Alex Taylor serves as chaplaincy service administrator
for the Florida Department of Corrections. He oversees
102 chaplains working at 52 major institutions, 28 camps
and 25 work release centers among some 80,000 inmates.
Taylor spoke recently with Scott Harrup, associate editor.
did your ministry in prisons evolve?
In 1984 I took a position with the Texas Department
of Corrections as a chaplain in Huntsville. I served
for 10 years in an institution with 2,200 inmates that
included the Texas death row. In 1995 I became a regional
chaplaincy coordinator in Texas. I was very involved
with the post-trauma staff support teams. We worked
in emergency cases, such as inmate assaults on staff,
and did debriefings for family members who witnessed
In 1999 I
was recruited by the state of Florida to serve as the
state chaplain. I was given two directives — to
standardize chaplaincy ministry across the state and
to introduce faith-based residential programs. By 2002
we had 10 centers across the state. These are therapeutic
communities where inmates are grouped based on their
desire to pursue faith-based programming as a means
to really effect change in their life.
mentioned ministering to death-row inmates. What kind
of witnessing opportunities did you encounter?
People on death row are very much like people on the
street in the way they react to the gospel. One death
row inmate only wanted to read his Western novels and
had no time for God. He didn’t want to talk about
eternity or worry about the condition of his soul. But
there are also those whom God works with and stirs their
souls. I remember a man named Tony. He was constantly
in trouble. He came to Christ through the witness of
another inmate. As a result, he told his lawyers he
no longer wanted to pursue his appeals based on a plea
of innocence. He admitted his guilt. When his lawyers
refused to pursue his appeal with an admission of guilt,
he dropped his defense. I went to talk to him. “Tony,”
I said, “are you sure you know what you’re
doing?” “Chaplain,” he told me, “all
my life I’ve lied about everything. I’ve
finally found something worth living for and I’m
not going to mess it up by lying.” Tony was executed,
but something had gotten hold of him that changed him.
reconciliation possible between inmates and victims’
There is an almost unbridgeable gulf between the people
who have been hurt and the people who have done the
hurting. Even when the inmate offers an apology to the
family, they find it hard to trust him. Traumatic situations
are so devastating that 20 years can go by and the victims
can still describe in detail what they went through.
Victims are forced to face their pain every time their
case comes up for an appeal, gets in the newspaper,
or even when a similar case comes up in the media.
consistent remedy, I’ve discovered, is when the
victims apply Christian standards of offering forgiveness.
An inmate on Texas death row once called me aside and
showed me a letter he had received. He was crying. It
was from a 9- or 10-year-old girl. She said that even
though he had killed her mother, she wanted to forgive
him. “Nobody should go through what I went through,”
she wrote, “but my pastor says if I want to get
closer to Jesus I have to forgive you. And I want to
forgive you. I forgive you.” Nobody can make someone
take that step. You have to make that choice.
a committed Christian, how do you minister in an environment
of religious plurality?
Our Constitution guarantees that everyone has an opportunity
to practice his or her faith. I’ve found that
if I am fair to people of different faiths, they become
more receptive to mine. When we start with fairness
in our dealings with different faiths that actually
opens doors to ministry.
are you seeing believers getting involved in prison
Where it used to be scheduling volunteers to come and
preach or sing, we now have people who come in and share
counseling skills or financial accounting skills or
whatever. So many inmates come from a broken family
background and miss the acquisition of social skills
that most of us take for granted. Volunteers are coming
in and sharing those kinds of practical insights. They’re
willing to do more than just offer a short Bible study.
Don’t misunderstand me. Bible studies are the
basic building blocks for change, but everyone wants
to do these. Some volunteers are willing to come in
over a period of time and share information vital to
helping inmates reintegrate successfully in society.
Mentoring is getting a lot of attention in the public
sector and in business, but it’s also becoming
a larger presence in corrections. The inmates who are
involved in it encounter someone who is genuinely and
personally interested in their making it in the outside
are some of the challenges inmates face when returning
That transition is tough, and when there is a mentor
to continue that relationship it can make all the difference.
An inmate might say, “I’ve just been rejected
for my 15th job application. I feel like going out and
scoring some drugs.” And a mentor will be there
to bring reason back into the equation. Without mentors,
former inmates will simply go back to the people on
the streets for advice, the very people who got them
in trouble in the first place.
are still sort of lepers in our society. It’s
hard to find a job, and some jobs they are prohibited
from holding. It’s hard for them to do some basic
things, like reestablish their identity and get credit.
Money can be very difficult to come by for basic things
like transportation and groceries. Most states issue
some money to inmates leaving prison, but the average
inmate only gets $100 and the clothes he purchases are
subtracted from that $100. Some work-release programs
allow for saving more money in preparation for release.
of caring people can make the difference between staying
out of trouble or committing a new offense. We need
more organizations to consider opening homes or some
kind of centers where men and women can come when they’re
making this transition. Communities need to move from
just getting men and women out of prison to moving them
into our congregations and into our work force and supporting
them with information they need day to day.
Prisons are the closest mission field, and they have
been growing steadily over the last 20 years. The population
of women is growing very fast. Statistics tell us that
the greatest at-risk group is the children of inmates.
We can do something to stall that and change the history
for those children and those inmates. Most of the people
who are in prison today are going to be released and
back in our neighborhoods. Nationally, about 60 percent
of inmates end up back in prison for some reason. That’s
scary. If we were doing something a little more proactive,
we could impact that statistic dramatically. I see it
as a mission that is clearly part of the church’s
reason for being.
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