As I spoke with incarcerated women, I found that it was common for them to have grown up attending church. Most often I heard that they attended with their grandmothers and it was a fond memory. Over the years, they associated having a relationship with Jesus as a result of being “good.” As their lives took a downward spiral into sin and crime, they concluded they could no longer have a relationship with God because they were no longer “good.”
As these women were taught truth about the human sinful condition, trusting Jesus for our salvation, and continuing to take our sinful natures before God, they had renewed hope that they were not cursed because of their choices. With renewed hope, they had incentive to work on their spiritual lives.
One woman I worked with wept when she understood that she could find forgiveness for her sin through Jesus Christ. As a result, she realized how many people she had hurt in her life and took on the task for communicating with each one she could remember to ask for their forgiveness. She when she received gracious, warm letters from several people, with promises of forgiveness it changed her whole countenance.
No act committed by a woman ultimately defines who she is.
Prison ministry partners with female inmates, challenging and encouraging them to see themselves as God sees them—sinners who are valued infinitely and loved. Discipleship is key to offering prisoners a transformational view of God and themselves as well as the tools needed to continue growing spiritually once they are released.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, the percentage of women in prison in the United States grew by more than 800 hundred percent from 1997 to 2007.[i] In the United States almost half of the men and women released return to prison within three years of their release, yet the vast majority of research on incarceration has been directed toward male inmates.[ii]
The typical female inmate is a member of a racial minority, unmarried but with one to three children, in all probability the victim of sexual abuse as a child and physical abuse as an adult, with current alcohol and drug abuse problems and multiple arrests. She is most likely a high school dropout, on welfare, unskilled with a history of holding low-wage jobs.[iii] Mental health issues among inmates are common, including depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other diagnosable mental disorders.[iv] Because of a life characterized by criminal behavior, a female prisoner’s thought patterns can change over time and become distorted, creating a focus on instant gratification, a lack of moral limits, an absence of responsibility, and blame of others.
Due to the conditions of her formative environment and her skewed perspective, a female prisoner may reoffend once released as an act of survival because the quality of living and personal security is higher within an institution.
In order to prevent recidivism and empower ex-convicts, an effective discipleship program must do the following:
- Address a woman’s faith in Christ and who believers are in Him.
- Direct women to a biblically accurate view of God.
- Apply biblical truth to their difficult life experiences that have produced spiritual and emotional bondage.
- Provide guidance in spiritual growth through discipline in order to break the downward spiral of the lives of the female offenders.
- Assist incarcerated women in creating a plan that will enable them once released to continue growing spiritually when they have rejoined the “free world.”
For three years, Dr. Evelyn Tarbell served in the startup development of a faith-based dormitory for women in the prison unit at Lockhart, Texas. She served as a teacher, mentor, discipleship group leader, curriculum author and ministry curriculum advisor, developing relationships with over 250 women in the faith-based dormitory.
In that time she developed and then taught, over a 5 month period, the “Free to be a New Woman” discipleship curriculum (included in the appendix of her dissertation) that helped over 50 women by aiding them in forming an accurate view of God and themselves. Forty six of those women gave complete responses on the pre-test and post-test the results of which can be found here. While there were marked changes statistically in each of the five faith statements prisoners made, the marked lifestyle changes of women varied post-release. Of those who participated in the program and have been released, only 2 prisoners have reoffended, and many continue to lead transformed lives professing a genuine faith in Christ.
Dr. Evelyn Tarbell
Evelyn Tarbell is the Women’s Pastor at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands, Texas. In her role at the church, she oversees “all things women” including Bible studies, connection groups, and providing an atmosphere where women build intergenerational friendships. She routinely teaches and writes curricula for women’s Bible studies.
Evelyn has an M.A.C.E. with an emphasis in women’s ministry and a D.Min. in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary. She has over twenty years’ experience in ministry to women.
[i] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistical Data Series by Heather C. West and William J. Sabol (December 2008), 22, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/p07.pdf (accessed May 9, 2012).
[ii] Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011), 11, www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/Prew_State_of_Recidivism.pdf (accessed February 29, 2012).
[iii] Zaitzow and Kirst-Ashman, Women in Prison, 22; Banks, Women in Prison, 44; Beverly R. Fletcher, Garry Robison, Dreama Moon eds. Beverly R. Fletcher, Lynda Dixon Shaver, and Dreama G. Moon (Westport, CT; Praeger, 1993), 15.
[iv] Vernetta D. Young and Rebecca Reviere, Women Behind Bars: Gender and Race in United States Prisons (Boulder,CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006), 78.