S.C. Baptists enter 5th decade of spreading gospel through prisoner packet distribution

South Carolina Baptists provided 25,266 prisoner packets this holiday season — enough to reach every inmate in the state.

On Dec. 4, at St. Andrews Church in Columbia, about 130 volunteers and inmates processed and bagged the packets for delivery. They were distributed the following day to adult inmates in the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health, and 460 packets were given to youth and students in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Now in its 41st year, the project supports the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s priority to serve the lost and share the hope of the gospel with every life in South Carolina and beyond. Churches and associations compile and collect the packets, each of which contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloth, mints, pad of paper, pen, and pre-stamped envelopes. On assembly day, other items — including devotional and prayer books, Christmas cards, and Christian literature — are added to each plastic zippered bag.

According to Tim R., SCBC missions mobilization team leader, the packets offer support to inmates and plant seeds for the time when they return to society. “It raises awareness for our churches concerning the needs of incarcerated individuals and their families and provides a simple way to give and serve,” he said.

Larry Epps, senior chaplain at Perry Correctional Institution and a member of Rock Springs Baptist Church in Easley, said that as he delivers the packets to his inmates, he makes a point to say it’s from South Carolina Baptists, including those from their hometowns. “The packets are an outward expression of the love I have for these men,” Epps said. “They enhance the morale of the institution and give chaplains the opportunity to share the gospel.”

This was the 11th year one of the female inmates served at the packet assembly, an exercise she calls a “treat.” “It brings me joy to know that people on the outside have not forgotten us and still care,” she said.

Tracy Sutton, of Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo, said she is in regular contact with the inmate population as part of her work with an attorney, but she volunteered on assembly day in order to be a part of something good. “Some are incarcerated for bad mistakes, but all deserve to know someone loves them,” Sutton said.

Tim Jones has seen the packets donated through his church, Fellowship Baptist in Lexington, for years. Now, as a chaplain with Broad River Correctional Institution, he sees where those packets go. “It is a testimony of ‘you visited me in prison,’” Jones said, “and to fulfill that personally is awesome.”

For senior chaplain Steven Hendricks, also at Broad River, the packet ministry represents for him why he is a chaplain. “It provides hope to the hopeless inmate,” he said. “Some of my guys don’t even have access to soap or a new toothbrush until this time each year.”

An inmate helping on assembly day said the packet lasts him about a month, and it “gives a sense of freedom to have a better choice in the products we have access to.” He added that he knows many inmates who don’t receive anything else during the holidays and sees how much the items are appreciated by them.

Dianne Cagle drove three and a half hours from her home in North Carolina to be a part of the assembly process this year because of the spiritual impact it has on inmates. “These packets contain basic needs but show that God is also important,” said Cagle, who first participated in the prisoner packet ministry while serving as a short-term missionary with Lexington Baptist Association.

“The volunteers enjoy serving alongside inmates and chaplains processing the packets. I get to hear them laugh, sing, and share their stories with one another at the tables as they are working. Southern Baptists are strongest when we partner together to serve our neighbor and share the good news of Jesus,” said Tim R.

As Steve Miller, chaplain with Kershaw Correctional Institution and pastor of Team Church in Kershaw, put it, the packets simply “make people feel human, that they matter, that Jesus loves them, and that His church does, too.”

— Julia Bell writes for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.