Ministry only hope for the forgotten in solitary confinement

By June 28, 2011

International (MNN) — Prisoners make up a sect of society forgotten by many others. But there is one sub-sect even further neglected: prisoners in solitary confinement.

According to a National Geographic study, the concept of solitary confinement was given birth in the United States in the nineteenth century by Quakers, who believed the ostracism would force penitence. But by 1913, significantly damaging effects had been observed in the prisoners. The practice was, for the most part, abandoned.

Dr. David Schuringa of prison ministry Crossroad Bible Institute (CBI) says by the 1990's Europe had banned solitary confinement altogether, except for extreme cases.

In the States and several other countries, however, the practice is still in place. Out of 2.5 million prisoners in the U.S., over 80,000 are in solitary confinement.

Why are prisoners placed in this psychologically questionable environment? Schuringa says it's for three main reasons.

"First of all, if they break the prison rules to such an extent that the prison deems necessary to punish them severely, they put them into solitary confinement," says Schuringa. "A second reason people go into solitary confinement is if they're just considered too dangerous to be among the general population: they're prone to violence, they've caused a lot of trouble or maybe killed somebody."

Schuringa continues, "The third reason that people go into solitary confinement is for protective custody. There are people who are easily victims of prison rape or abuse of other types."

Although the intentions may be good, the effects can be frightening. Going too long without personal contact can be mentally devastating. "It's not like they just put them in there for a few hours," explains Schuringa. "There are people who've been in solitary confinement for many, many years."

Schuringa adds, "It's a very, very controversial practice. Of course, people in the prisons will say, ‘It's the only thing we can do, and we think it does work for behavior modification.' But psychologists and the testimonies of prisoners [agree] that it can do a great deal of damage–not the least of which is it just produces tremendous anger."

Former prisoner Josue Gonalez knows from firsthand experience. While being held in Colorado State Prison–a prison exclusively built for solitary confinement, known as a supermax prison–Gonzalez felt increasingly nervous about how he would react to society when he got out. He told National Geographic, "Man wasn't made for this. I think that's an important part of the human psyche they break down here."

Many of these prisoners become more violent as a result of their anger and isolation. The first time he was released, Gonzalez himself attacked a man he suspected was following him in a grocery store. For many of the prisoners in solitary confinement, normalcy will take a long time.

CBI provides hope for these most forgotten prisoners, though. CBI allows prisoners to interact with society through Bible study lessons. Inmates do the lessons and send them to an instructor. The instructor then corrects the lesson and sends the corrected study back with a personal note of encouragement. In solitary, this kind of contact is crucial.

"For those who can continue to receive the Bible study lesson [once in solitary confinement], it's an absolute lifeline for them," says Schuringa.

This ministry offers the truth to those who have time to study it and have nowhere else in the world to turn. Schuringa notes, "Prisoners tell us all the time how valuable the program is–the personal letters, the attention and the discipleship. I can only say that for someone in solitary confinement, that must multiply 100 times over."

The lifeblood of this ministry is found in ordinary people willing to volunteer a half hour a week or every other week to correct a Bible study and send an encouraging note. It's safe and secure to be an instructor, and CBI's need for instructors on every continent always abounds. To learn more about getting involved in this capacity, visit cbi.fm.

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