Advocates warn that life inside prison can be "hopeless" after COVID-19 restrictions prevent ministry volunteers from visiting prisons.
Speaking to The Christian Post, former inmate Rodney Massey said that prisoners' lives are lonely without volunteer Christian ministries preaching the love of Jesus.
"It's very gloomy. You're already in an environment that is very dark and is hopeless. It's torture not to know the state of your family and loved ones. That begins to mess with your psyche. If not for the grace of God, my mind would have been messed up," he said. I've seen a lot of people literally lose their mind in there."
Massey further said that he was able to get through his sentence by the helped of the volunteers of prison ministry who became light in darkness for showing him love.
"Without the Lord Jesus at my side, I don't know what I would have done. It's only because of the believers in my life," he said.
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has banned visitors since the pandemic started, including volunteers like Massey who visited prisoners with Koinonia House, a prison ministry.
IDOC Chief Chaplain Chase Wilhelm said that prison ministry volunteers are very important in helping the prisoners with their walk with God.
"Religious volunteers play a huge role. They've historically been crucial. They have remained crucial through this time period as well. We've been leaning on tech services as well," he said.
Every prison chaplain is assisted by 13 to 100 volunteers according to a prison's size. IDOC has 28 prisons. Without ministry volunteers and with movement restrictions, services are merged. They have also utilized used resources such as pre-recorded videos to continue ministering to the inmates. These efforts led Christians of various denominations to have good conversations but the overall situation remains hard.
"[Emotion inside prisons now is] overwhelming. Anxiety is high. Fear is very, very real right now. There's a high-risk factor there. I think that amps everything up. We're really in the dark night of the soul for many people," the chaplain said.
According to Manny Mill, executive director of Koinonia House prison ministry, IDOC has 12,719 employees. It also has around 1,000 prison ministry volunteers but they don't all come every week.
IDOC has recorded more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases as of Dec. 22, 2020 for both staff and inmates. COVID Prison Project said that infection rate inside prisons is four times higher than the general population.
Mill also said that Department of Corrections leaders have no total control on policies for religious volunteers but the department can be sued if COVID cases are caused by volunteer entry.
"Their view is to bring in the least people because those offices are essential. The main thing for any prison is only one thing - security. If you have a grandfather or grandmother who lives in a nursing home, they won't let you in either. But we believe that we are also essential workers," he further said.
In accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults infected with COVID-19 are at a greater risk of being hospitalized or dying. IDOC has 29,111 total number of prisoners and 4,494 of those are aged 55 and above.
Mark Macy, a prison ministry volunteer, said that virus is transmitted by prison officers and others who regularly enter and leave the prison and he is wondering why ministry volunteers are prohibited while employees are allowed.
"I've never heard an answer to that. If it was posed to decision-makers, they would say they can't not have the officers come in, and the fewer people, the lesser the risk. I do think that they have to begin to think about a change. It is inhumane," he said.
Macy revealed that official chaplains themselves were not allowed when the lockdowns started. Restrictions were only eased later on and when they were finally permitted to enter, chaplains could not host group services and could only visit prisoners one at a time.
Wilhelm said that the department prevented prison visit for ministry volunteers fearing virus infection for older prison volunteers.
"The demand signal to protect everyone is so paramount that I personally do not want to take a risk for any of my religious volunteers if I don't have to. It only takes one person to get it and then it can ravage an entire population. The last thing that I would ever want on my heart is to have one of my religious volunteers come down with COVID-19 and pass [away]," he said.
Massey longs to return to minister to the inmates saying that they need people who will visit and love them.
"I was in prison for 25 years and [ministry visits] were the wind beneath my wings. Nothing takes the place of a corporate anointing. Nothing takes the place of corporate gathering. I can't even imagine the loneliness. We were never created to be alone," he argued.