A Prison Transformed by the Presence and Power of God
Olmos Prison, La Plata, Argentina
Olmos Prison: Then and Now
Olmos Prison near the city of La Plata, Argentina, is a maximum security lock-up holding 3,000 of the country’s most dangerous criminals. In the mid 1980’s it was a place notorious for violent riots and murders, a hellish place dominated by evil where ritual sacrifices were regularly offered to satan. Today it is a place where the presence and power of God have established what is probably the largest prison church in the world…a place where you can hear both guards and inmates loudly praising the Lord…a place where over 1,500 prisoners celebrate their new freedom in Christ and are actually changing the prison system of the nation.
A Little Background
I first visited Olmos in July of 2000 and later, made two more stops there in the fall of 2003 and 2004, all under the auspices of Harvest Evangelism and their bi-annual international conference on prayer evangelism. The background for these twice-yearly events is the Argentine revival. Beginning with the tent meetings of Carlos Annacondia in the mid 1980’s, this great outpouring continues today and is probably the longest running revival in modern history. According to Ed Silvoso, founder and president of Harvest Evangelism, “The nation of Argentina has seen a 2,000 percent growth of born again Christians…there are cities where it is difficult for sinners to go to hell because the Church has learned to pastor entire cities.”
I came to Argentina the first time because my friend and mentor, Ted Hahs (Director and Intercessor for Harvest Evangelism), once told me, "If you're going to pray for revival you need to have your vision lifted...you need to come to Argentina with us." So I came...along with approximately 100 other people from around the world...to see what God was doing in this South American nation. Ted told me the Olmos story before I made the trip and I looked forward to the day when all of us would actually visit the place. ...Even so, I was unprepared for what happened when we got there.
The Worship Service at Olmos
Pastor Juan Zuccarelli, the man who's ministry started the Olmos transformation accompanied us. We were allowed inside the gates and led to a reception area where we checked our belongings, passports, etc, and were searched. Then, single file, we were taken across a courtyard to a large empty warehouse-like building with no furniture that served as a church. Inmates waved to us from their cell blocks as we walked. The warehouse-like church was filled with prisoners... over 700 men, almost all of them young. We were told this was only half the church and that the other 700 or 800 men would be in later for a second service. Benches were reserved for us and there was a podium from which the services were led.
The worship service was non-stop and loud...almost deafning...and lasted most of an hour. Imagine 700 men in an enclosed space singing, even shouting, their praise to Jesus. The video attched to this hub will give you some idea of how it sounded.
Next there were testimonies. I remember one vividly, told by a young man convicted of multiple murders. He told of how he and the others understood satan and his evil ways...how they had been nearly destroyed by him through drugs, abuse, violence and anger and of how...even though confined to a maximum security prison...Jesus had saved them, healed them and set them free in their spirit. Their worship was a celebraton of their freedom!
Finally there was a time of ministry where the prisoners prayed for the visitors! We were gathered into groups of about 10 persons each and, one group at a time, we were permitted to stand about 5 feet in front of the prisoners while they prayed for us. No touching was allowed. The power of God fell so powerfully that several of us had to be helped back to the bus after the service. There was one young man who had to be carried back to the bus and who remained unconscious for almost 12 hours thereafter. (This young man was later to have a powerful ministry in California and I believe the impartation he received at Olmos Prison was somehow key to his anointing).
"Christ Our Only Hope" Prison
The recidivism rate for Christian prisoners released from Olmos is only about 5% as compared to over 40% for the rest of the prison population. This did not escape the notice of the provincial government who knew a good thing when they saw it and who began to transfer groups of 20 Christian prisoners each to other prisons around the country. As a result, prison churches began springing up all over Argentina and today there are churches in every one of Argentina's 40 prisons. The prison system of the entire nation is being transformed!
Before my last visit to Argentina in 2004, the government asked Pastor Zuccarelli if he would take charge of a prison staffed and populated completely by Christians. Everyone from the warden to the guards to the prisoners themselves were to be Christians. I understand that when the Governor made this proposal to Pastor Zuccarelli he asked Juan what he wanted to name it. Juan couldn't think of a name so the Governor asked, "What is the name of your church?" Juan said, "Christ Our Only Hope."
"That's it!" said the Governor. "Christ Our Only Hope Prison!" And so it was named.
I was priviledged to visit Christ Our Only Hope Prison in the fall of 2004. While there, I learned several facts about the daily routine that will be of interest. For example, in most prisons, the inmates are often hungry because corrupt staff sell the prisoner's food to make money on the side. Not here. Here, the prisoners have enough to eat. And since they have no money for the Lord's tithe, they tithe their food. This food goes to feed the homeless of La Plata.
While the inmates are not locked in their cells and are free to move about, they are required to follow strict daily routines that train them in the Lord's discipline. Each day starts at 6:00 am with worship and praise. After that it's prayer time and then breakfast followed by work. The afternoons are devoted to fellowship, bible studies, more prayer and generous visiting hours. In the evenings there is church.
How did all this come about?
Juan Zuccarelli is a humble man of great faith and vision. If you asked him how the revival happened at Olmos I am pretty sure he would say, "God did it," and he would be right. However, there are 5 biblical principles which are pivotal and which Juan applied at Olmos. These principles are documented in a DVD titled "Transformation in the Marketplace with Ed Silvoso, Extended DVD with “How to,” released April 2006. This DVD can be downloaded for free from the Harvest Evangelism website.
The 5 biblical principles are:
1. Planting a church in the prison rather than having a prison ministry.
2. Criminals can be radically transformed.
3. Inmates must be equipped to become providers and protectors for their families that are outside the prison.
4. Giving inmates a vision beyond the four walls of the prison.
5. Understanding that salvation can come not only to inmates but to a prison and the prison system itself.
For a more detailed history of Olmos prison and God's transformation of Argentina's prison system, please read Michelle Minnaar's history below (link attached).
Transformation at Olmos Prison by Michelle Minnaar
A history of the Olmos Prison revival