Hope Beyond Prison Walls

Date Posted: 9/7/2011

Restorative justice ministries in the Texas Annual Conference reach beyond the boundaries of what one might think of when they hear the phrase “prison ministry.” They often touch the lives of not only those currently and formerly incarcerated, but their families, correctional officers, and victims of crime as well.


Between August of 1989 and February of 1991, Jim Arnold was robbed four times. “The first two times – like everyone else, I wanted to lock up the robber up and throw away the key. After the second time, I got to thinking… The problem of human crime has been going on since the dawn of time, and society hasn’t changed its attitude or approach.” He decided to be part of the solution. After spending three-weeks in prayer and meditation, Arnold decided to work in prison ministry.


Arnold, a member at First Methodist Houston (Westchase), is now the director of Skills for Life Prison Ministry which offers weekly Toastmasters meetings. The program teaches public speaking, personal responsibility and leadership skills to the inmates.


He uses Toastmasters curriculum, but shifts the focus toward servant leadership and eliminates competition because he says it promotes selfishness. “The Skills for Life program works toward building camaraderie and increases self confidence while building a positive community within the prison walls…” Arnold continued. “I include people of all races and all religions in my clubs. My only criteria is that an inmate has a heart for wanting to learn and express himself.” 


The special prisoner-focused Toastmaster clubs are limited to 20 participants. “The program was so popular it filled up immediately. By the second week, 35 more wanted in. By the end of the first year, every guy out there was asking the chaplain how to get into Toastmasters.”


Volunteer Betty Waedemon says Christ UMC in Sugar Land is actively involved in restorative justice ministry, with 28 people in the church acting as facilitators. Within the prisons, their volunteers help with:

·         Disciple Bible Studies,

·         Kairos (similar to Walk to Emmaus)

·         weekly one-on-one Christian mentoring with inmates and ex-offenders

·         weekly club meetings to improve inmates’ public speaking and leadership skills,

·         classes teaching personal finance, job hunting or other life skills to inmates, and

·         leading worship services and revival events.


“We participate in many ministries including Alpha ministry at the prison’s Carroll Vance Unit and we are beginning an Alpha program at Jester three.” The Alpha program takes participants through the fundamentals of Christianity, and is taught to the same small group of prisoners for six months. “It becomes one of the most popular programs for prisoners because they can meet in small groups and talk about whatever is on their minds [related to] the curriculum,” Waedemon said, adding that the Alpha program at Carroll Vance is unique because two family members can take the class alongside the incarcerated.


“For prisoners, these programs are invaluable,” Waedemon added. “Prisoners don't think they are worthy of having someone volunteer their time. When we first go in for Alpha, they waste three weeks trying to figure out why we’re there. When they figure out we’re there because God loves us and loves them, it blows them away. The fact that we just show up brings change to so many of their lives.”


“Since prisoners make no decisions while they’re incarcerated, we try to prepare them for when they get out.” Waedemon said that she has met prisoners who have committed every crime, except sexual offenses, because the State of Texas separates those prisoners from other populations. “Our class attendees are typically drug or alcohol involved. Just like you and me, they’ve made mistakes… They don’t have horns and a tail. You don’t have to fear them. They are just people who made a mistake and got caught.”


“We have got to do something,” Waedemon said. “Prisoners will continue to be paroled into to this area with 50 bucks in their pocket and sent to a halfway house. With no money, they will be tempted to commit more crimes. What will they do? Re-offend and go back in…  We can either help them, or wait until they commit crimes against us. To me, helping change that is a no-brainer.”


In 2010, TDCJ selected mandated faith-based dorms in several prisons and looked at the recidivism rate – a measurement of the rate at which offenders commit new crimes once they are released. “The rate at normal prisons is anywhere from 40-60 percent, but at Carroll Vance it is from 6-8 percent. Guys who go through Christian programs are less likely to go back to prison,” Waedemon continued. “I feel like a revolution is occurring in prisons where God is working. I see more change taking place in prisons with church involvement.”


Rev. Marvin Hood, pastor at Newgate Fellowship in Houston, a church heavily focused on restorative justice ministry, said you don’t see many United Methodist-specific programs inside the prisons because of the way programs are vetted by administrators in each facility. “Ministries and Bible studies have to be approved by the prison, and each church basically has to choose from what has been already been approved.”


For that reason there are many programs within our prisons, often with United Methodists leading and participating, but few are labeled or branded specifically as United Methodist ministries.


Waedemon said it’s a good idea for churches wanting to start work in restorative justice ministry to visit a church with an active program and learn more about how they can participate. “Meeting with a prison chaplain can also help you learn what the needsare in your area. The only special training needed to be a part of this ministry is the ability to love unconditionally.”


There are two one-hour tours at the Carol Vance Unit in Sugar Land, on the second Thursday of each month, which offer new volunteers the opportunity to go into the prison and learn about their programs. These tours begin at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m. and are meant to help dispel myths about prisoners.  


Learn More about Restorative Justice Ministries at Christ UMC Sugar Land at:  



Learn More about Skills for Life at: www.skillsforlifepm.com