By Kyle Peveto, Opinion Editor
Huge exhaust fans rumble and hum in the crowded gym full of inmates. Ed Alford stands on the three-point line, facing the crowd with his back to the goal.
“This was a gym ’til we got in here,” Alford says. “Now, it’s a house of God.”
Alford is one of many volunteers from area churches who take part in prison ministry at the French Robertson and John Middleton units eight miles northeast of Abilene near Hamby. Every other Wednesday he and others from Westgate Church of Christ come to the Middleton unit to lead offenders there in worship.
The Wednesday night service, like other services at Middleton, includes about 200 prisoners from all races represented at the unit. Men who were in rival gangs now worship side by side. Above all, the ministers here stress unity.
“We don’t teach doctrine, we teach Jesus and him crucified,” said Hal Howell. “There’s already enough disunity and division in their lives.”
Howell came to Abilene in January 1999 with the purpose of doing graduate work in Bible and taking part in ministry after retiring from the Navy. After completing his master’s degree in 2002, he began prison ministry full time.
Middleton’s 1,878 prisoners are just a fraction of the 669,858 incarcerated in Texas. At Middleton, 95 percent claim a Christian faith. Islamic faiths are claimed by 1.7 percent of the prisoners while only 1.9 percent do not claim any faith.
After singing songs, both a cappella and with the aid of a prisoner-led band, a young man from the Westgate group speaks to the crowd of inmates dressed in white. At the end of the sermon, 15 men will be baptized.
The 15 line up in front of the audience and profess their faith in Christ before being sent to the portable baptistery on wheels set up to the right of the audience. Inmates surround the waist high baptistery with mops to keep the gym floor dry.
As the congregation sings “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” the inmates preparing to be baptized must walk in front of the guards and be monitored as they strip naked and put on white baptismal shorts.
Middleton was unofficially dubbed “the Christian unit” by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice after more than 450 men were baptized last year.
Middleton is an interim unit used to test prisoners psychologically and medically before sending them to more permanent units. As a result, prisoners only stay for an average of four to six months. The prison tries to keep its offenders racially balanced between whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Howell also ministers at the Robertson unit, a maximum security prison next to Middleton on FM 3522. Many of the men seeking help from ministers are in administrative segregation, a type of solitary confinement. These men are placed in their small, windowless cells for being a danger to themselves or to others in the system.
Prisoners in administrative segregation – ad seg as it is called within the system – meet volunteers while wearing chains on their arms and legs, said Dale Ford, a chaplain at the Robertson unit.
“How’s that for a physical metaphor?” Ford asked.
Ford said he became involved in prison ministry after he prayed to do ministry “with people who would listen.”
Ad seg prisoners are not allowed to attend worship services and are not allowed to be given communion in their cells. Many of the 584 men in ad seg who are Christians or are studying with ministers have never been to a church service.
“People often think ‘these people are getting what they deserve,’ or they think all prisoners are uneducated, but it isn’t true,” Ford said. “People don’t think about the redemptive power of Jesus.”
“They helped me by making me feel wanted,” said Jason, an inmate at Middleton. “They let me know that Jesus is for me and God is for me.”
Prison ministry demands a strong heart and a strong love for those incarcerated.
Bill Riggs, a senior psychology major at ACU, has been involved in prison ministry for the last six years. He is also an ex-offender. “My life was changed a long time ago by a prison chaplain,” he said.
Riggs works alongside eight-year volunteer Betty Pierce, the only woman in the Middleton chaplain’s office. Pierce’s son was incarcerated elsewhere when she began teaching classes. “God called for me to love ’em, pray for’em and help them to be all they were created to be,” she said. She began to minister to prisoners when she prayed for God to “give her someone nobody else wants.”
Riggs and Pierce both teach classes at the unit on topics that range from Bible classes to anger management. Pierce said teaching them was “the greatest joy you could ever have. They’re like sponges.”
“The classes involve giving them better tools to make decisions with from a Christian perspective,” Riggs said.
The classes are taught by a wide range of volunteers, including Dr. Rollo Tinkler, a retired ACU professor of sociology.
“These people show love and compassion. They want you to think about what’s going on in your life so you can change it,” said Wesley, an inmate at the Middleton unit.
Ministering to those in chains and being rehabilitated does a great deal of good for those ministering, too. “Christianity has always been real to me, but since doing ministry it is even more real,” Howell said.
“It’s a huge incentive to manage your own walk with God closely,” Riggs said.
Volunteers are always needed to minister at both units. Howell has spoken to classes at ACU to recruit volunteers to help with the hundreds of men requesting visits from the chaplains at Robertson and Middleton. Chaplain Ford said more ministers are always needed to help mentor one-on-one with prisoners.
Volunteers at Robertson must be trained on a weekly or monthly basis to minister within the prison walls. After the training and a background check, volunteers are cleared for regular ministry.
Chaplains must have at least a high school diploma, but the state prefers chaplains the have a master of divinity degree and previous paid ministry experience.
Half of non-Christians come back to prison, Chaplain Ford said. “But only 10 to 20 percent of those who attend church come back.” He added, “When you’re living the lifestyle of Jesus, people’s lives are changed.”
Each of the 15 prisoners is baptized while the congregation continues to sing. After all the new Christians are immersed, two offenders mop the floor and the volunteers scatter across the rear of the gym. They sit with prisoners, praying with them and listening to their concerns.
Retiring to their dormitories, the prisoners return to the general population, and the volunteers return home. After retrieving their IDs from a Plexiglas window, the volunteers must pass through a pair of tall fences topped with razor wire before making their way to their cars.
An armed guard checks their IDs at the first gate and a sign reminds them that no hostages will pass through to the other side.
Basketball goals and exercise equipment now fill the quiet, dark gym. Sunday, for 200 men, it will again be a house of God..