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Prison Ministry Adapts to COVID Challenges

Episcopalians in prison ministry are adapting their work during the coronavirus pandemic by relying on distant communication, including cards, clothes, books, and prayers.

For nearly 20 years, the Rev. Deacon Ann Douglas has volunteered at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York. She must follow the strict policies of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Deacon Ann Douglas

Her experiences are similar to those of ministers across the United States. “There have been no congregational gatherings in any prisons since March 15,” said Douglas, based at All Saints Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York: “No service. No group gatherings. Non-employees cannot go into the prison at all. Many programs for Bedford by volunteers and area churches have shut down. … We got very frustrated. When they shut down, we were just bereft.”

Douglas joined a weekly spiritual community to support the women from a distance.

Virginia Slichter, a vestry member at Christ Church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, has a ministry at SCI Phoenix, a men’s maximum-security prison 30 miles west of Philadelphia. “Because I’m a volunteer I’m not permitted to contact the prisoners,” Slichter said. The prison does not understand the relationship that’s developed during [Education for Ministry].

“What does ministry look like in the time of pandemic? It is prayer. Constant, deep prayer. In their letters to me they repeatedly mention that they know that people are holding them tightly in prayer, that the prayerful support is life-giving for them.”

“COVID-19 has changed the way prison ministry has been done,” said the Rev. Canon Richard Snyder, recently retired supervising chaplain for the Nevada Department of Corrections. “A good way to pass the time is to think about what a new system for services would look like. Is working with volunteers on providing DVDs of services a possibility? Is arranging for a live feed from local area churches a possibility?”

The Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, priest in charge of Sts. John Paul & Clement in Mount Vernon, New York, was the chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for more than a decade. Sabune organizes vigils at a cemetery dedicated to inmates who died alone in prison.

Greeting and holiday cards have emerged as a tool for ministry.

For eight years, the Rev. Deacon Jeff Roper of the Diocese of Kansas led Morning Prayer at Winfield Correctional Facility, a minimum-security for 550 men. Unable to visit since March, Roper sought other resources.

“What I have continued to do in ministry is to step up efforts during this pandemic to call for drives and donations to acquire unused greeting cards for all occasions,” with the assistance of St. James, Wichita, and Episcopal churches throughout the state, Roper said.

“Inmates, at the direction of the chaplain, sort those cards and make them available for free to the inmates in the commissary. Each is allowed only two cards per month. Inmates then purchase the stamps to mail those cards. This ministry helps inmates to stay in communication with their friends and families, and provide a line of vital communication around birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays of their family members and friends.”

Douglas agreed. “Pen pals are allowed — written correspondence is okay. Letters are checked for contraband — currency, stamps and anything that is not allowed. But to return mail, they have to earn money for stamps, and that’s difficult.”

Sabune organized Sunday-school children at his church to collect Christmas cards for Sing Sing inmates to send to family and friends. Sabune said the questions from children were inevitable. “Are these bad people?” he asked. “They are children of God. They did bad things, but God loves them too.”

Recognizing the lifeline that cards provide, Tanya Crooks developed Big House Card Co. with inmates in mind. “I started my business this past August,” she said. “Being separated is always rough, and the holiday season for a lot of system-impacted families is extremely tough. I do believe the common feelings have been magnified this year due to not being able to see one another for so long.”

Clothing ministries also became a critical component during the pandemic, said the Rev. Kahu Kaleo Patterson, vicar of St. Stephen’s in Wahiawa, Hawaii.

“We discovered anew that men’s and women’s release clothing became a most urgent need,” Patterson said. “Most releases have little or poor community support and literally come out of the prison doors in shorts, T-shirts, and slippers, referred to as ‘underwear,’ purchased through the vendor commissary as gray and whites used for recreation.”

Patterson added: “During pandemic with mass releases, the correction officers reached out and asked for help. We did a community-wide donation drive, with truckloads of assorted dress clothing, shirts, and slacks, and others. But a few months later we zeroed in on purchasing (with support from the diocese and churches) special common sizes, colored T-shirts and shorts. This is a point of re-entry need that we are now developing with the prisons and community education and collaborations.”

Christine Havens, assistant for administration and communication at St. Michael’s in Austin, Texas, is a coordinator with Pen City Writers. Through Pen City, men at the maximum-security John B. Connally Unit southeast of San Antonio may earn a three-year certificate in creative writing.

Havens describes her prison ministry as that of a literary correspondent. “I’m basically a tutor, a conversation partner with a student who’s been assigned to me. Each month, we discuss, via letters, the book(s) he has read. It’s been very thought-provoking and life-giving to read my student’s perspectives.”

She added: “In the beginnings of the pandemic, he and I still were able to correspond, but as the year went on, the logistics have changed, due to a slowdown in the mail, for example.”

The program found a solution: participation in the nationwide Million Book Project.

“Pen City Writers is an example of what creativity and flexibility can mean to prison ministry in this time of pandemic,” Havens said. “It seems that the team found ways, fairly quickly, in which the prisoners could still participate in the program while maintaining physical distancing.”

Forward Movement has built a steady ministry among prisoners across many decades.

“We provide tens of thousands of copies of Forward Day by Day and other material to incarcerated persons annually, and we correspond with many folks in prison, offering not only material but spiritual counsel and a compassionate response,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director.

Miriam McKenny, Forward’s director of development and mission engagement, described its work in different states.

“We recently started sending Forward Day by Day and Adelante Día a Día to three [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention centers in Louisiana,” she said. “The difficulties we face occur with states who have tightened their restrictions on publishers sending materials, like Florida and Pennsylvania. Those restrictions predate COVID-19, but it’s tough to think about all our folks who are not getting their prayer books and daily meditations during the pandemic, where hearing God’s Word would be a blessing for them.”

Prison ministers are eager to visit again when COVID-19 is less threatening to Americans’ health.

The Rev. Phil Carr-Jones is rector of Church of the Holy Spirit in Lebanon, New Jersey. His parish is near Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, a women’s prison with minimum-security and maximum-security units, a hospital, and housing for inmates with psychiatric conditions.

“We know from contacts of family members of inmates that they, too, are missing hours together,” he said. “The increased boredom, anxiety, and lack of socialization affecting all of us on the outside of prison is simply hard to comprehend for those within it. The heart aches.”

Douglas agreed. “We’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve done everything together. It’s brutal. But it is worse for them. Anything we can do for them we need to do, to hold them up.”

“Some degree of normalcy in the providing of religious services will probably have to wait until all inmates and all staff have been vaccinated,” Snyder said. “It appears that will be changes at many institutions around the country in the way that visiting occurs; in the way that religious services are held; in the way that mail is processed. There will likely be much tighter limits on such activities to reduce the possibility of another pandemic.”

Havens has clear ideas for what prison ministry during the pandemic should look like: “remaining a presence to the incarcerated through creativity and flexibility, willingness to partner with other prison ministries, good communication with your volunteers to assure them that they are an important part of the ministry, keeping the safety of the prisoners foremost as well as that of those who minister.”


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