On the weekend of Oct. 21-23, Lemuel Vega brought the outreach ministry Christmas Behind Bars to the 2,580 offenders housed at Putnamville.
Some 3,000 grocery-sized bags filled with hygiene items (soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc.) and snacks (cookies, pretzels, etc.) were distributed to inmates. And all they had to do was walk to the chapel to receive the free gift.
Vega, originator of the outreach ministry, is a former offender himself. He was involved in the selling and using of illegal drugs. Arrested and facing a prison sentence of 10-20 years, the offender-turned-evangelist tells the story of how people came to visit him in lock-up.
While Vega felt he had lost all his friends, it was strangers who showed him they cared by singing Christmas carols. Then, when he was transferred to Pendleton Correctional Facility, others visiting brought bags of peanuts and shared the Gospel.
Through such acts of kindness, Vega believes God changed him.
"I believe the power of God came into my life," he said.
Over the next 14 years of his incarceration, Vega prayed that God would use him. And Christmas Behind Bars is the ministry that was born out of that prayer.
In 1984, Vega was released from incarceration and in the years following, he and his wife Donna began this volunteer non-profit organization that brings gifts and ministers to men and women in county jails and prisons in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Arkansas, North Carolina and Minnesota.
Thousands of volunteers and believers in this work contribute everything from food, to trucks and diesel fuel, to countless hours of self-less effort.
And what is the message?
"It is the message of hope," Vega says. "That the path to true freedom for all people is only found in and through Jesus Christ."
For this one-time prisoner-turned-evangelist and thousands of incarcerated individuals, Christmas bells ring all through the year.
"Many offenders who no longer have family ties and/or maintained relationships with friends count on the selflessness of others," PCF Supt. Stanley Knight said. "This is an annual event that many offenders look forward to because it is the only semblance of holiday spirit that they will share."