Former inmates reach back behind bars to offer others the ‘second chance’ that changed their life

Published 12:02 am Saturday, July 16, 2022

Every Thursday at 5:30 in the morning, Robert Dufrene began his nearly three-hour journey from Gheens, Louisiana, up the bayou to the Orleans Parish Prison. Packed in his vehicle was a clear container filled with a selection of pamphlets, magazines, and Bibles — materials scanned by prison guards upon entering the facility.

Dufrene is one of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who volunteer in a prison ministry that has ramped up during the pandemic. New methods were tested with the hope of reaching some 2.1 million incarcerated individuals in the United States with comfort and hope from the Bible amid lockdowns at these facilities.

For nearly four years, Dufrene went to the Orleans Parish Prison to give Bible discourses and offer spiritual counseling. Once the pandemic began, he kept in contact via phone with many incarcerated men who showed interest in the Bible’s message of comfort.

“In our prison ministry initiatives, we’ve observed that many inmates want to change,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They’re looking for a second chance, and some are finding the strength to change by applying Bible principles.”

More than 600,000 individuals exit state and federal prisons each year and face what can be an “overwhelming” transition back into society, according to a proclamation from the White House. “The reentry process is complicated in the best of times and is even more so with the additional difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Over the years, Dufrene has met many individuals who wanted to turn their lives around. “They were always interested in trying to find a way out or find something better,” he shared.

When Dufrene listened to their stories, learning about each one’s childhood and the paths that led them to prison, it changed how he viewed individuals in prison.

“You think one way about people in prison. But once you hear their stories, you get a whole different mindset,” Dufrene said. “They made one bad decision and went down a wrong path. I remember, as a young person I was at a crossroads, about to make a bad decision. What if I would have gone down that wrong road too?”

This work done by volunteers such as Dufrene is greatly appreciated by prisoners and prison officials.

“They want you to be there. They give you a handshake and are looking forward to their studies,” Dufrene said about the inmates. The reaction from the guards is also positive. “They were really happy to see the effect we had on the inmates,” said Dufrene. “A guard said, when we would go in the whole room would just calm down.”

The opportunity to take part in this form of ministry has been an experience that Dufrene will always cherish.

“It changes their life,” Dufrene said. “Jehovah God is all about giving us second chances and forgiveness. The inmates really see and feel that.”

Fellow Witnesses who have been doing a similar work in jails, prisons, state hospitals, youth facilities, and substance-abuse facilities for decades are eager to return in person when safe to do so, said Hendriks.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “rather than slow down our outreach, we are using this time to improve the training of our volunteers and research innovative ways to expand the work.”

In 2021 alone, more than 6,300 of these volunteers received enhanced training to assist individuals at 920 prison facilities across the country.

Many of those who assist inmates were once in prison themselves.

Darrell Boyce of Louisville, Kentucky, entered prison at the age of 23 over drug charges. He studied the Bible during his incarceration, was baptized upon his release, and returned to help other inmates spiritually.

At one point, he was even overseeing the prison ministry work at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County, where he went six days a week to study the Bible with those who requested assistance.

“I felt like I had wasted the first 25 years of my life,” he said. “But I was able to use those years in some positive way to help others, which felt good.”

The Witnesses’ official website, jw.org, has more information about their prison ministry efforts during the pandemic as well as personal experiences of Bible instructors and learners in prison.

“It is our love for God and for neighbor that moves us to continue to reach out to inmates,” said Hendriks. “We know the God of the Bible believes in second chances.”

 

Hakim Lattimore, communications representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses, can be reached at hakimlattimore@rcmtool.org.