By Bob Smietana
Jesus told his followers to go out into the world to make disciples.
For inmates at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia, that commandment means ministry goes on even behind bars.
Over the past year, inmates at Mount Olive have led small groups using LifeWay Christian Resources’ Disciples Path: The Journey as part of a moral rehabilitation program run by that state’s Department of Corrections.
The program aims to transform inmates from the inside out, says Clarence “CJ” Rider, director of inmate services and activities for the West Virginia Department of Corrections. Funded by outside donations, the initiative is open to all inmates, no matter what they believe.
“Our overall objective is to change the inmates’ attitude and heart,” says Rider.
West Virginia-based Catalyst Ministries, which runs the discipleship program, also sponsors a Bible college at Mount Olive and Malachi Dads, a mentoring program that helps prisoners become better dads. Almost all the programs are led by inmates.
Royce Dean Burnette, who has been in prison for 20 years, says the discipleship program has given purpose to his life. He’s led a discipleship group and is now a student at the Bible college.
“I had just about given up when Malachi Dads came along,” he wrote in response to interview questions. “I am doing life without mercy and 120 years. I have leukemia, and I am slowly dying each day. Transferring all that was given to me to someone else is the only logical thing to do in the service of the Lord.”
Sammy Brewster, a prisoner at Mount Olive for 17 years, says leading a discipleship group lets him put his faith to work.
“It’s very humbling,” he wrote. “It makes you feel like you are doing something positive for Christ, as well as your own Christian faith.”
LifeWay’s Matt Morris, brand manager for Disciples Path, visited Mount Olive prison in January and trained leaders there on how to use Disciples Path. He’d never been to a prison before and spent time listening to the inmates tell their stories. A number had become Christians in prison and had seen God transform their lives.
“Hearing those stories was just incredible,” he says. “When I left, they said, ‘Don’t forget us. We want you to come back.’”
Answer to prayer
For Calvin Sutphin, founder of Catalyst Ministries, the discipleship program is an answer to prayer. Sutphin founded Catalyst after coming to faith in Jesus during a stint in rehab for substance abuse. He says he was looking for a way to put his newfound faith to work—and God led him to prison.
Prison ministry, says Sutphin, has changed his life and given him a reason to get up each day. His experiences in rehab and recovery, as well as the past five years of ministry, have caused him to rely more on Christ.
“I’ve been going into the prison for five years, and I am as excited to go tomorrow as I was five years ago,” he says. “When you answer a call from God, it’s just a great place to be.”
Sutphin tells inmates that their lives can change, “that God is a God of restoration and reconciliation.”
At first, Mount Olive’s moral rehabilitation program used a number of different Bible studies, Rider says. Inmates received certificates for finishing each study, but there was no overall strategy.
Disciples Path, he says, gives inmates a clearly defined path for spiritual growth.
“We really have seen some fruit from the program,” Rider says.
In one case, a prisoner wanted to be baptized after going through one of the classes. Among those who helped with the baptism were guards on the unit.
“When the staff starts to see the benefit, that’s a bit of a breakthrough,” he says.
Having inmates serve as leaders will lead to a bigger culture change, says Rider. Once inmates go home, they’ll be better equipped to succeed in the outside world.
This fall, Sutphin and Catalyst Ministries will launch an expanded re-entry program. Sutphin hopes to partner with local companies to find jobs for former inmates and to show inmates that their experience in prison—leading discussion, volunteering in programs—can help them on the outside.
“I tell them, ‘Your re-entry starts now.’”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.