What’s The Difference Between “Jail Ministry” and “Prison Ministry”?

For those of us not directly involved in ministry to the incarcerated, we hear references to “jail ministry” and “prison ministry” and we do not differentiate between the two. Instead, we lump them together in our thinking, believing they are interchangeable ways of describing the same thing, when in fact, they are not. Actually, there are very distinct differences between a jail and a prison!

Prisons are either state or federally run, with the majority being state, and have rules and regulations set up by the state or federal government. Prison inmates have been charged with a crime, found guilty by a court, and generally are doing more than one year of time. They are assigned to specific prisons based on the length of their sentence and the type of crime committed. There are separate prisons for men and women. Most inmates after entering prison begin to settle down and start adjusting to prison life.

Jails are either city or county run, with the majority being county, and have rules and regulations set up by the city and county government (usually the sheriff.) Jail inmates have been charged with a crime and if they are unable to pay the bond, they are held in jail until their court date when their innocence or guilt will be determined. Jails are like “melting pots” because they house inmates arrested and charged with petty crimes as well as inmates arrested and charged with major crimes such as murder. Generally, inmates who receive court sentences of one year or less will do all of their time at the jail facility and not be sent to prison. Unlike prisons, men and women are housed in separate portions of the same facility.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2 ½ million inmates in jails and prisons. There are 3,141 counties in the United States and we have approximately 3, 600 jails in the United States (city jails included.) Jails far outnumber prisons and out of the 2 ½ million incarcerated in this country, about 1 million are in jails.

Most inmates in jails have not settled down and their world is upside down. They do not know what is happening with their legal situation, with their families, with their jobs, and are overwhelmed by the situation they suddenly find themselves in. They are desperate and are making excuses and blaming others. They are looking for help from family and friends but communication is difficult when they are locked up and in many cases, family and friends have been used and abused in the past and now are reluctant to help.

These differences between jail and prison make the jail a very fertile mission field to plant the seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. County jail is God’s boot camp where He breaks pride and dependence on self. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17. That desperation and the resulting brokenness will hopefully open them up to the person of Jesus Christ who wants us to lean on Him – “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” I Peter 5:7.

Many times a county jail inmate initiates a relationship with Christ on this basis. It is sometimes just “jail house” religion but many times it is a genuine desire to want real change in their lives. They call out to Jesus Christ for that change but they do not yet fully understand that Christ desires to be both their Savior and their Lord and that this Lordship is established by stepping into obedience.

County jail ministry is overwhelming and can be very frustrating but it is also very rewarding and exciting to see transformation in the lives of these men and women. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” II Corinthians 5:17.

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