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


Relating To Inmates


. . .in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will. (2nd Timothy 2:25-26)


Upon conclusion of this chapter you will be able to:

            ∙          Explain the first rule for relating with inmates.

            ∙          Summarize guidelines for relating to inmates.

            ∙          Define a “setup.”

            ∙          Explain how a setup occurs.

            ∙          List three ways to avoid a setup.


As a member of a prison ministry team, you represent Jesus Christ--not yourself. You are His ambassador. By your actions, words and/or dress, you can help or hinder the work of His Church behind bars.

Building relationships is not easy outside a prison and it isn't easy inside the prison. Some inmates may not be interested in spiritual matters. Some may completely reject you. Others may try to use you to further their own ends. It may help to recall Jesus' parable of the sower of seed and the four kinds of soil upon which the seed fell. Inmates, like everyone else, will fit into one of those categories.

This chapter provides guidelines for successfully relating to inmates in a jail or prison setting.


The first rule in relating to inmates: Learn and follow all the rules specific to the institution where you are ministering: These include such things as visiting hours, who can and cannot come in, what can be brought in, where you can and cannot go, and the dress code. Chapter Eleven of this manual provides further information on matters pertaining to dress and safety codes which will not be repeated here. This chapter concerns relationships with inmates in personal contact and group situations.


Inmates have had a great deal of frustration in their lives. Many have experienced repeated failure and are suspicious of any offer of assistance or guidance. Working with inmates cannot be reduced to a standard method. Much will be left to your good judgment. The following are general guidelines, however, to use in relating to inmates:

∙          Don't establish a facade or create special status for yourself. Express yourself genuinely. Let the inmates know you are there out of genuine concern, because it is what the Lord will have you do. As a volunteer, you will be checked out and tested to see if you are real. Inmates will see what you are before they listen to what you say. They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Be honest. Inmates are very sensitive to hypocrisy and phonies.

∙          Learn as much of the prison-related language as possible, but be careful in using it. There may be subtle meanings of which you are unaware.

∙          Learn to present the salvation message in a clear and simple way. Big words such as “propitiation” and “atonement” don't mean much to the average inmate.

∙          Be sensitive during crisis periods which include immediately following arrest, the first few weeks in prison, prior to and right after a trial, when appeals are denied, and just prior to release. Holidays are also difficult periods.

∙          Mean what you say. Yes is yes, no is no. Be consistent and fair. Enforcing rules for some and relaxing them for others is inconsistent and unfair. It is also a form of over-familiarity.

∙          Be supportive, encouraging, friendly and firm. Be honest, objective, and disapproving when it is warranted. Be friendly, but not overly familiar.

∙          Respect is the key. You must respect the inmate's individuality and basic rights. Avoid prejudices and feelings of superiority. Respond to the inmate's needs and interests, not your own. Once you have earned the respect and trust of the inmate, he will be open to you.

∙          Never allow residents to manipulate you with over-dramatized stories of being falsely accused, unjustly incarcerated, or inhumanely treated. These are often used to arouse sympathy or manipulate you. If you think the story is true--and in some cases they are--inform the inmate of your intentions to share it with the chaplain and ask him to handle it.

∙          Never make inflammatory statements or careless remarks to staff or inmates about political groups, ethnic groups, other religious groups, prison staff, individual residents, or other prison ministry volunteers.

∙          Never assume an inmate is innocent or guilty and do not give legal counsel or advice. You are not a lawyer or judge.

∙          Never reveal personal details, if you are privy to them, about the lives of staff or other inmates.

∙          A good policy is to make only promises you know you can fulfill, and then as few of them as possible. When refusing a request explain why it is necessary and express your regrets.

∙          One of the best ways to avoid familiarity in a group setting is to address each member of the ministry team, as well as the inmates, as "brother" or "sister"--using first or last names. (This is not necessary in one-on-one visiting or corresponding with an inmate.)

∙          Do not routinely give out your home address or telephone number. Some institutions make it expensive for residents to make any phone calls, even local ones--and you are usually expected to pay the costs. If you do give out your number, establish how often you want to receive telephone calls.

∙          Never inquire as to why the resident is in prison. This could be embarrassing and you don't need to know why he/she is there to point him/her to Christ. Some inmates want to tell you about their case, and if so, it is all right to listen, encourage, and pray with them.

∙          Guard against over-familiarity--especially advances of a sexual nature. Your relationship with inmates--especially in a group setting--should be professional. Guard your emotions, especially if you are of the opposite sex. Expressions of affection will cause you to lose your volunteer status. If an inmate makes an improper advance, handle it appropriately and then notify the chaplain or an administrator. At minimum, it is a test to see what your limits are.

∙          Never become involved in transacting personal business for residents.

∙          Do not be shocked or surprised by anything prisoners might say or how they say it.

∙          Never deliberately try to persuade prisoners to change their religious preference. You are there to share the Gospel--and it will do any changing that is necessary.

∙          Earn respect for yourself. Make it clear that you will not be manipulated. If a situation arises that you consider "borderline," check with prison officials to be sure of how it is to be handled.

∙          Expect hostility. An inmate, overwhelmed with problems, may confront you with hostility. At such times do not force conversation upon him and don't respond in a hostile, sarcastic, or anxious manner. Keep your composure, ignore the hostility, or withdraw for awhile. Chances are that the inmate will regain his composure. Always express unconditional love.

∙          Don't over-identify. Don't take the inmate's problems upon yourself. They are not your problems. Over-identifying with inmates can bring about the we/they syndrome: “They are wrong about you.”

∙          Don't expect thanks. You may not receive thanks or any show of gratitude from the inmate. He may feel it, but may not know how to express it. However, your effort will be appreciated and rewarded by God.

∙          You must set the limits. Some inmates will push you until you say to stop. How hard and far they push will depend on what you allow. Don't compromise.

∙          Don’t panic if you find yourself alone with an inmate.

∙          Leave your personal problems at home. Inmates have enough problems of their own. They don’t need to be burdened with yours.

∙          In a temperate and tolerant manner, always imply that you expect the correct attitude from inmates.

∙          Never show the slightest uncertainty as to the course of your action. You must be a leader in the strongest sense of the word, but also know and adhere to the limits of your authority.

∙          Never show that you have been angered by being profane, vulgar, or abusive in any manner.

∙          Express appreciation when behavior has been commendable--“You guys were great tonight--so attentive!”

∙          If prisoners request letters of recommendation to judges and other criminal justice authorities, inform them you will pass this request on to the chaplain for evaluation and possible action.

∙          Minister through personal counseling. Counseling provides a friendly and supportive relationship for the one seeking answers or a solution to a problem. This type of relationship can take place at the close of a worship service or Bible study session, when some prisoners may want to talk about what they heard or may have a problem to talk about. Most of the time they are not actually seeking solutions. They just want someone to listen and possibly be an encouraging and supportive friend.

∙          You may have access to information which is confidential. You are not to reveal this information to anyone not having an official right to it. The information is not to be used for your own advantage or benefit. You must be able to deal with an individual's spiritual problems as if you know nothing about his/her crimes. Keep issues discussed in counseling confidential unless they are a threat to institution security or if you learn that the inmate intends to do something drastic to himself or someone else. In these cases, don't tell him that you are going to report it, but report it.

∙          Be a good listener. You don’t have to have answers to everything, but let them know that God does! If you think a prisoner needs formal counseling, encourage him/her to seek it through institutional channels.

∙          Don't make decisions for the inmate under any circumstances. Help them make their own decisions. This encourages responsibility for their own lives. Also, it prevents them from blaming you if things go wrong.

∙          Don't judge ideas or the inmate by appearance, vocabulary, or manner of speaking. View inmates as individuals. Don't make assumptions based upon generalities or stereotypes. Categorizing an inmate is unfair and dehumanizing.

∙          Don't interrupt immediately if you think a statement is wrong. Listen!

∙          Don't scold or interrogate them about their previous condition or what they may have done to be placed in here. Many already have a poor self-image.

∙          Be patient. The positive effects of your patience with the inmate may not have a decisive influence for awhile. Above all, don't ever become discouraged. Do your best, pray, and leave the results with God.


Quick sand is a patch of sand that looks like any other on the surface, but it is a dangerous.

patch of ground that can suck you under and cost your life. It is not as it appears on the surface.

This is often true in relationships. People are not always as they seem to be on the surface. While not all inmates are steeped in criminal behavior, many of them are and because of that you must learn how to avoid a setup in the institutional environment.


A “setup” is a situation where you are forced into compromising your own beliefs, standards, or institutional rules. You are forced or tricked into a compromising situation, and then taken advantage of by an inmate to receive favors or contraband like drugs, alcohol, etc.


A setup usually proceeds as follows:


Inmates first observe your ability or inability to function under stress, your level of tolerance, whether or not you adhere to rules, and how effectively you will take command in a difficult situation.


Before any conclusions can be drawn, inmates test their assumptions about you in minor ways. This may include such things as unauthorized requests for supplies and materials, asking for favors, circumventing rules, preying on sympathy, or attempting to engage you in intimate conversations. If you yield in these “minor areas,” then you are a prime candidate for a setup.

The Setup:

If you compromise minor rules or engage in intimate or inappropriate behavior, then an inmate sets you up by using this as a lever to get what they actually wanted all along. They will threaten to tell the administration about your minor infractions in the past or inform you that have actually been tricked into doing something illegal. They use this as a lever to get what they want--perhaps contraband like drugs or alcohol or other favors.


You can avoid a setup by. . .

1. Maintaining a professional attitude:

Professionalism is a word used to describe a specific attitude towards ministry in jails and prisons. Professionalism means that your standards and life-style should be better than the standards and life-style of the majority of people confined to prison. You are not being professional if you use inmate jargon or manipulate institutional rules as some inmates do.

2. Avoiding familiarity:

We have stressed this repeatedly in this manual--you can maintain professionalism while still being friendly. Make a distinction between friendliness and familiarity. You are overly familiar if you allow the taking of license or liberties. Enforcing rules for one person but relaxing them for others is one example. Engaging in intimate conversations or promising favors that are not within your jurisdiction to give are others.

3. Refusing to violate rules under any circumstance:

A set-up always involves a previous infraction of rules. Refuse to violate rules under any circumstance.

4. Immediately reporting a setup attempt:

If you are approached in this manner or you find yourself ensnared in a setup, immediately report it to the chaplain or administration.


1. Write the key verse from memory.


2. What is the first rule for properly relating with inmates?


3. Summarize at least four of the guidelines for relating to inmates given in this chapter.





4. What is a setup?



5. How does a setup occur?



6. List four ways to avoid a setup.





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