Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, which began in 1961 in Fairfax, VA, aims to spread the word of God to inmates in the Martinsville-Henry County area. It is active within 22 states, 25 countries, and one U.S. territory with about 400 active chaplains.
The Martinsville-Henry County chaplain is Joe Collins, who grew up in Washington County and felt called to ministry in 1982. In 1988, he said God “really impressed upon him it was time to prepare for the ministry,” leading to him going to Nashville’s Belmont University at 29 years old. There, he pastored a small church and eventually received a call asking him to begin preaching in the jails. This led to his involvement with the Good News ministry in 1997.
“I just thought it would be a temporary thing as I was heading to seminary to prepare for the pastorate. Once I got into it, I saw the difference it made in the lives of the men and women in jail, saw the need for that and how God was working and just stayed,” Collins said. “From there, it’s been just a great ride.”
Collins served in Tennessee and Louisiana before returning to Virginia eight years ago. He came to Martinsville three and a half years ago. Martinsville and Henry County have had Good News Jail Ministry within their jails since 1980. At any given time, the ministry serves 350 to 400 inmates in the area.
“They’ve had a chaplain in their jails in Martinsville and Henry County for the past 43 years, and so I follow a great legacy of chaplains there. I’m glad to be a part of that,” Collins said.
According to Collins, “in the jail, ministry is a very complex ministry. It begins with prayer, praying for the ministry, praying for the inmates, praying for the staff.”
One of the biggest things Good News aims for is to be a “ministry of presence,” simply offering inmates someone to listen to them and somebody they know cares about them.
“It’s a crisis ministry, and people are looking for help,” Collins said. “Sometimes it’s just sitting and listening, and letting them realize they have a voice, letting them realize what they have to say is important.”
The ministry also focuses on evangelism and helping inmates to become saved. “Good News believes, and I believe, that as a Christian, that really lasting change comes with a changed heart and only Christ can do that. And so, we are an evangelistic group that promotes that,” Collins said.
However, the ministry’s mission does not end at converting inmates to Christians. It also helps inmates in that journey and teaches them what the Bible says about various aspects of life.
“Helping them grow in that, and not just sitting down and teaching verse by verse through the Bible, but I realize many of them need to understand ‘how do I live life?’ So, we talk about things like, ‘How do I make good decisions? How do I set appropriate boundaries in my life so I’m not run over by everybody coming and going? How do I be a good husband, father, wife, or mother?’” Collins said.
Collins also emphasized the importance of “helping them get reestablished and reconnected in the community.” This includes teaching them how to rebuild relationships, build new, healthy relationships, and get connected with a church once they’re out of jail.
“Mostly, we try to help them change their perspective on life,” Collins said. “When they come to that point and they think they’re forgotten, they think they’re hopeless, they think no one cares anymore, we try to remind them that yes, God cares, we care, that’s why we’re here.”
During the holiday season, when Collins says depression and suicide attempts skyrocket, the ministry has a few extra programs to show inmates that someone cares and help them connect with their loved ones. One of these programs includes delivering Christmas card kits to inmates so they can send cards to people they wish to.
“We’re working on what we call Hope Pack. I’ve got tables full of things for hygiene, soap and deodorant and toothpaste, socks, also some candy, chips – things like that for the inmates. Just as a way of saying, ‘You’re not forgotten. We’re thinking about you during this Christmas season,” Collins said.
Good News also uses a five session Bible Study called Healing Heart Wounds, which aims to help heal inmates who have gone through traumatic experiences.
“We realize that between 85 and 95 percent of all inmates who come to jail, traumatic events in their life has served as a pathway for them coming,” Collins said. “In 2017, one of our female chaplains, in looking for materials to teach in the jail where she was ministering to the women, discovered a thing through the American Bible Society called the Trauma Healing Institute. It’s a Bible study that used good mental health practices, but helps inmates heal from those wounds caused by the traumatic events in their lives.”
He added that “most substance abuse originates because of self-medication to try to numb the pain of those wounds they’ve experienced,” and helping to heal those wounds makes these addictions easier to overcome.
According to Collins, a study by Baylor University proves the effectiveness of this Bible Study.
“In the study they did, 75% of the people who came into our class that we did were considered PTSD positive. Three months following, having completed that course, that stood at about 42% PTSD positive, so a huge reduction,” he said.
Although effects are not always obvious, Collins said he has seen the ministry affect many people in big ways and has “seen lives transformed.” From ladies who come from drugs and prostitution to accept Christ, to inmates who have attempted suicide and find hope, to inmates in rough situations who go on to obtain high paying, respectable jobs – all are the results that keep Collins doing what he does.
“I see those kinds of changes happen. I think the best one is when I sat down with a young man who had been in and out of jail and went to his home afterwards,” he said. “And he was sharing with me about all the work he’d done on his home and his two young boys playing ball and he had a six-month-old baby girl in his lap, making over her as only a doting father could,” Collins said. “I remember his wife saying, ‘Thank you, chaplain, for giving me my husband back. It’s been such a blessing.’”
Collins said he appreciates the community, for its continued support in funding the ministry.
“I’m here because of the graces of the community. Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, each chaplain is funded in the local community they live in. And so, churches, businesses, and individuals fund this. It’s not me,” Collins said. “It’s about the community’s involvement in the ministry through prayer, through volunteering, or through financial funding… I’m just grateful to serve in a community that supports and that has for 43 years.”