As many prisons nationwide have limited visitor access to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, advocates warn that life in prison under lockdown can be “hopeless” when access is restricted to chaplains and ministry volunteers.
Without access to volunteer Christian ministries that show love to prisoners, life in prison under lockdown is “dark,” former prisoner Rodney Massey told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
“It’s very gloomy. You’re already in an environment that is very dark and is hopeless. It’s torture not to know the state of your family and loved ones. That begins to mess with your psyche,” said Massey, who served a 25-year sentence in Illinois for drug dealing but now serves as a ministry volunteer.
“If not for the grace of God, my mind would have been messed up. I’ve seen a lot of people literally lose their mind in there. Without the Lord Jesus at my side, I don’t know what I would have done. It’s only because of the believers in my life.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Department of Corrections stopped all visits to prisons. This ban includes volunteer prison ministry visitors like Massey, who visited prisoners with the prison ministry Koinonia House.
Massey went to prison after being shot four times and arrested by the police, he said. While lying on a hospital bed in the county jail, he remembered how his mother used to tell him about Jesus. And that's when he realized he needed Jesus to make a difference in his life.
The love that prison ministry volunteers showed him helped him get through his sentence. Volunteers have shone a light in a place of darkness, he said.
Prison ministry volunteers play a massive role in supporting prisoners in their walk with God, said Illinois Department of Corrections Chief Chaplain Chase Wilhelm.
“Religious volunteers play a huge role,” he said. “They’ve historically been crucial. They have remained crucial through this time period as well. We’ve been leaning on tech services as well.”
Every prison chaplain relies on the support of 13 to 100 volunteers to provide religious services, depending on the size of the prison they serve. Illinois has 28 prisons.
Without volunteers and with heavy restrictions on movement during COVID-19, chaplains have merged services and used resources like pre-recorded videos to continue reaching prisoners, said Wilhelm.
Although these efforts often lead to good conversations between Christians from different denominations, the overall situation remains difficult.
“[Emotion inside prisons now is] overwhelming,” the chaplain said. “Anxiety is high. Fear is very, very real right now. There’s a high-risk factor there. I think that amps everything up. We’re really in the dark night of the soul for many people.”
The Illinois prison system employs 12,719 people who consistently enter and exit prisons for their jobs. Koinonia House prison ministry Executive Director Manny Mill told CP that Illinois has approximately 1,000 prison ministry volunteers.
“Of course, they all don’t come every week,” Mill said.
As of Dec. 22, the Illinois prison system experienced over 10,000 COVID-19 cases among both staff and inmates. According to the COVID Prison Project, the rate of coronavirus infections inside prisons is on average almost four times greater than the rate of infection for the general population.
Mill said Department of Corrections leaders don’t have full control over how they design policy for religious volunteers. If COVID-19 cases resulted from volunteer entry, they could get sued.
“Their view is to bring in the least people because those offices are essential. The main thing for any prison is only one thing — security,” Mill detailed. “If you have a grandfather or grandmother who lives in a nursing home, they won’t let you in either. But we believe that we are also essential workers.”
According to Department of Corrections statistics, the Illinois prison system has 4,494 inmates 55 and above out of a total of 29,111 inmates.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older adults are at a greater risk of requiring hospitalization or dying if diagnosed with COVID-19.
Corrections officers and others who consistently enter and leave the prisons bring the virus in, argued prison ministry volunteer Mark Macy. He doesn’t know why religious volunteers aren’t allowed into prisons when thousands of other employees enter and leave every day. Macy recently applied to become an associate prison chaplain.
“I’ve never heard an answer to that,” he said. “If it was posed to decision-makers, they would say they can’t not have the officers come in, and the fewer people, the lesser the risk. I do think that they have to begin to think about a change. It is inhumane.”
When the COVID-19 lockdowns first started, even official chaplains weren’t allowed in prison and prisoners couldn’t leave their cells, Macy recalled.
The restrictions became less strict as the pandemic wore on but remained challenging. When chaplains were finally allowed in, they could only visit inmates one at a time and couldn’t host group services.
Wilhelm said the Department of Corrections keeps religious volunteers from visiting prisons for their own protection. COVID-19 might endanger older prison volunteers.
“The demand signal to protect everyone is so paramount that I personally do not want to take a risk for any of my religious volunteers if I don’t have to,” the prison system’s chief chaplain said. “It only takes one person to get it and then it can ravage an entire population. The last thing that I would ever want on my heart is to have one of my religious volunteers come down with COVID-19 and pass [away].”
Massey said he longs to get back into prison for ministry. Prisoners need people who will visit them and love them, he believes.
“I was in prison for 25 years and [ministry visits] were the wind beneath my wings. Nothing takes the place of a corporate anointing. Nothing takes the place of corporate gathering,” he contends. “I can’t even imagine the loneliness. We were never created to be alone.”