The Power of Positive Peers:
Utilizing Offender Volunteers in a Comprehensive Chaplaincy Program
When I first came to Texas’ notorious 100-year-old Eastham Prison in 1985, there was already in place a structure for utilizing offender volunteers in the chapel program. My Eastham predecessor, Emmett Solomon (later our Director of Chaplains), used a rationale that had to do with successful reintegration—reentry—into society.
Knowing that 95% of all offenders in our state will be released from prison one day, he wanted them to be familiar with the functions of a house of worship. As we said in those days, he wanted them to know how to “do church.” How did this work?
Every Thursday night a service was held in which offenders read Scripture, led in prayers, led congregational worship songs, gave testimonies, sang in the choir, read announcements provided by the chaplain, and brought a Scripture message. The chaplain was always present (along with a security officer), and said a few words as well. The service was always highly structured and well-attended, with a capacity 200 nearly always in attendance. A great number of offenders participated by standing up periodically to speak or sing.
In addition to the Thursday worship service, on Sunday a number of offenders selected by the chaplain facilitated a discipleship program of Scripture study. This program was the best-attended of any chaplaincy program, since we met in a number of Education Department classrooms—capacity 250.
Once I asked my mentor Solomon, who came to Eastham as its first chaplain in 1967, when he had started Sunday School there. He said, “I didn’t start Sunday School. It was already going when I arrived.” I replied, “Who started it?” He indicated that a building major in the 1960s told some inmates to go to an Education Department classroom, take their Bibles with them and “get some sense.” The chaplain and a security officer were present.
When Chaplain Solomon left Eastham in 1985 to become our Director of Chaplains, I was hired to follow him. I saw the value of the offender volunteer facilitation he had nurtured, and we continued it. So, what was, and what is, the value of offender ministry, and how can it be successful?
I. Offender Volunteer Utilization Assists Spiritual Growth
Offender volunteers in a chapel program helps those offenders develop spiritually and personally. Like a muscle which is exercised, an offender who exercises his or her spiritual gift grows stronger in faith. A muscle which is not exercised will atrophy. In a similar way, offenders who are not active in the development of their God-given gifts tend to be stunted in their spiritual growth.
Offender facilitation creates a sense of buy-in to the program. If offenders participate only by passive listening, the road to maturity that comes through preparation and activation of one’s spiritual gift will not be present. At the same time, offenders who are respected and listened to by their peers in the offender population become effective agents for positive change in the prison’s culture.
II. Culture Transformation via a Cadre of Leaders
Every institution has informal offender leaders. In the Kairos program the institution’s negative leaders—non-chapel participants—are selected to go through a voluntary Kairos weekend. All the gangsters and wannabe gangsters we can find who are still walking around are invited (42 limit). The purpose is to give them a different perspective on life—even on prison life. The program works.
The idea is that if the institution’s natural—or self-made—leaders begin to see life and relationships from a prosocial perspective, producing positive change in offender behavior, we have succeeded in one aspect of our mission. When non-chapel participant offenders see the change in behavior of their former negative leaders, those transformed leaders have a positive impact on the culture of the facility.
In a similar way, the chaplain selects offender service volunteers as part of a comprehensive chapel program who do their work under the authority and guidance of the facility chaplain. The power of positive peers begins to be seen. Who are these facilitators, and what do they do?
III. Offender Chapel Volunteers
There are several aspects of service for which offenders may volunteer in a well-rounded chaplaincy program. Here are a few:
- Scripture Reader (reads Scripture during a worship service)
- Prayer Leader (leads prayer during a worship service)
- Choir Conductor (conducts an inmate choir and its rehearsals)
- Choir Singer (sings in the choir)
- Musician (plays an instrument in the choir)
- Set up Crew Member (sets up equipment [chairs, instruments] for a worship service)
- Communion Server (assists with Communion)
- Testimonial (brings a brief [2-3 minutes] testimony about what God is doing
- Worship Administrator (calls offender volunteers up to do their part in the service)
- Message Presenter (brings a message during a worship service, or facilitates a class)
The chapter in the state’s Chaplaincy Department Manual titled “Offender Volunteer Service” outlines the policies and procedures for this volunteer service. All offender volunteer chapel activity is done under the supervision of the chaplain. The chaplain authorizes each person, by chaplain and offender volunteer signature, on an Offender Volunteer Service Form. The chaplain may select choir members by audition. The chaplain authorizes the songs the choir sings. The choir is always an excellent training ground for spiritual growth not only in singing harmoniously but also by facilitating harmonious interpersonal relationship growth.
Message Presenters complete not only the Offender Volunteer Service Form but also a Message Presentation Form which outlines his or her message. The form is given to the chaplain for review at least seven days prior to the worship service during which the message is to be presented. In the case of offenders who may facilitate a Scripture text class or other series of classes with a printed curriculum, the offender volunteer follows the curriculum, so no additional message form is required.
How can this work? For someone who’s never seen this in action, it may be a scary thought. There are two required chaplain functions which make it work well: (1) Selection of offender volunteers, and (2) Management of offender volunteers.
IV. Selection of Offender Volunteers
It’s important to select offender volunteers in a careful and deliberate manner. Criteria should include:
- Regular Participation. Offender volunteers are selected from those who are regular participants in the chapel program.
- Disciplinary Record. Offender volunteers are not disciplinary problems.
- Suitability for the Service. Offender volunteers are selected who are at least potentially capable of doing the service for which they are selected. A choir member should be able to hear musical pitch. A message presenter should be able to stand up and speak. An equipment set-up person should not be physically challenged in such a way as to preclude the job of setting up.
- Humble and Teachable. Offender volunteers must not be self-willed, arrogant or unteachable. They must be willing to come under the authority of the chaplain.
- Respected. Offender volunteers are persons who are giving God and the chapel program—by the good example of their life behavior—a good reputation.
- No Authority over Others. Offender volunteers must not have an attitude or practice of exercising authority over other offenders. They are facilitators, not authorities.
V. Management of Offender Volunteers
In addition, a successful Offender Volunteer policy and practice must be actively managed by the chaplain. Here are some effective management suggestions:
- Have a regular (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly) meeting with your offender message presenters about what’s happening in each program they are involved in. The chaplain may have a different meeting for each generic faith group if that seems best (Catholic, Protest, Islamic, etc.). My predecessor had a weekly meeting, which I continued. After about 10 years, we went to a monthly meeting.
Purposes of the offender volunteers’ meeting: (a) Hear offender impressions of each group experiencing offender ministry; (b) Troubleshoot any challenges; (c) Chaplain provide prison culture-changing vision to the group; (d) Build a sense of teamwork in the task of transforming the prison culture.
- Have a free world volunteer (or, more rarely, the chaplain) in each class or worship service in which an offender is presenting a message or teaching a class. Often the offender volunteer was more gifted at teaching or presenting than the free world volunteer, who may have other gifts, but who is willing to facilitate the offender volunteer’s service.
- Offender volunteers serve at the pleasure of the chaplain. Offenders may be removed by the chaplain for disciplinary infractions, or if the chaplain perceives that the offender is no longer effectively fulfilling the role for which he/she was assigned to be a volunteer. For example, if the offender volunteer develops a reputation—even without a disciplinary infraction—which reflects poorly on God and the chapel program, or if an offender volunteer becomes disruptive, that person may be removed by the chaplain.
- Chaplains must pay attention to their program and to their offender volunteers. Active management is required.
VI. Field Ministry Program
Beginning in 2011 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice began a Field Ministry program at the maximum security Darrington prison near Houston. The 4½-year training program is facilitated by a free world theological seminary, and concludes with an accredited Bachelor of Arts degree in ministerial studies. The program is privately funded; there is no cost to the offender or to the state. The program trains long-term offenders to be Field Ministers, which, upon graduation, becomes their full-time prison job.
The first graduating class was in 2015. Two classes, with 66 total graduates, are now in the field in 13 prisons in Texas. About 33 offenders are expected to graduate annually, dispersing each year to about six prisons, until all of the 108 prisons in Texas have a small group of trained offender Field Ministers. Preliminary reports from the first two years of Field Ministry are that the graduates are having a salutary effect in their places of assignment.
The Field Minister job description includes the aspects of offender volunteer service noted above and in the Chaplaincy Department Manual, but it also includes many other aspects of ministry, including but not limited to:
- Tier Walking (walking in cell blocks in every area of the facility, listening and empathically responding)
- Entry Ministry (talking with new arrivals about opportunities for personal and spiritual growth in the Education Department, substance abuse treatment program, and chapel)
- Peer Mentoring other offenders (listening and providing encouragement and guidance)
- Hospice and Hospital ministry (visitation in those areas)
- Ministry of Presence availability for offenders going through grief, loss or other anxiety
- Ministry of Presence for offenders at high risk of suicide
Field Ministers work under security supervision at all times. Field Ministers do not replace but assist under the authority of medical and psychological staff professionals, for example, in hospice, hospital and suicide watches.
The Texas program—initiated by both Democratic and Republican leadership in the Texas legislature—was modeled (with some modification) after the Louisiana experience. The seminary program in Louisiana—conducted for the past 15+ years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola—has had a demonstrably great and positive impact on the Angola culture.
Byron Johnson, Ph.D., and other researchers at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion have recently (2016) published their findings on the Angola prison seminary in “The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation.”1 Dr. Johnson et al are now doing a similar study of the Texas seminary experience.
Over the course of 30 years the Eastham Prison changed dramatically for the better. There are many factors which contributed to the change, but a well-managed offender volunteer corps was a significant part of the prison culture’s transformation.
1 Johnson, Byron; Hallett, Michael; Hays, Joshua; Jang, Sung Joon; Duwe, Grant. The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation. Routledge Innovations in Corrections, 2016. 1st Edition. 264 pp.