Ministry holds Christmas service for inmates

OSCEOLA COUNTY — As wrapping paper flies, special meals are shared and local families embrace the joy of Christmas, holiday traditions won’t be as typical for a group of individuals kept separated from those they love. Inmates at the Osceola County jail will spend Christmas day — and every other day until their sentence ends — behind bars, serving sentences for crimes from unlawful entry to criminal sexual conduct. While being isolated from the outside world is part of incarceration, the added pressure of not spending time with family during the holiday season fosters self-reflection among inmates. For some, the season sparks a desire to change for the better, said Brent Prichard, chaplain of Osceola County’s prison outreach organization, Forgotten Man Ministries. “If they have a family, being seperated from loved ones is hard for them,” Prichard said. “They’ve possibly lost a job, so they’re concerned about getting another job when they get out. They know they’ve made a mistake and they’re not quite sure how to correct that. We do the best we can to encourage them and pray for them.” Osceola County jail administrator Russ Wayne said though Dec. 25 is hard, the days leading up to the holiday are even more challenging for inmates and their families. “We see more emotions this time of year than any other time,” he said. “During the visitation on the weekends, you’ll see more families come up. Usually, one or two families will visit. Around the holidays, there is a lot more visitation activity.” The jail does not employ counselors for the inmates, but relies on Forgotten Man Ministries to help those struggling emotionally. “They’re here four days a week, walking the floors, doing Bible studies and talking with inmates,” Wayne said. “A lot of the guys strike up a relationship with them.” Though Dec. 25 will be “just another day” in confinement for the inmates, the jail staff and ministry will help the group get through the holiday with a Christmas service and party on Dec. 23. “For the last 10 years, we’ve been giving them pizza and pop so they get a little special treat on that day,” Wayne said. “We try to treat them decent because we know it’s a hard time for them. We get a lot of thank-yous for the pizza and pop.” Along with a special meal, Forgotten Man Ministries will host a Christmas service at the jail and give inmates Christmas care packages. The service is optional, but many inmates choose to attend. “Normally about 90 percent of the (inmates) will go to the service,” said Osceola County Sgt. Mark Hamilton. “It’s a Christmas service, so they sing Christmas songs and (learn) the real meaning of Christmas, not just handing gifts out to people.” As inmates hear the Christmas message, they also will get a dose of encouragement by hearing first-hand success stories. “We’ll have a couple people come in and share what Christmas means to them and how the Lord’s been working in their lives,” Prichard said. “Sometimes we have people who have been in (jail) and have gotten out. They share how their lives have been changed and that helps (inmates) realize it’s possible to turn their lives around.” Though families aren’t allowed to send anything to inmates, Forgotten Man Ministries supplies cards and the jail supplies two stamps for inmates to send Christmas cards to their families. The ministry, which includes nearly 20 volunteers who visit the jail each week to share the message of salvation through Jesus Christ with inmates, has been allowed into 37 county jails in Michigan. “Whether we can get in depends on the sheriff and jail administration,” Prichard said. “So we’re very thankful for Sheriff Crawford and Lietenant Russ Wayne.” The ministry also counsels inmates on an individual basis and works to connect them to a church when they get out of jail. “These people go in and are going to get back out,” Prichard said. “If we can help them in some way, then with God’s help, they can change their life around.” The Osceola County jail can house as many as 77 inmates who stay for no more than a year. Currently, 62 men and six women are lodged in the jail. If an inmate is set to get out after Christmas, Wayne will push to let them out early. “I try to keep the count very low for the Christmas holiday,” Wayne said. “If somebody is getting out in between Christmas and New Years, I’ll get with the probation department or the judge and see if we can (arrange their release) on Christmas eve, so they’re home for the holiday.” Along with the inmates, many jail staff members also want to be home with their families. “A lot of staff want to take the time off,” Wayne said. “If there are staff who will cover it, they can get the time off. If not, some people are forced to come in.” Hamilton, who has grown children living in other cities, volunteers each year to work on Christmas day. He said those with children and the female inmates often feel the most remorse on the holiday. “They get a little depressed sometimes, especially the ones who have kids,” Hamilton said. “They say, ‘I want to be home with my kids,’ and we say, ‘Well, you should have thought of that beforehand.’” Though being on either side of the bars in the jail is not the most desireable place to be around the holidays, Prichard said the ministry team is motivated by a desire to help inmates through the holiday and impact their lives. “We have some success stories where guys have gotten out, turned their lives around, found a job and stayed on the right track,” Prichard said. “That’s what keeps us going.”