New life without parole: Ministry behind bars

Every time I walk into a prison I notice the same things—the relentless noise, the yelling, the clanging of door after door. I’m led into an interior world resembling something like a human maze. When I was a seminary student in Columbia, South Carolina, I did my summer unit of clinical pastoral education in an ancient prison (now torn down) that included a bizarre subterranean section for the “criminally insane.” Never had I been in such a dark, otherworldly place.

I remember visiting my first inmate. Scholars have long been confused about that strange line in the creed saying Jesus “descended into hell”; I have it on good authority that he simply visited Columbia during a hot summer. I was assigned to building one. There was no air conditioning, and my pastoral flock consisted of 90 men and 90 cells located on the fourth and fifth tiers with only stairs for access. It was stifling and oppressive, and not only because of the heat. Prisoners watched as I made my way down the corridor; many had somehow been able to obtain small pieces of mirror that were skillfully angled so that they could see who was coming.

“Don’t worry, chaplain,” said Josh, in the first cell. “We like ministers in here. If anything ever happened, the person who hurt you wouldn’t live through the night.” It was an oddly comforting statement and a profoundly formative summer. It turns out that a man I’ll call Jonah was in that prison at the same time I was, although we did not meet then.