A Prison Chaplain Copes with Coronavirus

The year 2020 left us with more death, grief, and suffering than we’ve ever witnessed on a national and worldwide scale.  We welcome this New Year with the same hope and anticipation as years past, but now with more awareness of the ongoing challenges and difficulties we will certainly face in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic. 

          We’ve complained about the “inconveniences” and “infringements on our freedom” that came with required face coverings and social distancing.  Our true character was revealed through our reactions to the pandemic.  We also came to appreciate persons we tend to take for granted:  all the hospital care workers and medical professionals who’ve risked their own health and safety in caring for the thousands of persons who’ve been exposed to the Coronavirus.  Thousands of emergency personnel, nursing home caregivers, teachers, jail and prison officers, grocery store and other “essential” workers put themselves at risk doing their jobs in the face of the threatening virus.

          Compounding the tragic deaths of thousands of persons was the inability of family members to be at the bedside of their loved ones, offering a comforting touch or words of encouragement.  In times when they are most needed, pastors, priests, rabbis and church deacons are restricted from hospital and nursing home visits.  Church worship services have been cancelled or greatly restricted by social distancing requirements.  The only safe and viable alternative has been online recorded worship for parishioners.

          Holy Scripture has always offered comfort and consolation to those seeking spiritual help and sustenance.  Millions have turned to the online programming provided by churches.  The Apostle Paul wrote about his experiences and the difficult, challenging times in his ministry. He remained steadfast in the face of death, shipwrecks, and wrote some of his most inspired words while sitting in prison.

          One of the things I’ve missed the most this year is going to prison. I refer of course to the two-hour visits as part of Prison Fellowship Ministry.  All prison visits of family members and volunteers engaged in religious programming have been eliminated since March 2020. 

          I spoke last week with Prison Chaplain Bill Dornbush and asked him how the COVID pandemic had changed his ministry with the residents at the St. Cloud (MN) Prison this past year. Before March 17th when normal activities and programming were shut down 5,500 prison residents were in the Chapel each 3-month period for some kind of religious program.  After Mar. 17th: ZeroChaplain Bill depends on over 200 volunteers to assist him in delivering religious services. Now: none.  The prison population: before March 17th: 1000 – 1100.  Now: 550, due to construction and population spacing.

          What to do about the effects of COVID shut-downs on the prison?  Working with his supervisor and others, Chaplain Bill got permission to set up Closed Circuit TV from the prison chapel to the cell block televisions.  He had it up and running in 2 1/2 weeks.  Now they have 24/7 religious and spiritual programming running for those who have TVs.  

          The CCTV helps, but it’s not the same as personal ministry. He can’t hear them, listen to their personal concerns; can’t touch, pat on the back, hug, shake hands or even “fist bump.”  So, he personally visits each of the cell-block units every day, meets them through prison bars, offers encouragement, and provides written materials.

          The pandemic has limited his ministry, and it has taken a toll on both offenders and prison staff.  All must wear a face covering, all the time.  Residents and prison staff can face violations for not wearing a mask.  Just like “out here” in the “free world,” many complain about the face coverings, and “restrictions to their freedom”…!  They are well aware of the dangers and risks of not protecting themselves and others.  In a prison there is limited ability to practice “social distancing.” They all know this.

          The number of COVID cases in the institution are vivid reminders of the risks of living and working in the prison.  At one point, COVID positive tests spiked to 245 residents and 61 staff persons.  Prison residents who test positive and get sick are isolated in the segregation unit.  Solitary confinement is normally used for residents who assault inmates or staff, and other rule violations.

          Chaplain Dornbush reflected on the past year and offered a theological observation:

                   “In a crisis, our true character is revealed.”

          Sitting at his desk next to the Prison Chapel, he shared an experience in which three words came into his mind as clearly as if they might be the words of God:  We the People.”   “We the People?”  What’s it mean?  After thought and reflection, it came to him:  “Leaders, People of God: called to serve the people, not themselves!  God exposes those who do not live that statement.”

          Chaplain Bill does his best to offer words of hope in the face of this virus– hope for the residents and the prison staff, officers, Lieutenants, Case Workers.  His ministry has been tested and needed the most when a family member of an inmate or prison staff has contracted the virus, been hospitalized, and died.  They can not attend the funeral.  Bill is the “Pastor” to a community of 550 residents and 300+ corrections staff.

          With them, Bill is faced by the question: “God, what are you doing here?”  …and he does his best to offer spiritual assurance and hope in the face of the virus.

          Like hospital and prison chaplains throughout America, Bill does his best to live out the chaplains’ purpose: “Be Present.”  Bill concluded our interview with the words of that other man of God who wrote from a prison cell:

          “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.   Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 8-9).


Prisons During a Pandemic 

Prisons and coronavirus: US jails and prisons are turning into ‘petri dishes.’ Deputies are falling ill, too – CNN

States Are Shutting Down Prisons as Guards are Crippled By Covid-19 – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

COVID-19 Updates / Department of Corrections (mn.gov)

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