Help Bring Prison Ministry in the United States into the 21st Century

David Hochmuth (Watertown, Wisconsin USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Dave Hochmuth has been Prison Ministry Administrator for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod since August 2018. After a 20+ year career in civil engineering, Dave was certified for Staff Ministry at MLC, and served in Middleton, Wisconsin, as Minister of Spiritual Growth for 11 years. He and wife of 30 years, Mary, have three grown children.

Abstract

New technology is bringing fundamental changes in how we access information. These changes also are occurring in the field of corrections. A key aspect of the WELS Prison Ministry (WELS PM) model for ministry to the incarcerated is a Bible self-study ministry-by-mail program. It has been effective for over two decades but recently experienced a decline in usage. A revised model is likely needed for the future. We also need people who can help WELS PM research, design, and implement that model. Should such a model be successful, the potential exists to reach many more souls with the Gospel with little or no increase in ongoing financial resources. However, additional volunteer resource requirements, both short and long term, could be significant.

Introduction

The Gospel never changes. Yet the world we live in and some of the ways we share and spread the Gospel are constantly changing. Recent technological developments are causing significant shifts in how correctional facility inmates access information and spend their time. Like large-scale changes in other areas of life, this situation creates both challenges to the existing paradigm and opportunities for a new paradigm for sharing the Gospel.

More than anything, this presentation is a plea for advice, information, and help. If WELS PM is to continue widespread Gospel outreach to inmates, we will need the insights and efforts of several people with diverse sets of knowledge, skills and connections. My prayer is that God will move either those people reading this, or other individuals you recommend, to assist us in pursuing Gospel outreach to inmates using some form of electronic document distribution and collection. This effort will be subject to the unique and manifold constraints and idiosyncrasies associated with communication with incarcerated individuals. Another challenge will be the limited financial resources available and the resulting necessary reliance on largely volunteer efforts.

Background

One of the key pillars of WELS Prison Ministry (WELS PM) has been a ministry-by-mail program that has likely shared God's Word with over 100,000 souls in the 25+ years of our existence. We do other forms of ministry, such as equip and support both people making personal visits to correctional facilities and people that mentor released inmates. But our ministry-by-mail is our most widespread and well-known effort.

The ministry-by-mail comprises two main facets: publication distribution and pen pal letters. Through a central office in New Ulm, Minnesota, a small staff and hundreds of volunteers (both in New Ulm and around the country) facilitate the distribution of God's Word via Bibles, Bible studies, or other devotional publications using the United States Postal Service (USPS). Our Bible studies are self-studies with a final test that an inmate can complete and return to our New Ulm office also via the USPS. A volunteer reviews the test, commenting positively on correct answers and carefully redirecting the inmate to the correct answer if he or she does not answer correctly. Those tests are first returned to New Ulm, then returned to the inmate with a completion certificate. In addition, any inmate that requests a pen pal is assigned to a volunteer pen pal who seeks to encourage and build up the inmate using God's Word in personal correspondence.

Volunteers in New Ulm prepare all the mail that is coming and going. Volunteers all around the country serve as test correctors or pen pals. For our volunteers' safety all correspondence with inmates passes through our New Ulm office to ensure that no volunteer's personal information is passed on to anyone in a correctional facility. The booklet portion of this effort is depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Diagram of process for Bible self-study booklet ministry

This correspondence course-style for sharing God's Word has been richly blessed. Over our 25 years we have served many thousands of inmates serving time in 49 out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The Bible studies are written in simple English or Spanish but express the deep truths of God's Word. We currently offer 37 English and 17 Spanish courses. The inmates constantly express their gratitude for providing these studies. They love what they are learning and that there are test correctors and pen pals willing to invest time in helping them understand God's love and plan of salvation. Returning the corrected tests, which as far as we know is unique in the industry, is a great blessing to them and a key component of the ministry's growth. Word of mouth from one inmate to the next has been our most effective source of referrals. Here are but two of the numerous comments we continually receive:

(Spanish - translated to English) I write to you to thank you for the tests because they have helped me a lot and I have learned about the life of Jesus, of how much He loves us as it says in John 3:16. Thank you for praying for me...you have helped me so much to learn beautiful things from the word of God. May His peace be with you. – Leo

I am currently incarcerated in the Texas Department of Corrections...and came across a brother in Christ who is currently enrolled in your mail-in Bible study course. What a great gift you offer to sinners such as ourselves! I thank you whole-heartedly for your continued devotion to reach out to people such as ourselves that society would much rather lock away and "throw away the key." Many brothers in here have lost everything and EVERYONE and it is nice to see their faces light up when they receive mail from ministries such as yours. For a lot of these people, it is a sense of encouragement and joy to know that they are NOT forgotten and that there is SOMEONE out there who cares for them and prays for them. Again, "thank you" for that, on behalf of those who may not express their gratitude. I see it! And God sees your works! May God continue to bless each and every one of you so that you may continue to share those blessings. Your brother in Christ, Mario

As recently as 2015 we mailed over 15,000 Bible self-study booklets directly to inmates. In addition, booklets are also distributed by prison chaplains and others for which we only have records for bulk shipments, not distribution to inmates. By 2018 the total number of booklets sent directly to inmates was approximately 10,600 with 2019 projected to be at a similar level.

Recent Developments

Many state departments of correction, county jails, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are making electronic devices, such as tablet-style computing devices (tablets), available to inmates for communication and other purposes. Facilities provide commissary accounts to inmates (usually funded by friends or family of the inmate) from which inmates can purchase a variety of items that now includes tablets.

Procedures for tablet usage likely vary from state to state and even facility to facility, but also have some common elements. Given the greater presence of WELS in Wisconsin, we have a somewhat better understanding of the current implementation of tablet usage there. This understanding was gathered from internet research, conversations with Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WI DOC) personnel, and conversations with individuals involved in visitation ministry to Wisconsin inmates; however, like many technological changes, tablet usage is a moving target undergoing near constant modifications. Aspects of tablet usage are subject to change at any time without notice.

As we understand the situation, the WI DOC allows inmates to access limited and monitored electronic message exchange (email) as well as some free electronic books from Project Gutenberg (mostly classic literature in the public domain) via CorrLinks.com. We believe music downloads are also available, but from what platform is unknown. Requirements for email usage are available under at "Sending/Receiving an Inmate Electronic Message" and also here. Inmates must be within a certain physical distance of a "kiosk" to be able to connect to the network for message or information uploads or downloads. This physical access is controlled and only available to inmates at specific times and for limited durations. The network is closed (intranet) and inmates only have access to information allowed by the vendor and the WI DOC. They have no access to the internet or conventional email.

A WI DOC employee has indicated to us that they desire to distribute written information to inmates, such as orientation information, prerelease information, and the like. Because they want to keep control over this information, the WI DOC is seeking to develop its own distribution system for written information that does not involve Project Gutenberg.

Although not necessarily connected with the advent of tablets in correctional facilities, other recent developments are adding to the challenges faced by the WELS PM publication ministry-by-mail. Initially, use of the USPS to deliver our publications was nearly universally accepted by correctional facilities. Unfortunately, because of contraband and other concerns, new restrictions are continually introduced by facilities. As an example, we recently were informed that one facility will no longer accept any packages for inmates greater than ¼-inch thick, which excludes many of our publications. Tighter mailing restrictions has two ramifications. One is that they often prevent us from sending our materials to inmates that desire them. The second is that keeping track of the wide variety of restrictions for the thousands of facilities that we send publications to greatly complicates and slows our mail processing.

Resulting Challenges

It is an exaggeration, but it feels like the challenges that are accumulating are legion. They may not be thousands, but they are many. Thankfully this is Jesus' ministry and we are confident he will provide ways for us to share him with people impacted by incarceration according to his will. Our prayer is that part of Jesus' answer will involve a contribution of knowledge or skill from you or someone you know.

The first type of challenge hampers our ability to serve as many inmates as we can. In addition to the ever-increasing impediments to the delivery of our material to inmates, there are others.

  • The cost of postage for some inmates to return a test is not trivial and keeps increasing. The cost for an envelope and a stamp can be $1 to $2; while prison "jobs" often tend to pay less than $1 per hour. Turnaround on pen pal letters or tests can take weeks. Alternatively, tablet usage is relatively less expensive (excluding the initial cost of the tablet itself). Facilities typically charge $0.05 to $0.10 per message exchanged with an approved person outside the facility. Messages can be sent and responded to often in one day. We are not currently equipped to make use of this avenue.

  • Tablet usage provides more choices for ways inmates can fill their time. Prior to tablet use, inmates who found our material in the library or at chapel might enroll just to fill their time. Many of them, moved by the Holy Spirit, would find value and continue in the program. That avenue of enrollment appears to have declined.

    A second type of challenge involves those that present technical obstacles to an effective electronic document distribution and collection system. Here are some examples.

  • Based on the WI DOC system, it appears that devising a way to distribute our self-study courses and enable inmate submissions of tests will be at best more complicated than the USPS system for printed versions. At worst, electronic test submission may be impossible. Theoretically, if our booklets could be made available for download, there is no analogous way for an inmate to return a downloaded test. In the USPS model, the inmate simply removes the test, completes it in writing, and mails it back to us. No such electronic provision exists currently to our knowledge.

  • To enable two-way communication for submission of tests, one possibility would be to use the electronic messaging system rather than a document download. Current electronic message restrictions make delivery of the self-studies problematic. Messages sent via CorrLinks.com are text only, no attachments, with a maximum of 13,000 characters per text (about 2000 words). Studies would have to be divided into segments to fit this limit. Keeping track of where each inmate is within each study to correctly provide the next segment would increase administrative effort immensely. Also, for an inmate to submit a test requires that the inmate type out answers without any "built-in" guidance. The likelihood of skipped questions greatly increases as would subsequent confusion for test correctors.

    A third type of challenge is the introduction of multiple gatekeepers and lack of any universally accepted standards for electronic distribution of self-study courses and collection of tests.

  • We define gatekeepers as individuals or organizations that have the ability and the authority to allow or prevent our delivery of the Gospel to inmates. Initially, when USPS was commonly accepted, there were very few gatekeepers. Over time, wardens or other decision makers at facilities have stepped into this role by controlling if and how mail is accepted. But their extent of authority was limited to an individual institution. To get authorization to make our library of studies available for download would likely require buy-in from either the state DOC, the county department overseeing county jails, or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In addition, these entities in some cases (and perhaps all cases; this needs to be researched) use third-party vendors to implement electronic messaging and tablet content management (such as CorrLinks.com and Jpay.com). It is likely that several additional layers of gatekeepers would be added to the warden or designated authority at each individual institution.

  • One of the frustrating aspects of prison ministry is the parallel to the time of the judges in Israel, that is, everyone does as he sees fit. The variation in postal delivery requirements is but one example. Assuming we could get approvals from the gatekeepers, the technical requirements for creation and maintenance of a document library could have dozens or even hundreds of constantly changing variations for implementation at many facilities.

    The Opportunity

    The challenges seem daunting, but our God is bigger than any challenge. We are relying on him to guide us in the way we should go. The exciting aspect of these developments is the potential to do so much more gospel ministry with existing financial resources. We consider our ministry to be good stewardship. We directly share the gospel through Bible studies with over a thousand individuals every year in a sustained way (multiple gospel touches). We do this at roughly the same cost as the annual support needed for two WELS home mission starts, many of which struggle to involve 100 individuals in Bible study after several years. A large portion of our cost is printing and postage, and we expect some fraction of the ministry to continue using printed books and USPS delivery. But if we develop a viable electronic system, it is conceivable that we could serve many more inmates without a significant increase in cost. Turnaround times for self-study tests (and pen pal letters) could be greatly reduced allowing inmates to accelerate their completion of studies. We would look to the Lord to provide us with the needed increase in test correcting volunteer hours.

    Next Steps

    Our current plan is a combination of research and action. Our intent is to continue to gather information needed to design solutions nationwide, while concurrently setting up a trial or pilot project. As we learn more, the steps may be modified to better fit the situation. The research portion will involve identifying practices of state departments of correction around the country as well as some county jails. One of the key pieces of information is the specific vendor or electronic system the various entities use to provide information to inmates.

    The pilot project will seek to deliver devotions to Wisconsin and Minnesota inmates via their existing email systems. Our goals are to gain helpful knowledge and make helpful contacts through implementing this pilot project. The distributed devotions will also encourage use of the existing self-study courses in print to promote that aspect of ministry for the time being while we seek to develop electronic self-study course capabilities.

    Our Needs

    We are seeking people with one or more helpful characteristics from which we can build a team to meet these challenges and seize the ministry opportunity. We would pray that all who are willing to explore a role on this team would have a servant's heart and an eagerness to serve Jesus and others with their talents. Given the need to accomplish much, if not all, of the effort on a volunteer basis, we would seek to limit time commitments based on a person's availability. Particularly helpful (but not required) qualities include:

  • Contacts with people in the corrections field, including wardens, facility chaplains, inmate program or education personnel, religious affairs personnel, information technology personnel, etc.

  • Contacts within vendor organizations that provide technology services to correctional facilities, such as the companies that provide CorrLinks.com (Advanced Technologies Group, LLC.) and JPay.com (JPay, Inc., a Securus Technologies, Inc. company)

  • Familiarity with or experience using CorrLinks.com, Jpay.com or any similar system to interact with inmates

  • Knowledge or experience in intranet or internet data storage and networking.

  • Knowledge or experience in data library creation or maintenance

  • Knowledge or experience in distance learning tools, especially any that can be configured to operate on a closed network (intranet) rather than using the internet.

    Closing thoughts

    Thank you for giving this presentation your consideration. I'll be eager to receive any insight, suggestions, or questions in the comments. Please recommend this presentation to any colleagues or others you know who may have helpful insights. If you are interested in exploring a role in this effort or would like to recommend someone, please contact me, Dave Hochmuth, at dave.hochmuth@wels.net . Finally, pray for this ministry. Ask the Lord to graciously grant us the human and other resources we need to continue to share Jesus with an ever-increasing number of lost but eagerly listening souls.


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  • Discussion

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    Julia Hodkiewicz (Bethany Lutheran College) 2019-10-23 8:25:05pm
    I had no idea that there was such a complex and hard-working system in place to spread God's Word to those in prison! I think this is amazing work you are doing, and I will keep this ministry in my prayers and spread the word about it as best I can.
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    Dave Hochmuth (WELS Prison Ministry) 2019-10-23 9:07:03pm
    Thank you so much for investing the time to learn about our effort. Thanks even more for the prayers. It is truly amazing to see the Spirit work both faith and fruits of faith in environments that might not seem conducive to it, from a human standpoint. Not only that, but the opportunities for discipleship and outreach help our volunteers grow and be blessed in life-changing ways, too. Finally, thanks also for spreading the word. God knows who he has in mind to help us with our challenges. Your efforts may be that which lead God's answer to our prayers to us.
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    Alexander Heiman ((Martin Luther College)) 2019-10-24 4:55:56pm
    Mr. Hochmith

    The ministry through mailing idea seems unique and ingenious. It is much easier to send mail to a correctional facility than to send a person in to try and talk to them. It is also safer, and I think that this is a great way to spread God’s Word inside prison. I think it is amazing that you can reach so many individuals for the same cost that it would take to start two home churches.

    You showed in the diagram that the Bible self-study classes have a test, and also a certificate at the end. This certificate was mailed to the individual after completion of the test. I was wondering what was the purpose behind this certificate, and also if there are any connections in doing the Bible study and having a pen pal? Does the individual have to do the Bible study to receive a pen pal, or does the pen pal encourage them to take the Bible study?

    Thank you for this eye-opening presentation on prison ministry. God’s Blessings on your ministry.
    -
    Dave Hochmuth (WELS Prison Ministry) 2019-10-28 9:33:53pm
    Thank you Alexander for taking the time to read the presentation. The certificate has a few different benefits. For one, it gives the inmate some positive reinforcement which, in many cases, has been a rare thing. This provides some additional motivation to continue completing the studies and submitting the tests, even when the the cost to mail the tests can be high for them. The inmates also use the certificates as evidence for the parole board that they are taking steps to make changes in their lives. Granted, some may be submitting tests purely for the earthly benefit of making a good impression at a parole hearing. But they are still being exposed to God's Word and we pray that even if the motivation is not pure, the Spirit may use the seeds of God's Word that we have planted to grow true faith at some point. Also, there is no connection per se between submitting tests and having a pen pal. An inmate can do either or both. We encourage our pen pals to encourage the inmates to strive to grow closer to Jesus using whatever means are available to them, including reading the Bible, doing our studies, attending worship or Bible classes, if present.
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    Jack Heichelbech (MLC) 2019-10-24 5:43:42pm
    Mr. Hocmuth

    I’ve always been curious about WELS Prison Ministry. Thank you for sharing so much information about it! I had no idea all the volunteer efforts that go into making it all happen. I think it’s incredible how God’s word can reach all places. The impact it has on the inmates is something that should be cherished and used as aa motivator. I am inspired just by reading the two messages.

    I am curious, do inmates prefer written paper tests and penpals? For me personally, logistics aside, I feel like I would much more enjoy receiving actual physical mail to hold on to and keep as motivation and reminders, especially from a penpal. In your experience, would you say that the physical mail is more meaningful to inmates? But I see flaws in your presentation with the mailing process. I wonder, is it possible to start the process over email or in some digital format to use as an outreach tool and then ask the inmates if they’d prefer actual mail? I understand the limitations of both technology and the old fashioned way, but I would think the inmate interested in learning would know his institution’s policies on incoming and sending mail, as well as their policies with technology. This way, an inmate could use the way he prefers to learn (mail or technology) and maybe he could explain how to send things into his institution that abide by the policies. Maybe we could use both technology and mail to work around the existing problems.

    I’m very excited to see the work of WELS Prison Ministry continue to reach and save souls! God’s Blessings, Jack Heichelbech.
    -
    Dave Hochmuth (WELS Prison Ministry) 2019-10-28 10:06:17pm
    I'm glad I was able to satisfy some of your curiosity, Jack. I think it is safe to say that, just like in the general population, there is a spectrum of preferences among inmates. There are some that do not have access to a tablet, for cost or other reasons, so hand-written communication is what is available and is deeply appreciated. There are some generational factors. Younger inmates comfortable with electronic communication find that more natural. Some of the inmates serving long terms went to prison long before smart phones, Facebook, Instagram, and the like, so electronic communication is a little more unknown to them. But the much reduced response time of electronic messages versus written letters is a huge advantage that even older inmates recognize. I suppose there could be some comfort in seeing familiar handwriting, but I have never really asked about that. (One interesting side note is that an inmate responded to one of our pen pals asking that she not write in cursive. He couldn't read her first letter and he had to find someone to read it to him.) We do envision a hybrid approach in the future where we can offer either physical or electronic distribution of our studies and collection of the tests. But there are complicating factors. For instance, at the present an inmate can only send to addresses in his contact list, each of which has to be individually approved by the correction facility. So an inmate can't request anything from us until both he (or she) and we are approved by the facility to communicate with each other. Also, in my experience, inmates know the requirements for sending mail out, but don't always know the requirements for people sending mail in to them. We pray Jesus' guides us through this maze of choices. I'm glad the ministry excites you and ask that you prayerfully consider how you might be part of the answer to our prayers.
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    Jack Heichelbech (MLC) 2019-11-07 6:16:39pm
    Thank you for your response. I see the struggle with outreach to prisoners. What a great opportunity to share the gospel with them, and I'm confident God will help you and everyone else involved in that endeavor! There are a lot of barriers, and a lot of them are barriers that aren't common to all prisons and prisoners. It may feel like a daunting task but I hope you stay positive about it and I'll be praying for you and others involved in Prison Ministry. I hope we can find a way that is efficient, personal and engaging for the inmates to grow in their faith! Thanks again for helping me understand Prison ministry and it's need for resources and ideas, and thanks for the insight into how it all works.
    -
    Micah Otto (MLC) 2019-10-24 5:49:01pm

    David Hochmuth,

    Thank you so much for sharing your function in ministry today. For people that may be so lost and hopeless, it is great to hear about the opportunity we have to give them that hope of Jesus! My favorite part about this ministry are the efforts to continually bring the inmates that personal connection with a pen pal or whoever it may be. The personal connections reflect on the personal connection Christ has with us, therefore they are ultimately able to see Christ through us! I love that.

    This article did a great job in raising my awareness about WELS PM. I would certainly love to be involved in PM and show Chirst love to someone in need of it. One question I have is how often do pen pals typically write back and forth? Is it more every week or every month or whatever, I would be interested to know.

    Thank you for spreading the awareness of PM in your presentation. God’s Blessings!
    -
    Abby Olson (Bethany Lutheran College) 2019-10-26 3:34:06am
    I thought this was a really interesting article to read about the prison system ad how they want to spread the Bible around. These people may think they are losing hope while in prison but with your help, they are learning to have hope again. I really liked reading that God is bigger than any challenge because in prison there are different challenges they are going through but God is bigger than all of them.
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    Emily Kjeer (Bethany Lutheran College) 2019-11-01 4:13:32pm
    This was fascinating to read and learn about the different challenges of continuing this ministry. A few years ago, I attended an LCMS church regularly that was led by a pastor who also served as a chaplain for prisons nearby, and it was always something that struck me as overlooked but so necessary and valuable.
    Unfortunately, I have very little knowledge or experience to directly contribute. I can, of course, offer my assistance in attempting to help others hear of this ministry.
    I am curious about the purpose of the test aspect of the current system, and why obtaining a certificate is important. It seemed to me while reading through the various challenges that several challenges were unique to the test part of the Bible studies, i.e. the challenge of "devising a way to distribute our self-study courses and enable inmate submissions of tests will be at best more complicated than the USPS system for printed versions" focuses on maintaining the ability for inmates to submit tests and receive the corrected ones back. I don't doubt that there are good reasons for this system, but I am curious what they are. Merely providing Bible study materials for inmates would seemingly be easier, given the presence of the Project Guttenberg already being accessible by inmates. I would enjoy learning what the purpose is behind taking the tests/receiving certificates of completion, as opposed to something like offering the materials and then continuing a pen pal option so that inmates can ask questions and still be guided somewhat through their studies.
    Thank you!
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    Hunter Ahlness (Bethany Lutheran College) 2019-11-04 5:31:39am
    Mr. Hochmuth,
    I want to begin by saying that I clicked on your article solely because I saw the words prison and ministry in the same headline and was intrigued. I was completely unaware of any form of ministry or the gospel in prison. In fact, I was just listening to a podcast that mentioned the lack of Bibles in prison. I am so impressed and in awe of the work you and your peers have done to help bring the Lord's word to the incarcerated. When I began reading the article, I immediately thought to improve the system by moving more toward and electronic approach and I thought that, you mentioned that exact thing in your article. I can see how the use of tablets and email can be dicey in prison and there are many constrictions. I did think about possibly creating a Bible self-study app, where people like yourself and others who are working to bring the Lord's word to the incarcerated can have a ready-made program available for download on a tablet or electronic device that is available to prisoners. The app would have to be approved by the prison, of course, but an app would allow the tests to be already available and graded right away. I am sure you have already thought of an app and the negatives may outweigh the positives, but just a thought. Thank you for writing such an informative and compelling article. I will keep brainstorming and looking into ways to improve this system.
    Sincerely,
    Hunter Ahlness
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    Kristin Grassell ((BLC)) 2019-11-05 5:00:53am
    I found your presentation rather intriguing. I knew that WELS had Prison Ministry who personally met with various inmates, but I had no idea that this whole system existed on top of it. I think that what you are doing is amazing and I will be praying for you and your continued success. This system of actively involving the inmates not only distracts them from the time they have to serve, but more importantly brings many into God's eternal family. I unfortunately cannot offer much more help than continued prayers and spreading awareness. One question I have that comes to mind is how are the pen pals chosen if an inmate wishes to have one? Are they writing a WELS member or pastor or someone different? Also, if there are multiple inmates within a single prison taking the same course, are they able to meet with each other? I am unaware of the rules and regulations within prisons, but I would appreciate understanding if that is a possibility for them. Thank you!
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