On Tuesday, April 20, James Ackerman, President and CEO of Prison Fellowship, joined Dan Darling, Senior Vice President of Communications at NRB for NRB Live at Lunch, a free webinar event discussing prison ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic and Second Chance Month.
James has over 20 years of experience as a highly effective executive, helping media companies like Documentary Channel, British Interactive Broadcasting, Broadway Systems, and Open TV navigate periods of transition and growth. He has spent the last dozen years volunteering with Prison Fellowship long before becoming the leader of the organization, leveraging his business experience to teach prisoners important life skills, such as resume writing, job interviewing, household budgeting, and personal planning.
James was first introduced to Prison Fellowship while on a father/son retreat with his son. He met Dick, a Prison Fellowship staffer who told him about the work of Prison Fellowship and invited him to visit a prison with him. He took Dick up on the offer, and the experience changed him.
As he spent time in the prison, he was reminded of Jesus’s word in Matthew 25:35-36. “I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”
“These are people,” Ackerman said. “There’s a reason why we’re called as believers to visit with and be mindful of those in prison.”
At the time, Ackerman had no idea what this would mean for him years down the road, but he was certain of the fact that he was called to love the incarcerated.
“I became a follower of Jesus when I was 22 years old, and I said to the Lord then, ‘If you ever want me to go work in full-time ministry, I’m down for it.’ And I meant it,” Ackerman said. “I meant it then, and I meant it when it ultimately happened many, many years later.”
Even before Ackerman met Dick at the father/son retreat, the Lord had been growing in him a heart for prison ministry. Some of the churches that he had attended with his family over the years, had robust prison ministries. He felt a genuine curiosity and desire to be involved with these ministries, but with work, family, and other responsibilities, he never made the time.
But Dick’s invitation changed that. With that one visit, Ackerman “got hooked” on prison ministry.
“God was gracious and opened a door for me to begin counseling a guy on death row in San Quentin,” Ackerman said. “And that’s what started my journey of working with the incarcerated.”
Fast-forward several years, and in 2016, Ackerman began serving as the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on every area of society, Ackerman’s leadership has been critical for the organization as they pivoted to digital ministry.
When the pandemic hit, every prison in the country shut down—no one was allowed to visit in the prisons. But that didn’t mean that Prison Fellowship’s ministry shut down.
“The Lord knew exactly what we were going to do,” Ackerman said.
An official from the California Department of Corrections contacted Prison Fellowship’s regional director to ask for help. The department of corrections had an internal television network that hit almost every prison in the California system, and they were desperate for faith-based and inspirational content to distribute via this network.
Because of the virus, there were no more visitations or programs being offered. Most people were in lockdown situations, and COVID-19 outbreaks were happening everywhere.
“In a week, we set up a video platform made of content like Celebrate Recovery, Life’s Healing Choices videos, The Purpose Driven Life videos from Saddleback Church, The Alpha Talks, our own stories of inspiration of people who experienced radical transformation in Jesus while in prison and are living well now in and out of prison,” Ackerman said.
Prison Fellowship got this platform started for California and called it Floodlight. Then they offered it to every department of corrections in the country and every prison with which Prison Fellowship had contact.
“As of this minute, Floodlight is being used in prisons in 48 states. Rhode Island and Vermont are the only two states in the country that aren’t using Floodlight,” Ackerman said. “It didn’t exist just over a year ago! And God said, ‘No, I’m going to open the door.’”
With dozens of content providers, churches producing original content, and musical performances from Hillsong and others, Prison Fellowship is using Floodlight to distribute content to prisons across the country.
Over the last year during the pandemic, Prison Fellowship has also seen a massive uptick in Bible distribution, reaching an average of 10,000 Bibles a month.
“The Lord is active and working. The Holy Spirit is active and working in prisons,” Ackerman said. “These are just two examples of the many things that God did with us during the pandemic.”
During this season prison ministry has continued through virtual platforms and outdoor events that Prison Fellowship launched and calls “Outside In Hope Events.”
But Ackerman expects that “very soon, prisons will open up as quickly as they closed.” And when they do open, prisons want programs to be back up and running as soon as possible.
“I’ve asked our team to be ready, set, go—to move to get things going,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman also discussed the importance of being attentive to the Holy Spirit—especially in such seasons of change and uncertainty. Because leaders at Prison Fellowship were attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, they created an opportunity for churches to love and serve Angel Tree families virtually last Christmas.
Although this was not the ideal situation for serving these families, the Holy Spirit opened doors for this ministry to continue in meaningful ways that would not otherwise have been possible.
Over the last year, the medium of prison ministry has shifted, but the work is the same. Ackerman spoke to the ongoing need for reform in prisons in order for them to become centers of restoration rather than centers of punishment.
“We have to think about who should go to prison in the first place, what’s the experience that they have when they get there, and how we build bridges for them to return to society well,” Ackerman said. “We as believers need to care about the incarcerated, quite simply, because Jesus called us to.”
As a part of their work to help prisoners return to society in healthy and restorative ways, in 2017 Prison Fellowship founded April as Second Chance Month in order to highlight the issues people face as they return to society from prison.
People face an array of collateral consequences as they return to society from prison, and this year, over 550 organizations and churches have partnered with Prison Fellowship for Second Chance Month out of a shared commitment to provide a pathway for people to receive a second chance to begin to live well.
Ackerman encouraged viewers to get involved in prison ministry—whether that’s by becoming a Justice Advocate, helping your church become an Angel Tree church, considering what it would look like for your church to welcome people who are coming out of prison, or volunteering with in-prison ministries.
As Christian communicators are looking for good stories to tell of God’s redeeming grace in the lives of people, Darling encouraged NRB members to connect with Prison Fellowship’s Director of Communications, Jim Forbes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you missed NRB Live at Lunch with James Ackerman, you can watch a full replay of the event here.
The next NRB Live at Lunch will be Wednesday, May 5 at 12 p.m. EST with Ryan Anderson of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Jason Thacker of the ERLC, and Autumn Stroup of Family Policy Alliance. Click here to register today for this free webinar event.