Tenth Presbyterian’s ministry at the Federal Detention Center
In the late 1990’s, when Dr. David Apple first learned of plans for the construction of the new Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, he and others at Tenth Church began to pray about developing a prison ministry. Since prisons hold a diverse cross-section of the world’s cultures and ethnicities, Dr. Apple viewed ministry there as a natural expression of the Great Commission, to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19). It was also another way for Tenth to reach those on the margins of society. Jesus spoke to the importance of this when he said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36)
A prison chaplain has a strong influence on the shape of ministry in a facility, so one of the group’s prayers was that a Bible-believing chaplain would be assigned to the new prison. This prayer was clearly answered when it was learned that the chaplain would be an evangelical Christian who wished to offer Bible studies to the inmates.
Dr. Apple began preparing for Tenth’s involvement before the Federal Detention Center (FDC) opened it’s doors on June 1, 2000. During that year he invited speakers with deep experience in prison ministry from Prison Fellowship and the Navigators to train interested Tenth members, as well as inviting FDC staff and providing his own training on “setting the captives free.”
The imposing 12-story concrete building at 7th and Arch Streets houses approximately 1,000 inmates. Floors 3-7 of the building are where nearly all inmates are housed. Each floor has an north and south wing, the two wings separated by a central hallway. This arrangement results in 10 individual wings, none of which interact with another. Only one of the wings is occupied by women. All others are occupied by men. At times, one or two of the wings are unoccupied.
As one would expect, the building is highly secure. There are multiple checkpoints separated by heavy steel doors. There are armed corrections officers (COs) on every floor. Anyone entering beyond the waiting room must have prior approval. They must leave belongings in a locker and pass through a metal detector. They must be given a hand stamp that is checked both when entering and leaving. They must sign their name in two locations. And they are given a body alarm as a precaution. Volunteers must have background checks and training, as well as annual “refresher” training.
Just as the building is a highly secure, all that takes place within the facility is highly regulated. There are voluminous rules about procedures, conduct, interactions, apparel, etc. and these rules must be rigidly adhered to. The rules are designed to ensure the safety of everyone in the facility.
The Volunteer Intake Process
The core ministry at the FDC is a Bible study on Tuesday nights from 7:30-8:30 PM. Each of the occupied wings can accommodate a person to facilitate a Bible study, so 8-10 study leaders are needed to reach all wings. Usually there are not enough leaders available to go to all wings, even though leaders come from some other churches in addition to Tenth. Both men and woman lead studies.
Study leaders arrive at the FDC intake area around 7:00 PM on Tuesday. The guard is seated inside a large central cubicle surrounded by steel bars and bullet-proof glass. Volunteers drop their driver’s license into a depression. The guard files the license and hands a lock and key to the volunteer back through the depression.
The volunteer then selects a locker in the waiting room and places coat, hat, purse, etc. in the locker. All watches and items in pockets must be also be placed in the locker, especially phones, wallets and personal keys. Volunteers generally may only take their locker key, a Bible, study notes and a pen. And they must return with the same items afterward.
After all volunteers are present and the chaplain arrives (around 7:15 PM), volunteers remove any outer clothing containing metal (e.g., shoes, belts) and set them on a conveyor belt to pass through a metal detector, along with their Bibles and other materials they are carrying. Volunteers themselves then walk through a metal detector, after which they are admitted through a steel-reinforced door to a large inner room.
Each volunteer then signs a log, receives an invisible hand stamp and is handed their personal badge that they must wear in the facility. Volunteers wait for a brief time in a small inner waiting area before moving to the far side of the room to sign another log indicating what wing they will be on. An officer inside a large central control room passes body alarms out to the chaplain, who hands each volunteer a body alarm (looks like a walkie-talkie) and records the alarm number in the log.
The control room then opens a motorized, sliding heavy steel door and admits the volunteers into a short hallway. The door closes with a resounding “clank!” and each volunteer holds his/her hand under an ultraviolet light and the control room officers confirm that all are correctly stamped. Next the control room opens another motorized door to admit the volunteers into an elevator lobby. The door then closes and volunteers and chaplain board an elevator.
As the elevator ascends, the chaplain radio-announces to the COs that “religious volunteers” will be arriving at their unit soon. The elevator stops at each floor and the chaplain escorts the volunteers (1 or 2 per floor) to another steel door and pushes a button to signal the control room to open the door. After passing through that door, the volunteers arrive at the doors to their respective wings. The chaplain then hands off the volunteer to the CO, who escorts them into the CO’s unit (wing).
Once inside, the volunteer enters a sparse activities room that is lined with windows so that it is easy to see into and out of the room. The CO loudly announces “Bible Study” so that anyone who wishes to come may do do.
At 8:30 PM, the study ends and the intake process is reversed, though it is much quicker and a few of the steps are not needed. Volunteers leave the facility shortly after 8:30.
The FDC is a facility holding people who have been charged with a Federal crime and are awaiting a trial and sentencing. After sentencing, they are transported to another facility to serve their sentence. Occasionally an inmate is released. Due to the nature of the facility there is frequent turnover of inmates. People can be there as short as one day to as long as a few years. Several months is typical.
- The study participants often reflect a remarkable diversity of humanity. This includes diversity of age, race, ethnicity, nationality and culture. It also includes diversity of:
- Appearance – Clean cut vs. tattoo-covered
- Education level – Many do not have a lot, but some are college-educated. A few have been doctors.
- Church background – Many attended church for a time, perhaps when they were growing up. Then they drifted from it. Some rarely, if ever, attended a church.
- Biblical literacy – Some know the Bible very well. Dick Taylor of the Navigators said, “Many prisoners know the Bible well. The difficulty is in application and accountability.” Often they have a limited or skewed understanding because they haven’t really studied it or had sound teaching.
- Comfort in talking – some are very talkative, some just want to listen
The unifying trait is the desire to gain a deeper understanding of God’s word and apply it in their lives.
The Study Hour
The hour of study itself is a special time. After the CO announces the study, inmates begin entering the room, carrying a Bible and a plastic chair from their cell. Attendance is strictly voluntary, so only those that want to be there participate! The number that attend can vary widely, but typically there is a consistent core of people from week to week, often with some new arrivals and departures.
The manner in which the study is conducted is purely up to the volunteer facilitator. Study elements can include (or not include) singing, handouts, or writing on a whiteboard. Leadership style can be deductive or inductive. The study can be topical or can progress through a book of the Bible over several months. The leader adopts the style with which they are most comfortable. The focus is studying the Word of God, praying together and having fellowship.
Study participants are typically well-behaved and respectful. They know that this hour is a privilege and opportunity for them chart a new course in their lives.The inside of a prison is spiritually dark. A person coming from the “outside” to minister to them is a real encouragement. The study is a respite. It takes them out of the monotony and difficulties of their experience and provides a space where they can let their guard down a bit, fellowship with other believers, and feel more human. As a volunteer, it often feels very similar to conducting a study somewhere on the outside. Many times inmates thank the volunteer just for coming.
You are pointing the inmates to Christ. Some put their trust in Christ for the first time. Others were never firm in their faith and they drifted from the Lord. Now they turn to God with a focus they never had before. Some have gotten to the end of themselves and are finally willing to look to God to change. Some share difficulties or encouragements. Some share deep regrets. Some admit that being caught is what saved them. It is not uncommon to hear from an inmate, “If I wasn’t here, I would be dead.”
Occasionally you see dramatic changes in people as they begin to trust Christ for the first time. One heavily-tattooed man was a practicing pagan when he arrived at the FDC. This was his third incarceration, and he was at the end of himself. Even though he had never before had any part of Christianity, one night he knelt down in his cell and asked Jesus to come into his life. He said that since then he has never felt freer, even as he was locked up. Others too have thanked God for their incarceration – though they hated being locked up – knowing that it was the vehicle to bring them to Christ.
There are no regular worship services at the FDC, so the Bible study is a way to help men there stay grounded and grow in their faith. When not in the study they have lots of time to read the Bible and other Christian literature, and some really take advantage of that. Often group members will get together to study the Scriptures at other times throughout the week, which is a healthy sign. Participants also often invite new inmates to join the Tuesday study.
As a volunteer it is gratifying to see men obtain much greater clarity about the Gospel and the Scriptures in general. There can be beliefs that are “out there” and you have the opportunity to gently correct them and help people really grasp Biblical truths.
A bond often forms among the leader and participants. As men share at a deeper personal level, one senses the Lord’s presence. We are are privileged to see glimpses of God working in people, despite the hard circumstances – perhaps because of the hard circumstances. And that is a great encouragement to keep going.