You can give valuable service as a volunteer at a prison. You will receive priceless enrichment through your friendship with the residents. I discovered this after I started volunteering in October at Walton Correctional Institution (WCI), a Florida State prison for men. It is home for twelve hundred men. I will explain how I volunteered and four lessons I have learned.
I volunteered after thinking about it for over a year. My thoughts were generated by two events. I received news of a friend’s death in Colorado Springs who served as a fundraiser for a prison ministry called Lessons for Life Ministries founded by Gary Skinner. Both men had been incarcerated, but they were free and were investing their lives in men and women living “in the wire” and “outside the wire.”
Before the pandemic, I received a resident’s inquiry about finding a Toastmaster sponsor for the Gavel Club, the prison version of a Toastmasters club. I was a Toastmaster at the time. Over a year later this connection led me to Erica Averion, a volunteer helping the residents restart the club in October. She assisted me in registering with the Florida Correctional Department, completing the online training, and making my first visit to the prison.
On the first visit with Erica, I met the chaplain and learned about preaching opportunities. I also met some of the men who were restarting the Phoenix Gavel Club. I decided to attend the club twice a month. I volunteered to preach on the third Friday and on a fifth Sunday in a month. I made a personal one year.
The biggest reason I did not want to volunteer was the distance to the prison, about thirty-five miles one way. I brushed that aside when I learned that I could decide the frequency of my visits each month. Shortly after I started, I met the Director for the Florida Corrections Department, Mark Inch. He is a retired Army Major General. He and his wife reside in Santa Rosa Beach too and attend the same church my wife and I attend. Mr. Inch stepped down as the Director in December.
One lesson a volunteer learns is that they meet many amazing people who are residents, volunteers, and prison employees. The group of men that I consistently visit are making every effort to better themselves. I have witnessed many of their skills and talents. The prison has a worship band to lead the chapel services. It is composed of several fine musicians. I served as a judge for the first Corrections Got Talent! Contest. Yes, residents of prisons got talent that will thrill a volunteer’s soul.
Another lesson volunteers learn is that more volunteers are needed. WCI provides the Gavel Club, Celebrate Recovery, Book Club, and other programs to assist the men in the use of their time. Volunteers facilitate or assist in these programs. More volunteers are needed. Your skills, talents, and interests are effective in residents’ lives. Investigate volunteering at your local prison. Consider serving as a pen pal to a resident. My Texas friend Tom Pryor volunteers his time and expertise through Denton Bible Church and Prison Entrepreneurship Program (www.pep.org). He helps residents develop business plans as their prepare for release and reentry into society.
The third lesson volunteers learn is that funds for many programs and ministry organizations are limited. Finding a program or ministry organization that we respect and donating to it goes a long way. The WCI worship band needs new guitar strings. Book clubs need supporters to purchase books to read. Gavel clubs need funding for manuals and supplies. Gary Skinner’s Lessons for Life Ministries provides Bibles, Bible studies, materials to prepare residents for release, and support groups upon release. My pastor encouraged me deeply when I told him that I started volunteering at the prison. He immediately offered the church’s financial support for supplies.
A fourth lesson volunteers learn is that residents have much to offer us. Their ownership of their wrongdoing teaches me personal responsibility for my attitudes and actions. Their transparency reveals the masks I wear. Their friendliness shows me my need to be a friend. Their challenging work to improve themselves reminds me of the diligence I exert to be all God wants me to be. Volunteers receive many marvelous gifts through friendship with residents.
Friendship is key to appreciating Jesus’ attitude about prisoners. He quoted the prophet Isaiah to announce that He was the LORD’s anointed to “proclaim freedom to the captive” (61:1; Luke 4:18-19). Jesus said visiting prisoners is one of the marks of his sheep in Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” We do not have record of Jesus visiting a prison, but he did visit the demoniac who was isolated and chained outside a town as a prisoner (Mark 5:1ff). Jesus became a prisoner for a brief, but cruel and unjust time, when he was sentenced to death. He was crucified with two criminals who served time in prison. We can take great hope in Jesus’s merciful declaration to one of them that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day.
The 18th century English pastor James Hervey visited two criminals condemned to hanging. He told them, “You have just the same foundation for hope as I must have when I will depart this life. When I will be summoned to the great judgment seat, my plea and my dependence will be nothing but Christ. I am a poor unworthy sinner, but worthy is the Lamb that was slain. This is my only hope, and this is as free for you as it is for your friend and fellow sinner James Hervey.” Visiting prisoners helps this truth resonate in me. I hope it does in you in 2022.
 As recorded in J. C. Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century. Updated Edition Aneko Press.