Illinois women explore partnership with Arkansas prison ministry
HEARTLAND | Lisa Sergent
Seven Southern Baptist women from Illinois women spent two days in an Arkansas prison last month, learning from inmates who have found true freedom in Christ.
Even though many of them are serving life sentences.
Carmen Halsey, IBSA’s missions involvement director, led the team in their work with the PAL program, a voluntary, faith-based program for women at McPherson prison. Illinois women became familiar with PAL (short for Principles and Applications for Life), when former prisoner turned chaplain Stacey Smith spoke during last year’s Women’s Missions Celebration.
Chaplain Kenneth Dewitt, an Arkansas bi-vocational minister, created PAL after he saw a need for the female inmates to learn better decision-making skills using biblical truths. And the numbers say the program is working: The recidivism, or return, rate of PAL inmates at the McPherson Unit is 5.04% after three years, and just 9.35% after seven years. The rates are much better than in regular prison settings. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics say 67.5% of inmates are rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years, and 25.4% are resentenced to prison.
“I have never seen such freedom and joy in Christian women than I saw in those inmates,” said mission team member Barb Troeger, who also serves as an IBSA ministry assistant. At McPherson, PAL participants “have no resentment, no bitterness, no regrets, no blaming,” she said. “They see their incarceration as all part of God’s plan and rest in the peace of knowing that Christ is their Savior.”
Learning and practicing submission is a key factor in PAL. The ministry participants, all inmates who applied and were accepted into the program, are required to follow a strict set of rules that go above beyond the prison’s set of rules. If they break any of the rules, they are kicked out of the program.
“The women really take responsibility for their actions,” Troeger said. “They learn about falling under the submission and authority of Christ, the legal system, and authority figures such as the warden. They’re willing to accept the consequences of their sin and believe God is putting them on the right path.”
Another key is scripture memorization. When Bible verses sink in, God’s Word becomes the prism women look through as they make decisions.
“It’s their poor choices that have gotten the women where they are [in prison],” Halsey said. “By teaching them to reason, they can make better choices and become a new creation in Christ.”
Halsey says you don’t need to be a prison inmate to learn to make better choices. “I want to teach all women to learn to reason using the Bible. It’s time for us to go back and know what the Bible says and apply it.” She believes women making better choices can lead to revival not just in an Arkansas prison, but also in Illinois churches.
Halsey calls the visit a “vision trip” towards forming a partnership with the ministry. She hopes to take more teams to the Arkansas prison and introduce more women to the PAL concept of thinking. She also would like to bring the program’s principles to inmates in Illinois prisons. She asks, “Pray with me for open doors to our women’s prisons in Illinois to allow Southern Baptist women to begin Bible studies with the inmates.” Illinois has two state and one federal women’s prisons.
Chaplain Dewitt will visit Illinois May 1-3 to lead the Bible study at the 2014 Women’s Missions Celebration in Marion. For more information, visit www.IBSA.org/WomensMissions. To learn more about PAL, visit www.PrisontoPurpose.com.