by Beth Townsend
It is a rare occasion to be allowed access inside the walls of a prison. Security, bars, locks and alarms keep those who enter, for obvious reasons, to a minimum. Recently, a group associated with Free at Last Prison Ministries, led by chaplain John Bayer, had a unique opportunity to spend a day ministering. During three services filled with preaching and an incredible worship band led by inmates, for a brief time, one could easily forget it happened while locked inside being watched closely by correctional officers. “In here, I feel like I’m free,” stated one inmate — hands raised to the Lord — during a service.
The room was diverse: young and old, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Yet, each man came from a home with parents who likely missed their son. Many of the inmates had children. Each had a different story as to how they ended up locked up behind bars for a significant portion of their adult life.
John Bayer assembled a team that was also diverse. The team included speaker Ashanti Witherspoon, Ralph Boe, Andrew Wilkes, pastor Brandon Trott and myself. Though we’d never met prior to the day, we were immediately united in Spirit.
Our goal was to minister and extend mercy, while at the same time, learn from this often hidden segment of a large population of our state. Due to the vast reach of crime in Louisiana and its affect on society as a whole, we hoped to learn from those who are in a position to teach. Perhaps we will all be moved to find our own unique place to help and take action. This issue affects all of us.
In this article, we share a Q&A session with Allen Correctional Center (ALC) chaplain Vertis March and comments from some within our ministry team. According to NOLA.com, Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people per capita than any of its U.S. counterparts. Louisiana is first among Americans and first in the world with an incarceration rate that is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.
Allen Correctional Center is located in Kinder, La. It is managed by The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO). The state prison has an inmate capacity of 1,538 and is nationally accredited by the American Correctional Association.
Opened in December 1990, the Allen Correctional Center can house minimum, medium and maximum-security male inmates. GEO made a commitment when recruiting staff to give preference to Louisiana residents. After conducting a job fair in the local community, nearly 70 percent of the employees were hired from Allen Parish, with the balance of the staff being hired from other parts of Louisiana. GEO also conducted a vendor fair in the local area to meet its commitment to purchase supplies and services locally whenever practical.
GEO offers academic and vocational education, program activities and counseling services to the inmate population. An extensive re-entry program is provided for those offenders within one year of their release date. The 857 acres surrounding the prison complex are used for additional agri-business to augment the 46,000 square foot furniture manufacturing and refinishing plant that is located within the prison compound.
The original facility was designed and built by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections at a cost of approximately $27 million. Support facilities for medical services were designed to accommodate population expansion. Construction began in July 1991 to add two housing units to the original facility. In 1995, GEO received permission from the federal judge monitoring Louisiana prisons to add additional beds. In December 1998, an expansion project was authorized, bringing the facility to its present design capacity. The facility is 402,000 square feet with all housing units in separately fenced compounds connected by enclosed walkways. These walkways allow easy access to inmate areas while assuring that security and support personnel can effectively supervise all inmate movement. The prison complex also includes a complete gymnasium and athletic field with recreational programming in individual and team sports. Each dormitory has a weight lifting pavilion, an outdoor basketball court, ample area for recreation and a jogging area.
Q&A with chaplain Vertis March
Beth: How did you end up becoming the chaplain at Allen Correctional Center?
Vertis: I worked with another GEO facility at Newton County Correctional Center in Texas. My warden contacted the warden here about this facility. I am a minister, so the door was opened for me to come here.
Beth: Where did your heart for prisoners come from?
Vertis: I got saved in 1992 and my heart was wherever God wanted me to help people. I prayed and asked the Lord and he spoke to my heart to minister to his people at Allen Correctional Center. I came here October 2009, six years ago.
Beth: What are the trends that you are seeing in overall crime rates? What are you learning about the world from your position?
Vertis: I see a lot of people who have not had a church experience. More and more people are coming in that never had a church experience. That part of the population — leading them to Christ can be challenging.
Beth: Do you think that is due to a breakdown of the family?
Vertis: Yes. There is a falling away in serving God. The traditional family don’t trust God like times past. Fathers are not there and families are broken, causing children to grow up without direction, often leading into crime.
Beth: A consistency from each of them (the prisoners in my interviews) was that the momentary gain from their crime was not worth the imprisonment that they are facing. What do you see when families visit and how does the crime affect the rest of the family?
Vertis: It hurts them all. The family is doing the time with them. When you go to prison the first time, you have a lot of people supporting you. The second time you lose about half of your support. The third and fourth time you might have one [person supporting you]. I try to encourage the men; don’t make this a part of your life. Be the man and do the right thing. If you do good things, good things will come back to you. The main objective is to stop them from trying to get that quick money [because] this is the end result.
Beth: There is often a mentality of many younger people who think they are not going to get caught. How do you convince the ones that are teetering on the fence that they will get caught and that it is not worth it?
Vertis: For the most part, they know they are going to get caught. Getting drugs to make money, it won’t profit or win. I try to encourage them. If you make good decisions, get a good education [and] get the tools you need, a good life is waiting on you. You have to put in the effort.
Beth: What do you say to the church to get our world turned in the right direction? How do we do a better job with the fatherless? What can the church do to try to bring something good into situations that seem impossible for some of these destitute families, especially the innocent children?
Vertis: This is a challenge for the church to be more active in single parent families. Too many have innocent kids in environments where the crime is high and drug infested. I believe we need more mentors, more people that are giving of themselves to share their life with someone else. That is what we need to do as a body. The whole church needs to take more time to invest in that child. That is something that God put in my heart, to catch them before they come. Then society would be better.
Beth: How important are prison ministries in saving the life of a prisoner’s soul?
Vertis: God loves them. I thank God that we have a lot of volunteers. We have 35-40 volunteers that come on a regular basis. Free At Last Ministries, Rock of Ages, plus we have a lot of big churches that visit regularly. You can see the guys, their faces light up when people come in and sit and talk with them. I notice when volunteers come in and shake their hand and say ‘I care about you,’ the men light up. Thank God for Free At Last Ministries. I know that these men have made mistakes. We all have made poor choices in life, but God loved them so much that his Son would die for each of us.
Beth: Is it easy for outsiders to forget that these are people who have families? They have mothers, fathers, some have husbands and wives; many have children. Yet, they are no less valuable as a soul. These are real people here that need real ministry and the opportunity to obtain salvation for their soul.
Vertis: Amen, I believe that they are valuable to the kingdom. The guys that have walked down the aisle to receive Christ, they can minister better than I can and lead them to Christ more effectively because I have not been where they are. I have not been on the side that they are at. These guys are very talented guys and they love the Lord and serve God.
Beth: The main thing that you see the here that brings meaning, other than Christ himself, are the relationships where they feel cared for and they can care for others. Do some of them find it here when they couldn’t find it anywhere else?
Vertis: The volunteers impart truths and wisdom in their lives with the Word of God. They have something they can look forward to, that is, the people who come on a regular basis. The men here respect them the most. Many did not have the father and mother who were concerned for their welfare.
Beth: How much do you think that fatherlessness contributes to this?
Vertis: Most of them are fatherless. Some had fathers but made poor choices. The absence of a father leads to suicide, drugs and sexual living, which is attributed to a lack of a father.
Pastor Brandon Trott
Beth: What is your primary ministry and where is it located?
Brandon: New Beginning Fellowship Church in Breaux Bridge, La.
Beth: Why did you come as part of the team?
Brandon: A few weeks ago brother John Bayer, whom I have known for several years, invited me to come with him and several others to minister at Allen Correctional Facility. I was honored that he would ask me, and I gladly agreed to come. I went with a purpose; it was to show those men the love of the Lord and to preach Christ unto them!
Beth: Why is important to show them the love of the Lord?
Brandon: Men who are incarcerated often feel degraded, dishonorable and abandoned. Few people in this world really know what it is to be loved unconditionally, and those in prison may have an even lower chance of knowing that kind of love. So, I take it as an incredible opportunity — as a member of the body of Christ — to go to them and look them in the eyes, show them respect, be kind to them, empathize with their afflictions and serve them with prayer. It can be such a sufficient witness of the indwelling presence of Christ, that they no longer see the weak man before them, just Jesus. And through that, I hope Jesus was glorified and revealed before their eyes. That is my greatest desire.
I love to preach Christ to them. That is the greatest thing that anyone could ever hear; to have Jesus, in all of His love, sufficiency, mercy and saving power declared to them. We serve a big God who is a great Savior, and He deserves to have a witness in the earth. He deserves to have a people who have seen His glory and who testify to it through their life and through their message. Jesus Christ and His finished work at the cross is God’s message, and it has become mine as well. Yes, Christ crucified may be a stumbling block to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
Beth: How did you reach the determination of what you shared with the men?
Brandon: The reason I love to preach Christ to them is the essence of the word that God impressed upon my mind to declare at the night service we had, that Christ Jesus has “become to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” 1 Corinthians 1:30. That Christ is God’s plan of redemption for all of mankind. Everything God wants to do in us He plans to do through the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:10, God intends to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth!” This is God’s plan for the ages, to bring all things together in this one person, Jesus Christ; that all things will find their culmination “in Him” as God redeems this fallen world!
So, if Christ has been made unto us all of these things, then our goal should be to pursue Him and place our faith exclusively in Him because through Him we will possess those things which God requires of us. If we need wisdom, He is our Wisdom, and to know Him and to have the mind of Christ is to possess godly wisdom. We need righteousness and we have it through Him; He imputes His righteousness to us and He empowers us to be righteous. When we see God command us in His Word to be holy and sanctified, we need not run here and there looking for some method of sanctification — religious routines and fleshly attempts at fulfilling a spiritual need. As we are told in Galatians 2:20, we need simply to embrace Christ as our sanctification and experience it as He lives His life through us.
Beth: Do you see these men differently than men free in the world?
Brandon: Each of us must abandon all hope in the flesh and cling to Christ as God’s answer for human brokenness. This is why Christ started His beatitudes with the statement, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Matthew 5:3. Because that is the key to the kingdom of God, to know that we are utterly bankrupt in our own nature and have nothing to offer the Lord; that we must be absolutely dependent upon Christ as the means of our relationship with God, and that He is the conduit through which we receive everything that God intends to give us.
Andrew Wilkes, ministry team member
Andrew, why did you come as part of the team?
Andrew: Ten years ago this past November, I turned to Jesus, who saved me from my sins. I love Him and am so thankful for His salvation. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” One of those commandments is found in Mark 16:15, “ … Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” When I heard about the trip to Allen Correctional in Kinder, La., I prayed and asked the Lord if this was a trip He wanted me to make and to be a part of. I felt a peace about going and am so glad that I did. I’m not a theologically trained Christian, but I have the living God in me who wants to make His glorious gospel known to all and that happens through preaching! It was an honor to go and present the good news of Jesus Christ and his provision for sin to the men at Allen. Everyone needs to hear the gospel and God wants all to be born again. The joy in serving Jesus and being a part of His plan is uncontainable! He is so worthy and it is such a privilege to be able to serve Him.