Ministry with the imprisoned is an underappreciated and often overlooked outreach. Whereas most congregations are feeding the hungry and helping the poor in numerous ways, it is not so easy to recruit people for ministry to the incarcerated. If your congregation offers such a ministry, congratulations. Jesus noted (Matthew 25) that when we visit and care for people in prison, we are caring for Jesus himself.
Even rarer is ministry to the imprisoned immigrant. I write in response to a recent whistleblower report alleging wrongful treatment to immigrants imprisoned 60 miles west of Albany at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga.
Immediately some will shrug their shoulders, concluding that “these people” should not be in our country anyway, and therefore it doesn’t matter what kind of treatment they receive. But the Hebrew and Christian scriptures urge us to care for those in prison and to care for all, particularly the defenseless, in our midst.
This nearby ICDC, owned by Irwin County, is managed by a for-profit prison company named LaSalle Corrections. The notion that for-profit companies can better manage prisons is controversial. When the bottom line is profit and the “products” are inmates, and particularly when they are immigrants, it is easy for society to overlook them and for corporations to cut costs. For-profit prison industries are often large contributors to politicians, currying favor and advocating even stricter, more punitive immigration laws so they can maintain their profitability and continue building or operating prisons.
Defenders of this system will contend that these for-profit facilities are not prisons, but detention centers providing jobs to economically depressed rural counties. But how many people really want to earn a living in such a system? Now with COVID the dangers to employees are increased, and from what I have read, the conditions at Ocilla are allegedly very poor in terms of diet, health care, legal access, religious freedom and even basic translation services. And the complaints are long-standing.
The most recent allegations involve the for-profit detention center’s purported refusal to test adequately for COVID-19, to protect staff and to report COVID correctly. Even more troubling is an allegation of forced hysterectomies on immigrant women who may not even have had a translator to help them understand what was happening.
Immigration is a flash point in our society. Even the terminology we use to describe those who enter our country is up for debate. But what should be beyond debate is our nation’s commitment to care for those who are here, even if we believe they are here illegally. These immigrants have almost no advocates and very little recourse to legal help. Imprisoned far from family and far from legal assistance, they exist in a Kafka-esque shadowland, unseen, ignored and mistreated.
Georgia legislators are calling for an investigation of conditions at Ocilla. I hope such an investigation can be done swiftly, conscientiously and fairly. If the LaSalle Corporation is faultless, they deserve to be exonerated. If the whistleblower’s allegations are true, such behavior should be severely condemned and corrected. I encourage local congregations to pray about how you can be in ministry with these almost invisible and often desperate immigrants in our midst.