Planting Seeds in Prison

Rev. Jacqui Foxall, Rev. Brad Shoemaker and Rev. Mike Marsden. Photo courtesy of Brad Shoemaker.

Hearts can be changed, even in the confines of a prison cell. It was a story Rev. Brad Shoemaker shared with staff at the church’s national offices during Restorative Justice Week, Nov. 14-20, 2010.

After an 18-year career in the investment industry, Shoemaker graduated from Knox College, Toronto, in 2008 and entered the cinderblock and plexiglas world of prison chaplaincy. He serves at Maplehurst Correctional Complex, a medium to high-security prison and detention centre in Milton, Ont. Because the centre is intended for prisoners who will be staying a relatively short time – either because they are awaiting trial or because they have been sentenced to less than two years – programs and resources are limited. But seeds of faith can still be planted.

“God is already here, my goal is to help the inmate population discern God’s presence and direction in their lives,” Shoemaker told the Record in an email. “Other than that, I get front row seats to the transformative power of Christ.”

During his presentation, Shoemaker read aloud from a letter written to him by a “lifer” who had become a Christian while he awaited trial. The inmate began holding morning devotions that were attended by members of many faiths. And now, after pleading guilty, he studies the Bible and theology through a distance education program and hopes to become a minister when he is released from his life sentence.

But despite some good news stories, prison chaplaincy is not for the faint of heart. Shoemaker says he has never encountered someone he could not work with, but some prisoners make relationships difficult.

“At least 50 per cent of inmates have major mental illnesses,” he said. “It’s much easier to put someone in jail than in a [psychiatric] hospital. There are realities of economics and time … It takes about $75 a day to incarcerate someone, and $1,000 to treat them.”

Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by a crime. Although it encompasses a range of methods and social movements, it generally aims for a balanced and peaceful approach that focuses on those most affected: victims, offenders and their communities. Shoemaker defined it as: “A cost-effective criminal justice approach that is based on reconciliation, restoration, healing and rehabilitation.”

As a chaplain, Shoemaker often finds himself facing many different people and situations – from a violent and troubled prisoner whose three-year-old son has died to a 52-year-old who has been convicted of drunk driving and has found himself in prison for the first time.

“The inmates are not allowed to cry on the ranges (an unwritten range rule) so these tough men come in and sob, then I help them get cleaned up and presentable, only so I can do the same thing five minutes later with their cell mate,” he wrote.

As a spiritual guide and councillor, he uses a number of psychiatric approaches and therapies, helping inmates to release anger and pain, and to distance their core identities as children of God from the mental illnesses and problems that afflict them. In addition to active listening, he uses questions like: “If Christ were to completely heal you, how would I know you are different … what would your life look like? This helps the inmate look to the possibilities instead of the negatives that they are often stuck in,” he wrote.

Even simple chapel services, which allow up to 10 inmates at a time, can be powerful. Shoemaker described his first communion service at the prison, which was drawn straight from the Presbyterian book of worship: “The expression on the faces of the inmates, none of whom had ever been inside a church or experienced communion, was reverent.┬áThis was nothing I did, but simply the transformative power of Christ in action.”


About Connie Wardle

Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.