Teaching in Jail

Today’s guest blog is from writer Jill Kandel. Nanci and I spent ten days with Jill and her family 26 years ago, when they were in England after having served in humanitarian work in Zambia. Jill has been teaching journal writing to female inmates at a local jail for almost two years. Since prison outreach is close to our hearts, with EPM sending hundreds of my books a month to prisoners, and corresponding with them, I asked Jill to share about her ministry there. I think you’ll appreciate this! —Randy

When I tell people that I teach at a county jail they are often curious. "What's it like?" and "Do you feel safe?" are frequently asked questions. Mostly people want to know if it does any good. "Really? Why bother?" is often the attitude.

My reasons for working in jail are multiple, but they are not complex.

Jill KandelI teach classes in jail because it's good for my community. Of the 7,800 men and women who come through our jail each year, 97% of them will stay within the county after they are released. People in jail are people. They have lives and connections they return to.

Our jail chaplain program coordinates men and women around our city who go into jail to teach GED, Moms-in-Touch, Celebrate Recover, Women's Bible Study, Men's Bible Study, Dad's-in-Touch, Anger Management, Crown Financial Services, Alpha Program, Knitting, Stamping, Art, and Journal Writing classes. Inmates who attend emerge from jail better skilled to live productive lives. The jail chaplain program also provides transitional housing, food and jobs for returning citizens and helps them get on their feet, offering them a church home and stability. This cuts recidivism rates and helps produce citizens who honor God with their life choices.  

I teach classes in jail because it is what God has gifted me to do. Years ago, I was asked to write a story about a young mother who'd been a meth addict and served time in county jail. She met the Lord in jail and had been drug free for five years. After the story came out, the jail programs officer asked if I'd be interested in teaching journal writing skills to female inmates. I said no. But God had other plans. Over the course of the next year, God changed my heart. I called the programs officer back and said yes. I've been going to jail once a week to teach journal writing skills to female inmates ever since.

I used to think, "Stamping classes? Knitting classes? Why would they be helpful?" But the men and women who teach the classes are believers and God has called them. Because of the classes the inmates have hand-made scarves to give to their children at Christmas. They have hand-made cards for birthdays and holidays. The conversations that flow around the room during the classes are uplifting and God-honoring. "When I told one man what a great job he'd done knitting his scarf," one teacher said, "He told me it was the first time in his life anyone had ever told him he'd done a good job."

God takes all of His Gifting, whether it is writing, or financial knowledge, or being a great mom, and He uses the gifts He gives.

I teach classes in jail because God has called me to serve. When I first started teaching, I viewed myself as a volunteer, one of the approximate 62.6 million people in America who volunteered through or for an organization each year. Over the years, I've come to a different understanding. God doesn't call us to volunteer. He calls us to serve. Volunteer work is work done for a program, a foundation, or an institution. Servant-hood is a calling and a mandate. Christ came into our hurting broken world. He asks nothing less of us.

Volunteering  may be fine for a club, but not for the church. Volunteering is something free people do. Servants, on the other hand, can only humbly and obediently respond to their master's command. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45

I teach classes in jail because it blesses me. Jail is a profoundly moving place to work. God is there. There is little pretense and great need. God meets us in that room filled with women dressed in orange. Working in jail has become one of the great blessings in my life. God not only uses His gifts for His glory and Kingdom, but He uses them for our own joy and growth.

The class I teach has about twenty women each week. This week we read Bible verses concerning the Biblical concept of hope as 'certainty' from Hebrews 11, Jeremiah 29, and Romans 15. We have hope because God is faithful, not because we are. I have heard women say that jail is the best thing that ever happened to them. I have seen women turn their hearts to God. I have seen more miracles in jail than anywhere else on this planet. It is a holy place. It is a place where God is at work and that is an amazing thing to behold.

I teach classes in jail because I want to be found faithful. The bottom line—the one that gives me an eternal perspective in my day to day life—is this: When my life is over and I stand before the Lord, He isn't going to give me the volunteer of the year award. He won't say, "Thanks for your time and nice job by-the-way." The words I want to hear Him say are very different and much more meaningful. I want to hear Him say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant." It's the word 'my' in that sentence that gets me. Someday I will hear Him call me His Own. 


writing photo credit: Rubin Starset via photopin cc (cropped)