You Came Unto Me

A Training Manual For Jail And Prison Ministry
Jesus said, “I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.” —Matthew 25:43


Ministering To Death Row Inmates


Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die. (Psalms 79:11)


Upon conclusion of this chapter you will be able to:

            ∙          Explain how to start a ministry to death row inmates.

            ∙          Discuss guidelines for ministering to death row inmates.

            ∙          Explain how to help a death row inmate prepare to die.


Some prisons have “death rows”—special units where prisoners are housed who have been condemned to death by the legal system of their nation, state, or province. These inmates are usually kept in segregated or maximum security facilities. Death row is a unique segment of the penal institution, and this chapter is designed to help you minister effectively in this environment.


A ministry on death row--as any prison ministry--must be approved by the chaplain or administration of the institution. In most instances you will not immediately be allowed access to a death row. A chaplain or administrator will want to observe you in other settings in the prison—in group or individual ministry to general population inmates.

Some institutions do not allow group ministries on death row because of the security risks. Don’t be discouraged--you may be allowed to minister on a one-on-one basis through visiting or writing a death row inmate. This can be very effective, both in terms of fostering genuine relationships and sharing the Gospel message. It may also lead to the possibility of group ministry later on.

If group meetings are not allowed, explore alternative ways of ministering on death row. For example, in one institution where group ministry was not permitted a video player was approved to be taken in and the chaplain and volunteer ministries supplied Christian videos to the row. Some modern institutions have closed circuit television capabilities and perhaps these could be used to air video-taped services. Christian audio tapes may also be permitted. You may also be able to match each death row inmate with a Christian visitor who will minister one-on-one to them.


If you are ministering by writing or visiting one-on-one with a death row inmate, review Chapters Four and Five of this manual for guidelines on writing and visiting. If you are conducting group ministry, see Chapters Six, Eleven, and Twelve. The general guidelines in these chapters are applicable to death row also.

Unique to death row are the following guidelines:

∙          There are sometimes different rules for visiting, writing, or conducting group services on death row because of security issues. Inquire about these regulations and abide by them religiously!

∙          If a death row inmate maintains innocence, it is not your place to challenge it. There are many instances where inmates have been released from death row after it was proven without doubt that they were innocent. If they maintain their innocence, pray with them that God will undertake and justice be done.

∙          Feelings of isolation, depression, and hopelessness are very common because death row inmates are usually segregated, confined more often to their cells, and very limited in options as to what prison programs they can participate in. You can help by being an uplifting friend and providing ways to fill their time (puzzles, games, arts and crafts, reading material, correspondence courses, etc.—whatever is permitted by the institution).

∙          People are usually sentenced to death row because of the violent nature of the crimes of which they have been accused and convicted. Some may admit their guilt, but not show any remorse for their crime. You must have the ability to accept them just as they are and then--through love and the life changing power of God--lead them to the place they need to be.

∙          You must have a real understanding of Biblical regeneration: “. . .if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”

            (2 Corinthians 5:17). Society may still require the inmate to pay for his crimes with his

             life, but God has forgiven him/her and they are a new creation. They are not the same

             person who did the crime.

∙          Be sure the death row inmate understands that turning to God does not necessarily mean He will deliver them from death. Share Hebrews 11 with them. Many godly people were delivered from death, but others were killed. Some were delivered out of prison; others were not. God wants to give them dying faith as well as living faith.

∙          Continue to hold on in faith with a death row inmate until all legal appeal options have been exhausted--but then don’t be afraid to help him prepare if death is eminent.

                        ∙          Is there someone they need to forgive? Guide them in the process.

                        ∙          Are there those to whom he needs to apologize and seek forgiveness— victims, their families, his own family or friends? Guide them in the process.

                        ∙          If they have young children, encourage them to write a special letter to the child to be given to them when they are older.

                        ∙          Do they have any practical business matters that need to be concluded?

                        ∙          Discuss death openly, and the fact that as a believer, there is nothing to fear. Everyone has an appointed time to die. The only difference between them and other believers is, they know their date. This can be a positive thing, for it gives them time to do and say what needs to be said and done.

                                    For the believer, death is swallowed up in victory:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed--in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1st Corinthians 15:51-55)

                                    Death releases us from the sins, trials, and burdens of this life:

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

                                    When a believer dies, it is precious in God’s sight:

                                    Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.

                                    (Psalm 116:15)

                                    At death, the believer immediately enters the presence of the Lord.

We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)

                        ∙          Help them focus on eternity and the tremendous things that await in Heaven. See Revelation chapters 21 and 22.

If a death row inmates asks ask you to be present at their death to provide spiritual support, do so if the prison permits it. You can help make it a glorious home coming instead of a frightful experience--for truly, the death row inmate who has become a new creature in Christ will go right from that death chamber into the presence of God!

There Are No Door Knobs Here

By Catherine Thompson

California Death Row For Women

“I have been approached several times by friends and associates to put my thoughts on paper. Until recently, I shunned the idea. But a few days ago an outsider looking into our unit asked how I handle being on death row and facing the state possibly taking my life. Another individual asked if I was okay because I never complain and always have a smile.
“What no one realizes is that I had my last true smile on June 13, 1990. The next day, my best friend, my confidant, and the love of my life was taken from me by a very violent crime. That was the last day I can truthfully say I felt sincere happiness and exhibited a true smile. Through this experience I have learned what I call the daily three Ps of my existence: Patience, perseverance, and purity. I take one day at a time and there are some days I have to take one hour at a time.

“There are things I took for granted all my life that I now consider a privilege, such as a phone call, going out for sun and fresh air, or even simple things like turning a door knob or opening a window. There are no door knobs here. My door is electronically controlled by a correctional officer from a control booth.

“As a productive citizen of society, I voted against the death penalty. I feel God has numbered all our days on earth and does not give man the authority to change that. No one—be it a criminal or society—has the right to murder. I sit and wait on the state to appoint an attorney to represent me on appeal because I cannot afford to buy justice. In our society, justice—as everything else—comes with a large price tag.

“In the meantime, I spend my days upholding my dignity. My freedom was taken, my heart was broken, my smile destroyed—but no man can take my dignity.”

A Light On Death Row

By Michael Ross

Connecticut Death Row

“Death row can be a very dark and lonely place. As a condemned person, you have been told by society that you are not worthy of even life itself. You are automatically deemed too dangerous to be placed with the general prison population, and are isolated from all the other prisoners by being housed in a separate special unit called death row. Finally, this isolation goes even further for, many condemned men and women eventually lose contact and/or are abandoned by their own families.

“How do I know this? It's because I'm a condemned man myself, on Connecticut's death row. But I'm one of the lucky ones. I still have contact with some of my family and I have several pen pals . . . However, I'm the exception, and certainly not the rule . . . I personally know of inmates who receive no letters and have no visits.

“I even know of persons who were executed and had no one to claim the body. They were buried in a pauper’s grave with no one at the services but the prison's chaplain--that's if they were lucky enough to have services at all--and with the final indignity of having a prison number on the grave marker instead of a name. They were just faceless convicts executed by the state and buried in nameless graves, with no one to even notice their passing, never mind mourn their deaths.

“Yes, death row can be a very lonely place. But you have the power to change that. You have the ability to bring a ray of light and hope to the dismal darkness of death row isolation. And, at the same time, that ray of light just might touch your own heart, and teach you things that you never imagined. It's as easy as writing a letter. You see, in prison, letters can be that ray of light and hope to someone who might otherwise be totally alone.

“The experience of writing often has a profound effect on the individuals involved--on both sides of the correspondence. The person on death row knows that someone is concerned about them and are better able to deal with the difficulties of life on death row. Those on the outside find that to know just one inmate can dispel some of the misconceptions and fears about prisons and those locked away there.

“Jesus' call for us to visit those in prison is clear. Perhaps correspondence with a death row inmate can be your way of visiting."


1. Write the key verse from memory:



2. Summarize the suggestions given in this chapter on how to start a death row ministry.





3. Discuss the guidelines given in this chapter for ministering to death row inmates.







4. Discuss the suggestions given in this chapter for helping a death row inmate face death.





(Answers to self-tests are provided at the conclusion of the final chapter of this manual.)