Prayer circle brings light of religion to jail inmates
Dressed identically in gray jumpsuits, 30 men hemmed in by a concrete courtyard clasped hands and lowered their heads. The only sound was the wind whipping overhead, above tightly knit bars on a high roof, until one man’s voice arose.
“God brings me here for a reason,” he said. “I want to pray for him to heal me. I got faith that once I get out of here I’m going to a be a soldier for him.”
An immediate and enthusiastic “Amen” went up from the crowd.
Every day since about December, inmates in the Mesa County Jail’s Oak Pod have been gathering for a prayer circle. Some of the men say they will continue the biblical lessons learned behind bars by becoming pastors upon their release. Others say the experience has brought them closer to families on the outside, helping them save marriages and relate to children. Most of the inmates say they have seen a sense of peace come over the jail’s most minimum security pod.
“Jail’s not fun,” inmate Galen Turner said in an interview. “A lot of people are in denial. There is potential for trouble. But since this prayer circle, this pod has been one of the most beautiful places you can imagine.”
A deputy at the jail for the past decade, Sgt. Anthony Lee, said the number of men who attend the recent prayer circles, sometimes up to 40, is the most he ever has seen. Inmates are not required to attend the events, but all are invited.
Prayer groups come and go in the jail’s pods, Lee said. But, since the Oak Pod prayer group began, inmates in the neighboring Willow Pinyon pods have been more receptive to prayer and Bible studies, jail chaplain Alan Kaiser said.
While the true indicator that prayer is working to change inmates’ lives won’t be realized until after inmates are released, the results of the gatherings may be tangible, he said.
It’s been some time since inmates have been involved in a big fight, Kaiser said. And, during the prayer groups, English- and Spanish-speaking inmates take turns speaking and praying for each other, he said, adding the two groups don’t always get along.
“Sometimes there’s animosity, but we’re not seeing it there,” he said. “They’ve been pretty excited about the prayer groups. They’ve been saying they want other people to know that not everybody in jail is bad.”
Kaiser said the praying might be working because it’s initiated by inmates, in particular the more difficult cases.
“If you get some of these hard nuts to crack, others follow suit,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser, who has worked at the jail since 2007 for the Good News Prison and Jail Ministries, said he has more freedom to visit with inmates at Mesa County Jail than any other prison or jail he has worked in during his 26-year career. He is allowed to go into pods where inmates can talk with him. Bible studies take up three days a week, and Kaiser is on call for weekends. Kaiser’s ability to talk openly with inmates combined with a long-standing history of prison ministers and volunteers at the jail, such as Harry Butler and Ray Petersen, have created a strong faith base, Kaiser said. Structured Bible studies have been present since 1977.
“All that longevity adds together to make success. The success is not because of me,” Kaiser said. “It’s because when people say ‘I’m going to be there,’ they’re here. That makes a difference.”
Inmate Dennis Hadrick, a trusty, said he hopes his latest stint in jail will be his last, crediting prayer with his change of heart.
Hadrick said he abused drugs and alcohol for 15 years and served a stint in prison in 2007. He is in jail on a probation violation.
“You can take two different paths when you’re in jail,” Hadrick said. “You can either become a better criminal or try to reflect and maybe think about other people that you’ve hurt, like your family.”
After he’s released Hadrick, 38, who said he was raised in the church, has plans to head to seminary school in Denver. To get there he first must secure a four-year bachelor’s degree, and he plans to attend Mesa State College.
“I was on the run from God. He used this facility to bring me back,” he said.
Before lights out each night in the Oak Pod, inmates circle up in the courtyard. They ask for requests from other inmates to pray for them and their families. On a recent night, one of the prayer leaders, inmate Mike Wallace, took a few steps into the circle to recite Bible verse. Soon, all in the circle were reciting the “Our Father,” which was followed by applause, handshakes and hugs.
“Thank you,” Wallace said as a reporter turned to leave. “I’ve been praying for this for a long time.”