When Tulare resident Adrian Scales walked into a local juvenile hall facility in 2013, his life came full circle.
“So many emotions came over me,” said Scales, who decades earlier had held there for months at a time, starting at the age of 14, caught in a cycle of drugs, violence and crime.
However, this time, Scales was there to share Bible-based encouragement.
Now one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scales is grateful for the work of thousands of volunteers in the faith who are involved in a prison ministry that has ramped up during the pandemic. New methods were tested with the hope of reaching some 2.1 million incarcerated individuals in the United States with comfort and hope from the Bible amid lockdowns at these facilities.
“In our prison ministry initiatives, we’ve observed that many inmates want to change,” said Robert Hendriks, US spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They’re looking for a second chance, and some are finding the strength to change by applying Bible principles.”
More than 600,000 individuals exit state and federal prisons each year and face what can be an “overwhelming” transition back into society, according to a proclamation from the White House. “The reentry process is complicated in the best of times, and is even more so with the additional difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Although it has been more than 17 years since Scales was a prison inmate, he became emotional as he recalled the past. “I didn’t think that I was capable of changing, but God showed me that I could,” he said through tears.
The youngest of three children, Scales remembers when his mom began studying the Bible and the positive effect it had. “We went from dysfunction to structure,” he said.
But as a teenager, Scales started hanging out with the wrong crowd. At 15, he left home, and things quickly escalated.
After numerous stints in prisons in Texas and California, Scales was sitting alone in a Kern County cell when he took stock of his life and prayed for the first time in 20 years. He then asked his mom to send him Bible-based literature.
In time, he moved to a minimum-security facility in San Luis Obispo, where he eagerly began attending meetings held by Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in the prison ministry in English and Spanish.
With a Bible he found in the prison library and a stack of Bible-based publications, Scales immersed himself in studying and made real changes in his speech and conduct.
Scales started preaching to fellow inmates daily until he was released from prison on Jan. 1, 2005.
On June 5, 2005, Scales was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bakersfield. “It was the best day of my life,” said Scales, who’s now a full-time Bible instructor, helping others to transform their lives too.
Fellow Witnesses who have been doing a similar work in jails, prisons, state hospitals, youth facilities and substance-abuse facilities for decades are eager to return in person when safe to do so, said Hendriks.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “rather than slow down our outreach, we are using this time to improve the training of our volunteers and research innovative ways to expand the work.”
In 2021 alone, more than 6,300 of these volunteers received enhanced training to assist individuals at 920 prison facilities across the country.
Darrell Boyce of Louisville, Ky., entered prison at 23 on drug charges. He studied the Bible during his incarceration, was baptized upon his release, and returned to help other inmates spiritually.
At one point, he was even overseeing the prison ministry work at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he went six days a week to study the Bible with those who requested assistance.
“I felt like I had wasted the first 25 years of my life,” he said. “But I was able to use those years in some positive way to help others, which felt good.”
Scales can relate. After much regret and self-doubt, he now feels “dignified and valuable” because he’s using his life in service to others, alongside his wife of 15 years, Myra.
The Witnesses’ official website, jw.org, has more information about their prison ministry efforts during the pandemic as well as personal experiences of Bible instructors and learners in prison.
“It is our love for God and for neighbor that moves us to continue to reach out to inmates,” said Hendriks. “We know the God of the Bible believes in second chances.”