By Emily Belz
Staffing shortages and ongoing pandemic restrictions have kept volunteers out—and left the incarcerated craving the kind of spiritual support they had before.
James Hyson hasn’t had access to ministries, classes, or mentoring groups since before the pandemic.
That’s because the ministry staff who volunteer at the New Jersey prison where he is incarcerated haven’t been able to return.
Though pandemic restrictions have loosened in most parts of American life, many state prisons and jails still limit outside volunteers. Ministries reported to CT that states have either not lifted their 2020 ban on volunteers, blocked volunteers whenever there is a COVID-19 outbreak, or cut the number of volunteers allowed in.
Some states and individual facilities have restored full access to volunteers—ministry leaders reported Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma were very open—but many across the country still cannot get through prison doors.
Jumpstart, a ministry that works in 17 prisons in South Carolina, cannot access 75 percent of the facilities it serves right now because they remain in lockdown. Kairos Prison Ministry, which operates in 37 states, said it still can’t send volunteers into Connecticut facilities.
State prisons and local jails—which house the vast majority of the 1.9 million people incarcerated in the US—have been slower to open up than federal prisons, which have been letting volunteers back in since November 2020.
“There are certain things out of our control, and we have to trust God to provide. We would love to be in there and be ministering and providing tools,” said Evelyn Lemly, the CEO of Kairos Prison Ministry. “But we honor and recognize that it’s [the state’s] house. And we serve at their pleasure.”
Prison ministries, motivated by the scriptural call to “remember those in prison,” …