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Five Facts About Prison and Religion That May Surprise You

Αssociated Press

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2021, file photo, a red tag hangs on a cell door, signifying an active COVID-19 case for its inhabitants at Faribault Prison, in Faribault, Minn. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)

The Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) has released the following article about its work and the people they care for. The full text follows.

Did you know that there are Orthodox Christians practicing their faith in prison? For those of us living in freedom, it is all too easy to forget the more than two million men and women imprisoned in the United States right now – out of sight, out of mind. And yet, prisoners have spiritual needs like anyone else. Chaplains and trained volunteers are contracted through each prison facility to provide spiritual care to the incarcerated. But there is no standardized system across America’s labyrinth of federal, state, and county correctional systems for how prisoners should be allowed to practice their religion. 

Here are five facts about prison and religion that may surprise you.

  1. The Orthodox Christian faith is not automatically recognized as a religious denomination by every correctional system in the United States. 

Federal and State correctional systems typically have a list of recognized religions. When a religion is recognized it affords prisoners of that faith certain rights. This recognition is crucial because without it, a priest may not be allowed to enter a facility in order to administer the sacraments and the services. Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry actively advocates for correctional facilities around the country to recognize Orthodoxy so that prisoners can practice their Faith.

  1. There are 2.3 million incarcerated men and women in the United States (698 per 100,000 residents per capita), more than any other nation in the world. 

 

Odds are you or someone in your church community will have a relative who has spent time in prison. For families of those in prison, things are often kept quiet because of shame. OCPM ministers not only to the incarcerated but to the families of those in prison. We also assist churches that are trying to reintegrate a released prisoner into parish life. 

  1. Because of the pandemic, chaplains, relatives, and volunteers have been prohibited from entering prisons across the country. 

According to the Marshall Project, “By April, 20, at least 395,915 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, an increase of less than 1 percent from the week before.” For nearly a year, almost all prisons were in lockdown in order to prevent outbreaks. This meant that prisoners were stuck in their cells and could not receive spiritual care except through Zoom meetings or correspondence. OCPM has a correspondence database of over 3,600 prisoners. On average, we send mail to a prisoner 120 times per year. That includes shipments of books, bibles, icons, catechism courses, and letters written by our staff that personally speak to a prisoner’s situation. Never was OCPM’s Correspondence Ministry more crucial than during this pandemic.

4. Not all mail can enter a prison facility due to the risk of contraband. 

Most of that contraband is street drugs that can be soaked or hidden into paper. On average, OCPM processes 92,000 pieces of mail in and out of prisons each year. But not just any mail can enter a jail or prison. There are stringent rules, unique to each facility, that must be followed in order to gain and maintain access to those who are incarcerated. The books, icons, study courses, and bible studies that OCPM publishes are specifically designed to adhere to strict prison guidelines. 

5. Most men in prison are young and have the majority of their lives ahead of them. 

An estimated 47% of sentenced prisoners are aged 25-39. Experts have found that it is the prisoner who makes the most of his time in incarceration who will most likely succeed on the outside. That can include taking courses, working towards a degree, and being involved with faith groups. Religion brings exposure to a value system compatible with success in reintegration. Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry brings the unique teachings and traditions of the Orthodox Faith. Orthodoxy is different in that it deals with life in the world as it is, not the ideal world of some other faiths or denominations.

Scores of men and women are languishing in the battlefield that is prison. Many have experienced the limits of what non-Orthodox ministries offer. They suspect there is more, but they don’t know where to find it.

Texas prisoner Susan remembers being confronted with a myriad of well-meaning church and parachurch organizations all claiming to possess ‘the truth’. Susan went so far as to teach herself biblical Greek to try to untangle the mixed messages but that only made her confused in two languages. But Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry came into her life and introduced her to the fullness of the faith in Orthodoxy.

“Everything in my life began to change as I gained a greater and deeper understanding of

God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice,” says Susan. “I learned true repentance, accountability and humility, confession and redemption, a disciplined prayer life and deeper love for my neighbor, all through the teachings and studies from OCPM.”

OCPM has done for thousands of prisoners what we did for Susan. We correspond with prisoners and provide them with books, bibles, pamphlets, and icons. We catechize them in the Orthodox faith through special correspondence courses. We train Orthodox priests and laypersons to personally visit and counsel them in prison. 

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry proclaims Christ to many who are being introduced to the Orthodox Church for the first time. For Orthodox Christians whose lives have been upended by their crimes and prison sentence, OCPM helps them to return to the Faith, offering forgiveness and reconciliation. As a result, families are reunited, marriages are healed, and thousands of incarcerated men and women have a new sense of peace and restored order in their lives. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, our Lord sets out clearly the conditions for inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven. We satisfy the hungry and thirsty. We take in the stranger. We clothe the naked. And we visit the sick and those who are in prison. 

OCPM meets prisoners where they are with the fullness that is the Orthodox faith. We maintain relationships with prisoners across multiple prison transfers and we assist them in finding an Orthodox parish upon their release.

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) is an agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States. For more information go to www.theocpm.org or find @theocpm on Facebook and Instagram.