Free the Prisoners
April 12, 2014
by Maria Fontaine
Free the Prisoners
There is a group of people who are found in every country of the world. Most come from the poorer parts of society, but those who end up in this group can come from the middle class on up to the most elite. Their lives have in most cases turned into a living hell on earth, but even in the often brutal, life-and-death circumstances they are forced to live in, there is great potential for God’s light to shine in their darkness.
People are prisoners of sin until their bonds have been broken by Jesus through His blood. But there are some in the world who are not only prisoners of sin but of actual physical prison walls, bars, and razor wire. Whether or not you feel personally called to the often-challenging task of visiting or writing to those who are imprisoned, you can still do something very important if you will commit to praying for those who are incarcerated who need Jesus so desperately. Many formerly unreachable, hardened prisoners, who have been supernaturally transformed by Jesus’ light and love, attribute much of the miracle that happened in their lives to Christians who were interceding in prayer for them.
Whether these inmates have actually committed crimes or whether they are imprisoned unjustly, their lives often become overtaken by bitterness, anger, loneliness, fear, remorse, depression and other destructive emotions. Those who are given over to evil frequently prey on other prisoners, brutalizing and demoralizing them, often leaving them without hope of rescue or sometimes even much hope of survival.
I’ve had a special place in my heart for prisoners since I was young. When I was twelve, my aunt sometimes visited prisons with a group from her church. She met a man who had been saved there and she suggested to me that he would be encouraged if I would write him on a regular basis. I did so. My heart went out to him and to the many others worldwide who were incarcerated. That was my first exposure to a prisoner, albeit by long distance.
In today’s world, I wouldn’t recommend the prison pen pal ministry for younger teens. In fact, most prison ministries require participants to be at least eighteen years old. But back when I was young, which was a long time ago, it worked well under the mentoring and guidance of my Spirit-filled aunt. I never met the man I’d written to, but I was able to encourage him spiritually.
Several years ago I helped compile a booklet which TFI published. It was composed of messages received from the Lord for those in prisons, many of which can be used as separate tracts or leaflets. It is called “Freedom Within,” available here. My purpose in compiling this booklet was that, even if these prisoners can’t be free physically, they can discover how to be free spiritually.
With the prison ministry, like some other ministries, it is often slow going. There are many challenges and security issues involved in trying to get through the red tape required to get inside those physical walls. And there are often many barriers of hardness, bitterness, fear, depression, and hopelessness to overcome in the prisoners themselves. But if the Lord puts the burden on your heart, He will open the doors wide as you persevere, and it can be a very fulfilling ministry where the Lord can use you greatly to change lives little by little.
A TFI member, Marianne, has been ministering for about a year and a half in a large prison in Mexico. Rather than my telling her story, I’d like to share with you a conversation we had in which she described her work.
For the last seven years I have been working with another Family member, Isabelle, and her nonprofit organization, doing various humanitarian projects. We had often talked about our burden to do something in the prisons because of the well-known issues in the justice and prison system. Having worked with female victims of violence, my dear friend had realized that they and female inmates face many of the same struggles.
She had a strong desire to work with women in prison, and offered to do coaching workshops in one of the women’s rehabilitation centers. After going through the mountain of paperwork in order to be approved and accepted within the penitentiary system, she was finally able to begin.
The need was huge, and her workshops were very well received. So we had the idea to offer language classes to these women. They had an English teacher at the time, so I offered to give French classes. This program also got approved, and while my co-worker was giving her workshops, I began teaching French to a group of 16 women.
What are the conditions in the prison like?
It is a tough world for sure, with a diverse mixture of people. I have a friend who has done a project for 18 years in one of the prisons near the Mexican/U.S. border. She said that in order to protect the drug cartels' personnel, some of these women are forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit. They are given a choice: sign a confession or the cartel will kill some members of their family. Usually these are not idle threats.
There are around 300 women in the prison Isabelle and I go to. Many end up spending their time taking drugs, stealing, and getting into further trouble. There is a psychiatric ward, and some are totally zonked by drugs. All the women are mixed together in the prison. Those who have been forced into this situation by the cartels are mixed with hardened criminals, including women who’ve murdered their children. There are many accounts of forced drugging, threats of death, or beatings in the prison. The national inmates can be especially tough on the foreigners—physical beatings, harassment, stealing their stuff. There's a lot of fear.
Are there children in the prison?
Not in this one, no. Many of the women really, really miss their kids. In one of the other centers, they allow the women to have their children with them till they are six years old. Some babies are born there. Once the children turn six, they have to leave and go to live with relatives or in special centers. It's very traumatic for some of the women when they have to part from their kids.
How do you witness?
After my French classes, I offer some devotional books, and usually they all want to take them. I also bring some children’s books, which they really appreciate—for their kids and some for their grandkids. I have time between the classes, so students can linger and talk; there are two or three who are particularly receptive who come to me for prayer. It gives me a chance to find out how they’re doing. Others I witness to more sporadically, whenever they're going through something particularly rough and come to talk.
Due to the Latin culture in general, it is well accepted that you talk about the Lord, so there is no problem when I encourage them this way as long as I do my job and do not use the class to “preach” to them. It definitely lends itself to being able to minister to those who are more receptive.
Can you tell me more about some of your interactions with the women?
Out of the 300 women in this center, there’s a group of about 25 or 30 women who try to learn all they can. It’s a way to survive in these very depressing surroundings. Most of this small group participates in whatever cultural and educational opportunities are offered here, to keep their sanity and to escape the depression and the world of fear and crime and darkness that surrounds them day and night.
The women in my class, most of whom have been in prison for several years, treasure the opportunity to escape this insane world for a while, to study something that makes them feel better about themselves. I have talked personally with each one of them, prayed personally with several. They have become friends with one another and have formed a support group of sorts, though they are from very different backgrounds and ages. They greet each other in French sometimes, and they help each other with the homework I give them.
There's a Jewish lady in my class. She came to class one day with a big bandage on her chest; one of the inmates had poured boiling tea on her, telling her she was going to kill her. She was asked to press charges against the assailant, but she prayed and she got that God is the judge and she should not do anything that may cause anyone to have to stay any longer in this hellish place.
Against this backdrop of utter darkness, a little love and a little light shine brightly. She knows I'm a Christian and she comes for prayer, as she said her rabbi would not come and visit her—he did not want to offend her family! She has a little girl seven years old who fell into a coma-like state after she witnessed her mom being arrested by the police, so now her family blames her for her daughter’s troubles. She was fasting and praying and begging God to help her fight for her daughter’s recovery. I compiled Old Testament promises and gave these to her to claim, and she was so thankful for the love and support! In the desert every drop of water is precious.
There's a lady from Colombia in my class who was hoping to be released last Christmas, but she’s still there, it seems there are problems with her embassy…. She’s a believer. On her birthday I brought her a present—Momentos de Sosiego (Quiet Moments)—a beautiful book with quotes and verses on victory in times of difficulty. She was so touched, she was crying, because she has nobody to remember her birthday; nobody brings her anything. She said, "I know God’s using this time to change me, and I really want to go out and do better."
On the last day of my second set of classes, to celebrate, I brought some cakes and the movie, Les Miserables, which they were excited to watch together. We had talked about French history, so they knew it was a classic from the period I had mentioned. The world of Fantine and Cosette and of Les Miserables may be the world of 19th century France, but in many ways it is also the world of many here today.
The injustice, abuse, corruption, poverty, etc., are a reality that many of these women have faced for much of their lives—not all, of course, but many. At one point seeing Fantine in the movie, one of them exclaimed, "That is me!" I could see that the choices and decisions that Jean Valjean was making were really touching them—when he chose not to kill Javert, who had falsely accused him, when he decided he was going to tell the truth so another man would not die in his place, when he picked up Fantine and helped her die in dignity. I could feel it was touching them.
Do you feel you're having a long-term impact on any of these people?
It is slow progress, but I feel that I'm impacting some of these women. They know I do this work because I'm a Christian. Some have told me that I'm different from some who visit the prison who don’t know how to relate to them so well and can be a bit legalistic or dogmatic or “preachy.” My prayer is that I can somehow bring a little bit of Jesus’ love and light in this dark surrounding, along with teaching them some of my native tongue and culture.
I pray for them often, and I've been especially praying for labor leaders who can not only find encouragement for themselves, but to also be able to pass it on to others … and some are doing just that. There is one girl in particular the Lord has laid on my heart who I feel has potential to help many others. She's 33, a bit challenging, but this girl has got drive. If she can just get enthused about the Lord, she could make a difference right where she is. Prayer is so important in these situations, because it is what moves the hand of God to do what we can’t do.
My friend and co-worker, Isabelle, is now starting another set of workshops in the prison. One woman has already attended two sets of her workshops and she enrolled in a third. A few others are taking the workshops for the second time, and a couple of my students have also enrolled … Isabelle has been able to talk deeply and pray with several of them. It seems they have been genuinely impacted by the principles they have learned in the workshops. Some have had pretty spectacular life changes.
We try to bring a bit of His light and love and care to these dear women who are fighting to survive in this very difficult situation. We can help to improve their lives. We pray that some will even become pillars of positive change right in this situation, and hopefully also when they leave this facility. One lady who hopes to leave very shortly asked Isabelle if she could come and help her with the workshops in the prison once she is out.
There are an estimated ten million people being confined around the world in prisons. These people are a segment of society that for the most part has almost no one to help them, no one who cares if they live or die. While a portion of them are violent criminals, another substantial portion are there for things such as drug abuse or trafficking, tax evasion, or other nonviolent offenses. There are also likely a number who have been incarcerated who are innocent of any crimes. In many places their “crimes” might be not agreeing with those in power, engaging in antigovernment demonstrations, or being a part of a religious minority. In some countries, even ones regarded as first world countries, many people spend years or even decades in prison without ever being charged with a crime.
This is just a glimpse into this broad subject of prisons. There is such a desperate spiritual need for hope and the Lord’s Spirit. We can’t set the prisoners free in the physical, but we can help to liberate their spirits to create a connection to God, who loves them and wants to make them a part of His kingdom.
Jesus made it His mission to free us. We can help to set the other captives free by helping them become citizens of His kingdom.
I know that a number of you in the past have participated in prison ministries, and some of you are at present volunteering to help in prisons. I would be very thankful if you could send me any testimonies you have of your visitation, or correspondence with incarcerated men and women, especially where you have been able to lead someone to the Lord, or help someone to grow in the Lord who has gone on to share Him with others in their prison. I’m also very interested in accounts of ministering on the outside to family members of prisoners. Testimonies are a way to multiply the fruits of what the Lord is doing through us because they often inspire others to take similar action.
Most societies don’t offer much opportunity for released prisoners to truly redeem themselves and become productive members of society. The social stigma alone makes it difficult even for those who are skilled to find work or rebuild their lives. They need faith and hope and the Lord’s strength to help them persevere and overcome the many challenges they face due to their imprisonment.
Many former prisoners don’t have any place to go once they’re released. Sadly, many go back to lives of crime, violence, drugs, etc., and their lives continue their downward spiral. Without something greater than this world to look to, most lack the motivation to overcome the negative currents of their past. But as Christians, we have the power to make a difference. As we do what we can to help them find faith in Jesus, His Word and His love can help them to overcome this vicious cycle and find true newness of life.
It can be a very cold and cruel world that man’s sins and inhumanity to man has created, but as the Bible says, where iniquity does abound, grace does much more abound. One of the reasons Jesus has us still here on this earth is to do what we can to fulfill the task He began, “…to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” We can visit Jesus in the prisons of the world through our prayers for so many who have no hope, no love, and no light in their lives. I ask you to please stop right now and pray that God will bring His light and life into the hearts of those who are in bondage. Please ask Jesus to do something to connect them with Him, to change things and to give them hope and a way to come to know that in spite of everything, they are truly and unconditionally loved by Him.
“Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
 Romans 5:20.
 Luke 4:18.
 Matthew 25:36.
 Hebrews 13:3 NIV.