Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mary Musings: Ministering to men in prison personally rewarding

April 24, 2009

Rev. Mary McQueen
Special for

Everyone talks about the increasing number of violent crimes in our culture. I recently had an opportunity to become a small part of the solution.

My daughter Beth and I spent 30 hours on a weekend inside a large Midwestern men’s high-security state penitentiary working with violent offenders who are about to be released.

We were working with a program called the Anti Violence Project, or AVP, and several prisons in Florida are also working with these programs.

Beth has degrees in working with these folks and has spent the last 10 years working in shelters for women and children and now with offenders, hopefully helping people to find out they have other choices for conflict resolution.

We checked in at the main prison gate and went through metal detectors, body “patting down,” and X-rays. We could carry nothing in with us. They took our driver’s license in return for an official badge.

It is quite an experience to step through those big metal doors and hear that steel gate clang shut behind you, locking you in. Your hand is stamped with a symbol they read by black light when you leave. We had to be escorted everywhere we went.

The group of men in our weekend AVP Workshop have spent many months in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and were very responsive to all the activities. We laughed together, did role playing skits, played some community building games to help them begin to think about trusting again, and shared our stories about dealing with conflict. The men were from their early 20s to late 50s in age.

Beth and I stood in long lines with the men, waiting to be served meals and ate in a dining area with a couple of hundred inmates. No coffee was served. Too much problem with caffeine, I guess.

As the weekend progressed, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words, “When you visited someone in prison, you visited me.”

Some folks likely consider these folks are “getting what they deserved,” and well they may be. But that does not change Jesus’ words. We are to visit those in prison.

The AVP program likes to have some women of different ages among the participants from the “outside,” because a lot of these men need to learn how to have positive interactions and relationships with the women in their future life on the “outside.”

When the men shared about who they respected the most, many of them cited their mothers. Some had tears in their eyes as they told us, “Mom has always stood by me, kept on telling me what was right, and expected the best when no one else did.”

One young man, barely out of his teens, sat down carefully beside me during one of the discussion sessions and said, “My grandma’s name is Mary…uh, she is my favorite grandma. Can I sit here a moment and talk about her?”

And so we did. I was holding back tears in my eyes, too.

One of the things I most appreciated about this group of men is that they have been in therapy long enough to realize that it does no good to try to put blame for your behavior on someone else. They all seemed quick to say, “I got myself in here. It is up to me to keep me outside of here in the future. No one else is at fault and no one else can do it for me.”

I thought to myself we could use a lot more of that kind of honesty in the “outside world” too.

I have visited in penitentiaries before, but never have I spent so many hours actually deep inside the prison interacting with a group of inmates. I think I learned as much or more than anyone in the group.

The men welcomed me and seemed to listen carefully when I shared my ideas and experiences. They were particularly interested in knowing that I was born to a non-recovering alcoholic and had experienced many of the scenarios that their own families have experienced due to their behavior.

Many told me they felt hopeful when I encouraged them to seek out positive people who can lead them to a better way of life.

I know that many of them will re-offend and find themselves back inside that prison. My prayer is that somehow, in some small way, we contributed to helping at least a few of them know some better options for handling conflict resolution and just plain living better lives.

I definitely felt privileged to be allowed to minister there. The great thing about visiting people in prison is you find Jesus is there waiting to visit with you, too!

— Rev. Mary McQueen is a freelance writer. She is a wife, mother, workshop leader, childbirth and gentle parenting educator, prison and police chaplain, and author of several books on Bible study and wholeness. E-mail her at

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