Our featured book this month is “Prison Ministry, Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out” written by Lennie Spitale. This was one of the first books that I read when I began serving as a full-time chaplain inside of prison. The book is written by a former inmate and he provides a through view of prison life. For most Christians, prison culture is like visiting a foreign land and the thought of ministering in prisons to those incarcerated is an intimidating prospect. This book will offer you the empowerment you need in doing effective prison ministry.
This book is divided up into four parts, 1) Feelings, 2) Perspectives, 3) Dynamics, 4) Engaging the Culture, and has a total of 31 chapters. The first 3 sections of the book present us with an inside-out view of the prisoner’s world and attempts to scratch the surface of how it feels to live in his or her shoes. The author shares his story throughout the book and begins with the hurt that many feel when they become incarcerated. He writes, “The greatest pain of incarceration is the forcible separation from those you hold most dear.” He suggests that the potential volunteer in the prison setting should be aware of this particular pain even if they never have experienced it. He then writes about one of the greatest foes for an inmate is “time.” It is the hands of a clock that keep them shackled, not the hands of the guards that escort them. Prison is about time and the prisoner is at war. He can fight it, he can attempt to fool it, he can wrestle, play, pray and waste it all together, but he cannot defeat it. Then he goes on to share how volunteers can help these men and women behind bars cope with their prison time. He writes, “The Christian volunteer must never underestimate what a crucial role he or she plays in the lives of these men and women in this time of despair.”
In Chapter 4 he addresses the worldview of so many that are incarcerated. They tend to perceive themselves as lone combatants engaged in a guerrilla-type conflict, pitted against incredible odds. The enemy is “the system,” a dark Goliath that seeks to swallow up their lives and overpower them at every turn. He challenges Christian volunteers to help inmates see that it is possible they have come to this place in order to realize their need for God and that there is a source of strength that comes from beyond themselves. He then writes about the loneliness that permeates the air inside of prisons and how the presence of Christian volunteers helps these men and women cope. Loneliness is a part of the fabric of prison life. But if a person combines the awareness of that pain with the compassion of Christ, they will find themselves an effective instrument in the Lord’s hands.
Later on in the book the author addresses the culture of hardness inside of prison. Attitudes are tough, eyes are unrevealing, tattoos are defiant, muscles are flexed, gaits are cool, fists are clenched, scars are deep, and weakness is scorned. But behind all the concrete and steel are real people with real needs and real feelings. It is in this environment that Christian volunteers come and speak kind words, soft words, words of friendship, and personal vulnerability. They display weakness. They talk about Jesus and the message of His touch breaks the bonds of the culture. When truly received, His incarcerated children are also able to break the mold and discover their true selves. There is no freedom like the freedom Jesus Christ can bring.
The author writes on many subjects of prison culture such as the “Unwritten Code of Ethics” and “Institutionalization.” Close to the end of the book in the final section titled “Engaging the Culture,” he begins to engage culture itself. He provides some basic guidelines and practical tips for getting started, starting with the spiritual climate of prisons and jails. You will find this book an easy read and worth your time spent reading it. Chuck Colson the founder of Prison Fellowship said that this book has fascinating insights about prison culture and how to reach it. He believes it should be mandatory reading for everyone in corrections and for Christians who care about the commandments to visit prison. I would also highly recommend for you to read this book and you can purchase it by clicking on the books image.