ALDERSON (WVDN) – “I care about them like family.”
This is how Lewisburg resident Nicole Pisapia describes the prison inmates she and her husband Michael visit at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp for women (FPC Alderson).
The Pisapias are among the thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who volunteer in a prison ministry that has ramped up during the pandemic. New methods were tested with the hope of reaching some 2.1 million incarcerated individuals in the United States with comfort and hope from the Bible amid lockdowns at these facilities.
“In our prison ministry initiatives, we’ve observed that many inmates want to change,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They’re looking for a second chance, and some are finding the strength to change by applying Bible principles.”
More than 600,000 individuals exit state and federal prisons each year and face what an overwhelming transition can be back into society, according to a proclamation from the White House.
The reentry process is complicated in the best of times and is even more so with the additional difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pisapias believe that scriptural guidance can help inmates to cope with such challenges.
“Studying the Bible helps them to get a grasp on something positive that will help them to stay focused — not just while they’re in the facility – but also once they get out,” said Michael Pisapia.
The volunteers have seen the Bible’s positive impact first-hand.
“It doesn’t take long to see the changes in the prisoners’ body language and attitudes,” shared Nicole Pisapia. “It’s amazing to watch them blossom as they build a relationship with God and make good choices.”
The benefits even reach beyond prison walls. “Many of the inmates are mothers and grandmothers,” Michael Pisapia said. “Some have commented that what they’ve learned has helped them in their family relationships.”
For some four decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Greenbrier County have offered spiritual support to inmates at FPC Alderson. Each week, volunteers like the Pisapias offer an hour-long program featuring a Bible-based group discussion, songs and prayers. As many as 15 attend. Inmates also have opportunities to view pre-recorded Bible discourses and uplifting videos prepared by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During the two-year pause on their in-person ministry due to the pandemic, local congregants shared scriptural encouragement with inmates by letter and email.
“Fellow Witnesses who have been doing a similar work in jails, prisons, state hospitals, youth facilities and substance-abuse facilities for decades are eager to return in person when safe to do so,” said Hendriks.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “rather than slow down our outreach, we are using this time to improve the training of our volunteers and research innovative ways to expand the work.”
In 2021 alone, more than 6,300 of these volunteers received enhanced training to assist individuals at 920 prison facilities across the country. Some of these volunteers are themselves former inmates.
Darrell Boyce of Louisville, Ky., entered prison at the age of 23 over drug charges.
He studied the Bible during his incarceration, was baptized upon his release and returned to help other inmates spiritually.
At one point, he was even overseeing the prison ministry work at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he went six days a week to study the Bible with those who requested assistance.
“I felt like I had wasted the first 25 years of my life,” he said. “But I was able to use those years in some positive way to help others, which felt good.”
Like Boyce, two inmates who attend the Witnesses’ weekly program at FPC Alderson draw from their backgrounds to help others. They conduct one-on-one Bible lessons with other inmates.
Such teachers have observed that personal experience with incarceration builds empathy and helps those who are trying to change their lives see that they can be successful.
Reflecting on the positive outcomes of prison ministry, Nicole Pisapia explained what she and her husband consider to be the source of the success: “It is God who is lovingly stretching out a hand to these inmates. He wants them to come to know him, regardless
of their past choices in life.”
The Witnesses’ official website, jw.org, has more information about their prison ministry efforts during the pandemic as well as personal experiences of Bible instructors and learners in prison.
“It is our love for God and for neighbor that moves us to continue to reach out to inmates,” said Robert Hendriks. “We know the God of the Bible believes in second chances.”