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How prison ministries adapted during COVID-19

During the pandemic, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued their ministry inside prisons without sending in ministers

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Within weeks of COVID-19 shutdowns, Jehovah’s Witnesses pivoted their in-person ministry and activities around the country to virtual meetings and preaching through letters, telephone calls and videoconferencing.

By Gralyn Matthews

The 60-cycle hum of dim fluorescent lighting was all that LeConte Hall could hear as he sat with a deaf Bible student named Derick inside a prison chapel in Vacaville, California.

“‘Throw all your anxiety on God, because He cares for you,’” Hall signed, quoting a Bible verse found in the first letter of the apostle Peter. “‘Please, remember that.”

After they practice the scripture in American Sign Language (ASL), Hall writes the words on a piece of paper for Derick, who tucks it in his shirt pocket, flashes a smile and thanks him. Hall had a sense of foreboding that day in March as reports of an emerging pandemic began to dominate the news. He feared that prison lockdowns were looming.

“You always think when you leave the prison, there might not be a next time,” he said. This time his fear became reality: there really was no “next time.”

COVID-19 shut down access to most U.S. prisons, including the California Medical Facility (CMF) where Hall volunteers with a group of Jehovah’s Witness ministers. Inmates were cut off from a Bible education program that included weekly Bible-based discourses, audience discussions, individual Bible studies and video presentations.

“Our concern was for them,” said Dan Houghton, who helps coordinate the efforts of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ correctional facility ministry in the U.S. “They needed us more now than ever. They were cut off from their lifeline of spiritual feeding.”

Within weeks, Jehovah’s Witnesses pivoted their in-person ministry and activities around the country to virtual meetings and preaching through letters, telephone calls and videoconferencing.

Yet, these changes reaped unexpected and amazing results, as their California prison ministry illustrates.

Video broadcasting

To help the state fulfill its legal obligation to offer religious services to inmates, Jehovah’s Witnesses were asked to provide video content for the television network that broadcasts to all the state prisons. In July, a 28-minute program replete with ASL translation made its debut – broadcasting three times a day, seven days a week, to all 33 state prisons and potentially reaching more than 130,000 residents.

Hall expressed a sense of joy and relief, envisioning his deaf and hearing impaired Bible students at CMF watching the programs in ASL. “It’s like someone has come to visit them personally and share God’s message to them directly,” he said with a smile, thinking back to the handwritten scripture he left with Derick seven months ago.

Donated bibles, virtual chapel

In other correctional facility systems around the country as well, Witnesses continue to build a spiritual lifeline into their local correctional facilities in whatever way they can.

For example, officials at the Sarasota County Jail in Florida, where the only respite for inmates during the pandemic is a weekly trip to the roof to look up at the sky, knew that they needed to offer something more. The sergeant reached out to Manolo Rodriguez, the Jehovah’s Witness minister he would see conducting Bible studies and meetings at the jail several days a week, and asked him for 70 Bibles and 30 “inspirational books.”

Rodriguez and his wife Fabiola spent years volunteering at the jail, so they understood the struggles the inmates face, from emotional distress, mental illness, drug addiction, to feuds within the jail walls. The Rodriguezes thought of the comfort 70 Bibles could bring, and they got to work. They contacted local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and collected all the Bibles that were in stock at their Kingdom Halls, which were shut down due to COVID-19. Within a week, they had amassed 50 Bibles in English, 20 in Spanish, and 30 Bible-based publications in a variety of languages ready for the sergeant to retrieve.

“I pray that these Bibles will help turn the lives of these people around so that they will not have to come back inside the jail walls,” said Manolo Rodriguez. “We have received word from the facility that some inmates have been enjoying the donated Bibles and literature already.”

Throughout the country, Witnesses continue to build a spiritual lifeline into their local prisons in whatever way they can. In Los Angeles County, California, trained volunteers are sending letters and literature to more than 300 inmates in the Pitchess Detention Center who have requested Bible information.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a Witness prison chaplain keeps up with his six Bible students in the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center through video calls. He points his laptop camera to the recorded meetings playing on his iPad, turning his living room into a virtual prison chapel.

Perhaps the most positive pandemic-driven prison preaching initiative takes place on the inside. “I’m getting Bible studies started here!” one inmate wrote in a letter requesting more Bible-based literature.

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