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Long Read: Does Jesus command us to pray for people in prison?

Prison Fellowship

This year, Spring Harvest in collaboration with Prison Chaplaincy UK and Way-Out TV was live streamed into over 74 prisons up and down the country. We were so excited to reach out to thousands of prisoners (through their televisions) with the life changing love of God.  

It got us thinking. God calls us to pray for our neighbours, our friends and our families. But what does he say about prisoners? In a society that has a tendency to isolate, marginalise and ‘cancel’ others when they do bad things, let’s explore a different response based on the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. 

Here we speak to Prison Fellowship, a 3000 strong voluntary Christian organisation that supports the work of Prison Chaplaincy UK. Prison Fellowship work with prisoners and their families offering practical care and support as well as developing a Christian ministry. We ask them the question, Does Jesus command us to pray for people in prison?”

There are currently just over 85,000 people in prison in England and Wales. The government has predicted that this will increase to an all-time high of 94,000 in the next two years. But for many of us, people in prison are invisible. They live hidden behind prison walls. You might even say this is for good reason. After all, haven’t people in prison done wrong? Don’t they need to be punished or locked away because they are a danger to society? 

The idea then that Jesus calls us to care for people in prison may come as a bit of a shock. Why would He want us to visit and pray for wrongdoers who are deserving of punishment? 

But Jesus does encourage us to care for those in our prisons. And this is a vital and often overlooked aspect of the outworking of our faith. 


What the Bible says about praying for prisoners 


The most obvious instruction from Jesus to us comes from Matthew 25 where He reminds us that ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (v.40). One of the specific examples that Jesus uses in this passage is helping people in prison. To the unrighteous he rebukes: ‘I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me’ (v.43). Jesus equates our care and support for people in prison as care and support for Him. Notice that Jesus doesn’t accuse the wrongdoing of people in prison rather, He has strong words for those of us who call on His name but do not care for those in prison. 


The Ministry of Jesus 


This call to pray for and support people in prison fits into Jesus’ entire ministry. He teaches us the importance of compassion, mercy, and love for our fellow human beings, regardless of their circumstances. If anything, Jesus has a preference towards those who are shunned by society, choosing to spend his time with tax collectors and so-called sinners over Pharisees and teachers of the law. Just as Jesus showed compassion and empathy by coming alongside people who are disregarded by society, we can do likewise by praying for and supporting people in prison.  

Jesus also teaches us to have compassion and empathy for those who are suffering. Many people in prison have faced significant disadvantages: poverty, social exclusion, addictions, refugees, asylum seekers, people who have been bullied, trafficked or abused, children without functioning homes, those lacking education, people in housing crisis. Some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society are found behind prison bars. Praying for them demonstrates our concern for their well-being and acknowledges their inherent dignity as human beings.  


“Live-streaming Spring Harvest into prisons this year was only possible because of the incredible ministry of the UK's Prison Chaplaincy Team and WayOut TV, a national networked in cell TV channel for UK prisons. Prisoners are searching for good news, a reason to change the direction of their lives and to be able to bring them hope and show them the love of Jesus was a privilege. We are looking forward to more opportunities to be part of this ministry in the future."  

Lisa Olsworth-Peter, Deputy Director of Spring Harvest


Restorative Justice 


Prison Fellowship exists to facilitate the church in their mission to respond to Jesus’ call for compassion for those in prison. One way we do this with our Sycamore Tree programme is to look at the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Sycamore Tree is a victim awareness course based on the principles of restorative justice that helps people in prison become aware of the impact of their crime on victims, their families and wider society.  

Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is a great example of restorative justice at work. Instead of being retributively punished for his dishonest dealings as a tax collector, Zacchaeus becomes aware of the impact of his fraudulent activity and chooses to take action to make things right. He is subsequently restored back to his community and pays back four times more than he ever took. At the end of the course, Sycamore Tree invites learners to make a symbolic act of restitution as a way of saying sorry for what they have done. Through prayer, we stand alongside people in prison on their journey of transformation and help them find hope, healing, and forgiveness. 

And just like Zacchaeus, we are all invited on the journey of transformation to become more Christ-like each day. Paul reminds us in Romans 3 that we all fall short of Christ’s perfect example. People in prison have often made bad choices in bad situations. Could we honestly be certain we would make different choices if we had walked in their shoes?  

We should therefore show the same grace and mercy to those in prison that God generously extends to us. Prayer can support their journey towards repentance, healing, and positive transformation. 

Reading stories of how the lives of people in prison and their families have been transformed through our programmes is a true joy. But underpinning all the work we do in prison is a foundation of prayer. When Prison Fellowship first started, we did not go into prisons. For the first four years, we simply prayed.  


Returning to prayer 


During the Covid pandemic, we returned to our roots of prayer and suddenly we found new opportunities to pray for and support people in prison from outside the prison walls as we introduced Prayer Line and Bible Studies.  

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, is well known for saying, 'When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't.’ We do not simply pray for people in prison because it is a good thing to do but because we believe it has an impact on peoples’ lives! Nearly everyone in prison will be released into the community one day. The question is, how do we want those people to return to our society? Do we want them to return as they were, or do we want them to return as transformed and restored human beings, ready and willing to contribute positively to society? Your prayers can help contribute to that journey and transform the lives of people in prison. 


How can we pray for people in prison? 


When starting anything new, we often are unsure what the right first steps are.  We ask “How do I go about doing this? What should I say or do?” 

With this in mind, Prison Fellowship have created a starter guide to equip churches to pray for people in prison and engage congregations with the topic of prison through sermons, children’s work and other congregational activities which you can freely download via our website.  

Prisons Sunday takes place on the 8th October this year. Why not use one, or all of the resources to intentionally pray for people in prison in England and Wales. For the people who may be in your parish and a hidden part of the wider community. 

About the author:  Prison Fellowship is the world's largest Christian nonprofit organisation for prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading advocate for justice reform.

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