Christa Fisher receives a couple hundred requests from Dane County Jail inmates per week, asking for her services as a chaplain that range from one-on-one spiritual guidance to providing extra pairs of socks.
She is a chaplain with the Madison Area Jail Ministry, a nonprofit ecumenical Christian ministry that serves jail inmates of many faiths. The organization is celebrating its 50th year in 2017 and originally formed to provide support to Dane County Sheriff’s Office deputies delivering death notices and to the families receiving them.
Since its inception, the ministry grew into the jail and now serves those who are incarcerated, families of inmates and jail staff.
Though the organization has its roots in the Lutheran tradition, Fisher said works with a connected group of faith leaders to serve all inmates.
“We provide spiritual care to the best of our abilities to everyone in the jail no matter where they are or not on their faith journey,” Fisher said.
In addition to meeting with inmates individually, the organization offers worship services, Bible studies and a range of tutoring programs. MAJM also provides a Christian and interfaith library, art-based spiritual exploration classes and personal items that inmates may need.
“We provide things that people need just to feel more human like socks or underwear, reading glasses, journals, stationery, greeting cards, pencils,” Fisher said.
Between Fisher and Reverend Julia Weaver, the ministry serves about 100 women and 800 men per day. To meet the demand, Fisher is also working to build the organization’s volunteer base and raise MAJM’s profile in the community.
What is spiritual care?
I think of spiritual care in a very holistic sense, caring for the entire person. What I and Julia do primarily is spend time in conversation with people, creating a safe space where people can speak themselves present, where they can share their story. Sometimes they’ve never shared before, other times just stories they just have to get out and to have that release and the healing that’s necessary to move on.
Creating a space where people can speak. Speaking themselves present. That often includes prayer. All that culminates in a very intentional, very authentic, very personalized prayer based on the needs that have been spoken and the needs I sense are just hovering there.
What is your work day typically like?
A day as a chaplain or a day on the job for me begins by praying myself into the jail. Jails are a really hard place to be. It takes a certain amount of courage to enter into that space voluntarily. My ideal day is to spend the whole day in one-on-one spiritual care with people or listening to people and praying to people.
Occasionally, I will pull people out and we will have private conversations in a room or if I feel like somebody needs some extra privacy if it's going to be a pretty emotional conversation then I will pull them into a separate room. Normally I talk to them through the bars, so I provide spiritual care through the bars while all the business and noise and energy of the jail is going on.
I find it really interesting that even with all that happening we’re still able to have these really private conversations. The person talking to me really wants to talk with me. I am prepared and eager to spend time with that person. I expect with every person that I meet to be delighted and amazed by them. I go to it expecting that, and I’m never disappointed.
Every single person, every single man and woman in that jail is a remarkable person with gifts and talents and passions, so I go to it that way. They come to me eager, and I think the people around us just respect that because they know when they’re ready or if they want to have that conversation, their time will be respected in the same way.
What is the interest level in the ministry?
I probably receive at least 100 requests a week. If I go into a pod or cell block for a slip for one person, other people are going to want to talk to me. I found this out on my first day. I had gone into a pod to speak to somebody who had dropped a slip and while we were talking, people were walking around. There’s no privacy, so I didn’t think anything of all these people who were around us until we were done talking. We were talking, we prayed, shook hands and said goodbye and there were seven men waiting to talk to me. None of them had dropped slips.
So after five hours, I spoke with and prayed with all of them. No matter which pod or cell block I go to just because someone hadn’t dropped a slip, if a chaplain shows up there will be somebody who wants to talk and sometimes people observe me in prayer and conversation. Because it’s risky. It’s risky to reach out and expose yourself and be vulnerable that way.
What is the organization’s legacy?
We made a big shift this year. We became an ecumenical organization this year. We have shifted in that direction … as the demographics of the jail have changed. There are far more women now than there used to be. I don’t know that we have seen a change in the disproportionate number of men of color who are incarcerated, maybe the level of disproportion has always been there but with the growing numbers, it’s just become so overwhelmingly obvious.
So the growing numbers, the growing disproportion, the recognizing that most folks in jail are struggling with addiction or mental health, undiagnosed or unmedicated mental health needs or both, the recognition that many people there who are trying to figure out how to heal from trauma.
We have all experienced trauma in our lives, but many of us have had at least people or communities to help us work through that trauma. A lot of folks in jail have experienced compounding trauma. In light of all of that, the way that we do ministry what we provide has changed. It’s changed to reflect the demographic and the changing needs of the changing demographic and it will continue to do that.
What are your goals?
This is how I understand my role as chaplain: to help people identify how God is at work in their lives and help them find reason and purpose in their incarceration. Rather than giving reason to why people are incarcerated, how do you bring reason and purpose within incarceration? How do you take this experience and channel it so that it can inform your life in a really positive way for the future and part of finding that reason and purpose is believing that God is present in it and that God is going to lead you out of this into something better and God is going to help you find reason and purpose in it. From a spiritual perspective, that's really my privileged responsibility.
I really am trying, through the support of the sheriff’s department, a really comprehensive volunteer program that is able to address the great amount of need that exists in the jail. The other thing that this year what we’re trying to do is bring visibility to this invisible ministry … and to the complexity of this system, the absolute complexity of this system and the very sound and complicated reasons that people end up incarcerated. It is not so simple that you make one bad decision, and you end up in jail.
What does the community need to know about the jail?
Everybody in the jail, whether you’re incarcerated or you serve there, everybody is there wanting to be their best selves. There are just circumstances that make it really hard to be their best selves and to see the best in each other but there are good, good people who are working in the jail and there are good, good people who are serving, doing time in the jail. And I think we have so much division in our community dialogue to figure out how to find reconciliation how we can be reconciled with each other.
While one poor choice, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, may result in an arrest and incarceration, on-going, compounding trauma is often a significant factor in repetitive recidivism. The trauma may have begun with the first arrest or years earlier in childhood. However, without tools to cope with and space to heal from the trauma (cultural, institutional, communal, familial, and individual) people find their own ways of coping which often exacerbates the initial trauma and results in patterns of recidivism.