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God is Able: A Story from Prairie’s Prison Encounter Program

Program Coordinator Gord Allert Shares About God Opening Doors in the Midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic

On March 11, 2020, we had twenty-four students in two classes at Bowden Institution. Presently, that number has been reduced to seventeen due to inmate transfers and releases. I’m genuinely happy about the prospect of these men getting a second chance at a new start on the outside, but a thirty percent attrition rate is an alarming reality to come to grips with. I wonder how many men we will have when we are allowed to come back in and resume our program.

This question has led me to look for ways to address this attrition. In normal times, we just keep recruiting from the general population, adding new students to the program as they are accepted. When we can’t be there, that is impossible to do. In an effort to maintain a presence, we decided to offer a reading program to the general population in these institutions. The men apply to the program and receive a book specifically chosen for that institution. In addition, they get access to a program volunteer who will guide them through a series of written discussion questions based on the book.

The first place we tried this was Drumheller Institution. Six men applied. Soon after that, we decided to try a reading program in Edmonton Institution. Judging from the response at Drumheller, I thought if we got ten men at Edmonton it would be wildly successful since that facility was less than half the size of Drumheller. I ordered books accordingly. Then the applications started to come in. The first batch I received was twenty-two – and they were still coming in! I wasn’t going to have enough books!

We hurriedly tried to source more books, only to find out that our usual suppliers were back ordered. Our next step was to go directly to the author’s organization to see if they had any copies. They did, and they sent us fifty copies. Then we discovered that the back orders couldn’t be cancelled. Now we would have too many books. I would rather have too many than not enough, however, and concluded that we would eventually find a place to use them.

When all the applications were in, we had forty-seven men wanting to be part of the program at Edmonton. So many in fact, that the chaplain needed help administering our program. As a result, he got permission for our volunteers Bruce, Meghann, and Merle to come in and assist. Our volunteers have not been allowed in any of the institutions for nearly eight months due to COVID, so this accommodation was miraculous. Now we have weekly face-to-face contact with these forty-seven men.

Two weeks after the Edmonton reading program began, I received a call from an assistant warden at Bowden. He told me they were trying to find volunteers who would come in and offer a program to the SIU unit there (SIU is an acronym for Structured Intervention Unit, which used to be known as solitary confinement). Evidently these men were really suffering in isolation during the lockdown. I described the reading program that we were doing at Edmonton and that I just happened to have enough books to start one at Bowden. He was delighted. I’m now waiting for the green light to officially start the Bowden SIU program.

I began this story by expressing concern over the seven men we lost at Bowden. My prayers at the time were founded in worry and fear. God’s answer? “Just watch me.” I needn’t have worried. God already had sixty men lined up. We’ve never had a recruitment pool that large. God is even opening up a door to a part of the prison that we never dreamed of reaching. I can’t think of a better way to close this story than to quote Ephesians 3:20-21:

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Prayer Update

In the time since this article was first written and shared with Prairie’s constituents via email, the number of Covid-19 cases in Alberta has increased significantly. As a result, the volunteers that were assisting with the reading program at Edmonton Institution have been put “on hold” until further notice. Gord shares some additional details about the current situations at the Edmonton, Bowden, and Drumheller institutions, along with ongoing prayer requests for the Prison Encounter Program:

“Our understanding is that the chaplain is willing to keep the lessons flowing [at Edmonton Institution] on our behalf in the interim. This would be a lot of extra work for him so please pray for him. His name is Harry. We have been within two days of returning to Bowden but were called off due to staff members testing positive for COVID. We stand ready to return as early as next week if the lock down is lifted. Drumheller is further down the road for our re-entry for classes but not imminent.

Of course, we are praying for the day that our programs can resume and expand, but we don’t do that without concern for safety for all. I have felt that my prayers are puny. When you consider that this virus has infected fifty million people in our world, what can one man’s prayers do? But God has reminded me that it’s not about who is praying, it’s who we’re praying to. He is able. With that in mind, please pray for delivery and healing from this pandemic. That is probably the only thing that will ultimately restore our ministry in these institutions.”

More Information About the Prison Bible Encounter Program

With the goal of bringing transformation and true heart change in Canada’s prisons, Prairie has introduced the Prison Bible Encounter Program, a college-level course of study that is changing lives inside the walls of Canadian Correctional Institutions. In September of 2016 the first class began at Bowden Institution, northwest of Three Hills. In early 2018, the program expanded to Drumheller, southeast of Three Hills, and then on to the Edmonton Institution in 2019.

When Gord came to Prairie College, the Prison Bible Encounter Program was just a dream. It was enough, however, for him to make a career change in anticipation of one day being involved in the lives of inmates. Today, as the leader of the Prison Bible Encounter program, Gord has shared the challenges and victories he has seen with many different audiences, and would be happy to share with yours.

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