It is generally accepted that the destructive effect of the prison atmosphere of the prison system is the lack of contact with the outside world, particularly correspondence with and visits by relatives, friends or others. In law cases such as Worley v. Bounds 355 F. Supp. 115 (W.D.N.C. 1973), decided that state prison officials may not bar correspondence between an inmate and the mother of his son on account of the interracial relationship between and inmate and the mother of his son on account of the interracial relationship or the illegitimacy of the child.
In the history of American jurisprudence with the continued building of industrialized prisons, the rights of prisoners have become more humane in regards to the contact with the outside world.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are not afforded contact with the outside world but find themselves chained fast in the dungeon of a Philippian prison after exorcising a demon from a slave girl who'd made a lot of money for her masters by fortune-telling. Tossed into a cold, dark cell with others who were likely real criminals with serious rap sheets, these two Christ-followers put aside their fear and begin to pray and sing hymns, seeing midnight in a dungeon as being the perfect time and place for worship. But note the next line in Acts 16:25 -- "the prisoners were listening to them." We don't know for sure what the other prisoners thought of these two, but certainly their interest was piqued. In a real sense, Paul and Silas were bringing the light of Christ into a very dark place by ministering among fellow prisoners.
When the earthquake broke open the prison doors, offering a divinely planned jail break, Paul and Silas did not bolt for the hills in their prison jumpsuits. Other "apostles" had been sprung from the slammer in a similar fashion by angels in Acts 5:17-26, and Peter himself escaped from Herod's jail with the help of an angel in Acts 12:6-19. Paul and Silas, however, stayed put when given the chance to leave. There were some legal reasons for this, like their insistence on the rights of Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-40), but their choice to stay in custody seemed to have a more personal touch. Not only did these two apostles see their mission in that Philippian prison as a means of bringing hope to prisoners, they also sought to bring hope and spiritual freedom to the jailer himself. Seeing that the jailer would commit suicide if they escaped, Paul and Silas chose his life and salvation over their own liberation (Acts 16:25-34).
The boldness and attitude of Paul and Silas should speak to us. They did not shrink in fear from the challenge of being inside prison walls, whether as inmates or missionaries. Paul would even see his frequent incarcerations as evidence of his qualification as an apostle (2 Corinthians 11:23).
If we insist on preaching grace, then ministry in prisons is the greatest test of whether we actually believe in the power of that grace. As followers of Christ and disciples in the mold of Paul and Silas, we must be willing to overcome our fear of broken people and offer forgiveness, compassion, redemption and reconciliation to people who experience only punishment and isolation day after day. In the same way, we need to be mindful of the needs of guards and administrators who spend their days under constant threat of violence and whose own lives can be broken by the constant rhythm of prison life. If Paul and Silas saw a small prison in a Roman province as a mission field, we should be seeing the prisons of our own country as an exponentially larger opportunity for ministry.
This is a hard truth for "nice" Christians who would never dream of experiencing life behind bars. But the hard truth is that of all the places Jesus told his followers to go, prison is near the top of the list.
In Matthew 25:45, Jesus makes it clear that the eternal future of those who claim his name is directly tied to visiting "him" in prison. Jesus identified himself with the least, the last, the lost. Jesus himself would be processed into the Roman criminal justice system for crimes against the state.
That fact alone should convict and convince us. Christians are, after all, people who have been saved by a death row convict.
Jesus' disciples would become familiar with prisons, too. Much of the book of Acts takes place with the followers of Jesus on their way into or out of jail as a result of their mission. Arrests, questioning, trials, punishment, even execution were simply part of an apostle's lot. But rather than wallow in the injustice of their incarceration, the apostles often saw their imprisonment as an opportunity to offer God's justice and peace to everyone -- even others on the inside
That's probably why Jesus told us to go there. And if more of us did, maybe there'd be fewer people to visit there the next time. We are God's agents of social transformation embodied by the Holy Spirit to give new life to those who are bondage what an ultimate prison break.