How COVID-19 Affects the Future of Prison Ministry

Fr. John Kowalczyk is the Director of Field Education Studies at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, Contract Chaplain at the SCI Waymart facility in Pennsylvania, and member of the Board of Trustees of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry.

In our recent blog post, Fr. John helped shed some light on the current situation in prisons and jails due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which is hitting prisons especially hard. In this post, we will further discuss the outlook of prison ministry with a follow-up interview with Fr. John.

A common phrase has emerged to describe prisons and jails as it relates to COVID-19 — “breeding grounds.” The threat to inmates, staff, and even the surrounding communities remains a public health hazard. Despite these challenges, Fr. John states, “we have adapted to provide.”

Initially, the full shutdown meant no visitations of any kind were possible. In order to continue to provide ministerial aid to prisoners, Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry responded by increasing our outreach through the mail. Fortunately, the facility Fr. John serves at eventually made accommodations to allow for more personal interactions. Video conferencing tools such as Zoom are utilized so the semblance of a face to face interaction can still exist. Father says that he must go to the facility and use meeting rooms in different locations in order to visit with all the people in need.

The new video conferencing tools allow for certain opportunities that were never available before the current crisis. For those in prison, it can be a great spiritual burden when a loved one dies. The grieving process is done in isolation and it often feels like there is no closure. Before COVID-19, Fr. John states that certain prisoners with the money could pay for the ability to attend the funeral of a loved one; however, those without money had no options. Now, in full lockdown, the only way for anyone to attend a funeral is with free video conferencing tools.

This means that those without money, who would previously be denied the ability to attend a funeral, can now do so through Zoom. Fr. John told us about a man to whom he ministers who is doing life in prison and normally would not have been allowed to attend the funeral of his mother. He was able to attend the funeral through Zoom and be forgiven by his family, which was very healing for both this man and his family. This is one aspect of the “new normal” that Father thinks and hopes will stay post-coronavirus.

The future of prison ministry still remains foggy, says Fr. John, but he and other chaplains approach the situation day by day, simply doing what they must in order to continue ministering. “Keep your distance, however draw near to Christ,” is the mantra Father uses. While the outlook may not be well defined, the love of Christ is, and these chaplains will always do what they can to meet with our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

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