inmates.

ARM’s Embrace

This distribution by chaplains, coupled with several other ARM programs, ensures that the Bibles ABS provides get read. One such program, American Bible Academy (ABA), enrolls 28,000 inmates in seven different 120-page courses of Bible discovery. ABA is the fastest growing Bible College behind bars, and ARM offers these courses, including mailing and grading the lessons and the issuing certificates of completion, free. “Success in the ABA program,” says Joe Garman, “depends on access to its key ingredient, ABS Bibles.”

Joe Garman attests that, “We use all ABS materials. At the bottom of every box of ABS Scriptures that we provide to chaplains is a postcard for reorders we say it’s a box that never runs dry.”

DaySpring® greeting cards are another way that ARM helps chaplains reach out to prisoners. In 2007, its tenth year of providing greeting cards free to chaplains, ARM provided 5.5 million cards to chaplains to give to their inmate constituency who, in turn, could use them to stay connected with family and friends. And in every card there is a Bible verse.

Coming Close to Home

For many, America’s prison population is hidden from view and forgotten. But, according to a February 2008 report in The New York Times, “For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars. Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million; meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars. And the rate of incarceration continues to rise.”

Many of these prisoners are desperate, vulnerable and often admit that, only after incarceration, have they taken time to think about spiritual matters. Prison brings into sharp focus a person’s fears, loneliness and sense of need. One inmate wrote, “I didn’t believe in God until I came to jail this time. Now I believe with all my heart. I pray every night for God to watch over me and my loved ones.”

Joplin City inmates with Good News Bibles
Joplin City inmates with Good News Bibles. Photo by David Singer.

Explaining the Attraction

ABS has a long history of supporting prison chaplains in their efforts to provide inmates with spiritual guidance and nurturing. From the perspective of prison administrators, religious programming is critical to maintaining an orderly environment and managing prisoner behavior.

People confined to prisons, jails, and detention centers in the U.S. have shown they are hungry for answers to life issues and are ready to turn to God’s Word. Some research has linked participation in religious programming in prison with improved behavior while incarcerated. Still other research links in-prison religious participation with improved outcomes upon release.

Religious programming rates high among programs available to prisoners. Florida found that 38 percent of inmates are interested in attending religious programs or activities — a higher rate of participation than for other activities.

Finding Inner Freedom

Several theories are offered to explain the popularity of religious programming. Religion can be an expression of true remorse for the crimes prisoners have committed. Time spent in chapel or reading religious texts can be a practical response to both monotony and a lack of privacy in correctional institutions.

Ultimately, though, many inmates are searching for an inner freedom. Chaplains report that fully 40 percent of inmates receiving Bibles make a life-style change. Ari Zavaras, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, told a reporter for The Denver Post, “I get asked all the time what’s the best predictor of success when somebody’s coming out of prison. Without question, if somebody had a true spiritual conversion — not the jailhouse kind that gets all the jokes, but the kind where they develop a spiritual base — I’d be almost able to bet a year’s pay, without worry, that they’re not going to re-offend.”

It’s only through the generosity and commitment of its supporters that ABS is able to provide the Scriptures so critical for this God Sets You Free program — a program that gives the hope of a new freedom to America’s growing inmate population.

Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.

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