A church, in prison

News | January 4, 2018

At the piano, an inmate leads the music. Men’s voices fill the air with familiar tunes. Let there be peace on Earth, they sing. How great Thou art.

Fellow inmates take their turn at the lectern, reading the texts for the day’s worship. One man manages the projector with the words to the songs and prayers, and another helps at communion with tiny cups of grape juice.

“This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Welcome to Free Indeed, a Lutheran congregation that meets for worship every weekend at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Jerry Collell is their pastor. It’s a new congregation, started this summer. About 20 or so men gather each week. As time goes on, the hope is that worshipers from the outside will come and worship too. St. Paul’s Mission Board recently gave $2,000 to the congregation.

The men sit on wooden church pews in the brightly lit and spacious chapel. They confess their sins. They hear a message. They shake hands. They kneel in prayer. The reminders that this is a prison fade into the background – the bars on the windows, the corrections officer who periodically walks through the chapel, the plain blues of the inmates’ clothing, the identification cards clipped to everyone’s shirts to designate staff, visitor, and inmate.

“Even here, the good news is very present,” Jerry says during his message one Sunday morning in December. He’s been a pastor for three decades, with substantial time spent in prison ministry. “God comes to us in the hardest of times.”

The Free Indeed worship is one of 18 held each week at the penitentiary, said Anne Williams, the prison chaplain. To be an officially recognized religious group at Anamosa, five inmates must step forward and fill out paperwork. Once recognized, the group may hold worship, are allowed specific faith-related items in their cells, and can hold up to two feasts a year. Most inmates are allowed to attend worship once a week; some in more restrictive environments can attend once a month.

At the same time as Free Indeed gathers, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a Reformed Protestant group meet in adjoining spaces. The prison is home to many other religious groups, including Muslims, Wiccans, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hebrew-Israelites, Messianics, and Luciferians. Other special services are held, too. The women’s choir from an AME church in Waterloo
came to sing on the Saturday before Christmas. Memorial services are held for prisoners who die. For those whose ashes are not claimed, the administrative staff of the prison holds a small service at the prison’s cemetery, Warden William Sperfslage said.

Worshiping communities within prison are one way that the prison can fulfill its hope of inmates never returning to prison again, the warden said. Not only do they help support the inmates while they are serving their sentences, inmates who come out of prison with education and job skills, and connected with family, friends, or support networks like churches, generally do much better on the outside.

“My goal is that we have no repeat customers, to help these guys succeed,” the warden said. “No more victims. That’s the ideal.”

Free Indeed follows the model of the Prison Congregations of America. It is one of four such congregations in Iowa’s prisons. The concept is based on the idea that the inmates are active members of the worshiping community. They are guided by a pastor from the outside, like Jerry, who is trained by and accountable to a sponsoring denomination, like the ELCA. An inside council and an outside council (former St. Paul pastoral resident Dan Kuckuck is a member of the outside council) lead. The community is supported financially by churches on the outside.

“Jesus invited all people back into family, back into community,” Pastor Jerry said of the foundation of Free Indeed.

The beige-painted entrance gate closed behind two Free Indeed worshipers from the outside last month. A second gate opened to let them inside the penitentiary. A climb up a large staircase took them to the chapel/auditorium/library area. After one of the many daily inmate counts, radios crackled alive with chatter and men start filtering in for worship. Some sat quietly and off to the side. Others greeted each other with smiles and hellos. They opened with confession, then the singing began.

The message was about comforting good news.

As the men listen, a mural by artist Ernest Garthwaite, painted in the 1960s, hangs on a nearby wall. At first glance, it appears to be Jesus hanging on the cross. But it’s not. It’s the thief who died beside Jesus, looking up to Jesus, who is not visible in the painting.

“This is not the end, it is the beginning,” Pastor Jerry said. “In the wilderness of the (prison) yard, you may think this is time wasted. It is time to be one with God. It is time to not just be penitent, but to be set free. God is present with us. God loves us.”

St. Paul people to Anamosa

Interested in worshiping with Free Indeed at the Anamosa State Penitentiary? Plans are in the works for a visit sometime in the first part of 2018. Volunteers must pass a background check and be willing to follow prison security measures, such as no cell phones. To express interest, connect with Ann McGlynn, ann@stpaulqc.org or 563-326-3547.

About the prison

Anamosa State Penitentiary is a maximum/medium security facility, and houses approximately 900-950 inmates, according to the prison’s 2016 annual report. More than 300 people work at the prison, which is in Jones County, about an hour and a half from the Quad Cities. The average age of inmates is 39, with an average education of just less than a high school diploma. The average length of sentence is 29 years, with 218 serving life sentences and 656 convicted of violent crimes.

Through a contract with Kirkwood Community College, inmates can take courses in adult literacy, high school equivalency, or college credit. They can work in a variety of jobs through Iowa Prison Industries, and take part in apprenticeships through a program recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor.

2 Comments on “A church, in prison”

  • Russ Melby

    January 17, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Thank you for this witness to the Body of Christ. Sharing your insights, will, I hope, encourage many congregations and individuals within our Synod and beyond to include Free Indeed in our personal and corporate prayers, and our financial assistance. Yours in Christ, Rev. Russ Melby, ELCA, retired. Member, Bethesda Lutheran, Ames, Iowa.

  • Jerry Collell

    January 4, 2018 at 9:36 pm

    Ann, you were not only a gracious and delightful visitor to our worship but you captured us and what we’re about very well! You really established your experience and credibility with Iowa Corrections when the warden realized it was his program at Fort Madison that you wrote an article on when he worked there. I deeply appreciate your article on us and look forward to your continuing involvement with us!

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Daniel 12:1-3

The Time of the End

1“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.2“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.3“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Psalm 16

1Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.

2I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord;

I have no good besides You.”

3As for the saints who are in the earth,

They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.

4The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied;

I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood,

Nor will I take their names upon my lips.

5The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;

You support my lot.

6The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;

Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.

7I will bless the LORD who has counseled me;

Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.

8I have set the LORD continually before me;

Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

9Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;

My flesh also will dwell securely.

10For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;

Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.

11You will make known to me the path of life;

In Your presence is fullness of joy;

In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

Hebrews 10:11-25

11Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins;12but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD,13waiting from that time onward UNTIL HISENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET.14For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.15And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,





He then says,



18Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

A New and Living Way

19Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,20by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,21and since we have a great priest over the house of God,22let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;24and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,25not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Christ or Judgment

Mark 13:1-8

Things to Come

1As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”2And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

3As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately,4“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?”5And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you.6“Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.7“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.8“For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

Daniel 7:9-14

9“I kept looking

Until thrones were set up,

And the Ancient of Days took His seat;

His vesture was like white snow

And the hair of His head like pure wool.

His throne was ablaze with flames,

Its wheels were a burning fire.

10“A river of fire was flowing

And coming out from before Him;

Thousands upon thousands were attending Him,

And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him;

The court sat,

And the books were opened.

11“Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking; I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire.12“As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but an extension of life was granted to them for an appointed period of time.

The Son of Man Presented

13“I kept looking in the night visions,

And behold, with the clouds of heaven

One like a Son of Man was coming,

And He came up to the Ancient of Days

And was presented before Him.

14“And to Him was given dominion,

Glory and a kingdom,

That all the peoples, nations and men of every language

Might serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

Which will not pass away;

And His kingdom is one

Which will not be destroyed.

The Vision Interpreted

Psalm 93

1The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The LORD has clothed and girded Himself with strength;

Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.

2Your throne is established from of old;

You are from everlasting.

3The floods have lifted up, O LORD,

The floods have lifted up their voice,

The floods lift up their pounding waves.

4More than the sounds of many waters,

Than the mighty breakers of the sea,

The LORD on high is mighty.

5Your testimonies are fully confirmed;

Holiness befits Your house,

O LORD, forevermore.

Revelation 1:-4-8

John 18:33-37

33Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”35Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”37Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”