Rev. Harold Ellis, founder of JAIL Ministry, Inc.

When outsiders think of Rho Sigma, ministry is not something that usually comes to mind. However, the Fraternity has long been associated with religious activities, and many Red Shirts have gone on to make their mark in them. Rev. Harold Ellis, a 1963 Initiate who founded the J.A.I.L. (Jesus Acts in Inmates’ Lives) Ministry in Texas’ Bell County is a perfect example.

Ellis, described in a Temple Daily Telegram article as a “charismatic, get-things-done community leader and servant of the Lord,” died on August 15, 2002 after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 59.

Born in Little Rock, Ark., Ellis was raised in Pine Bluff, Ark., graduating from Pine Bluff High School in 1960 and then enrolling at what was then Ouachita Baptist College. At Ouachita, Ellis was a varsity swimmer and played on Rho Sigma's champion intramural football teams. He was initiated into Rho Sigma in Spring 1963.

He began his prison work in 1981 with the Bill Glass Prison Ministry. The idea behind this and similar ministries is that an inmate is not helped as much in jail or prison if he just learns a trade. Spiritual change is also necessary.

“If we don’t have a change of heart, all we’re teaching a guy to do is weld,” Ellis said in a 1999 interview. “He’ll get out, rob a bank, and weld it back up for you. All you’re getting is a smarter criminal.”

Ellis, his wife Sharon and their two children moved to Belton, Texas in 1984. According to Belton chiropractor Larry Montgomery, a family friend, the decision was made in a unique way.

“He and Sharon were out driving one day,” he said. “They came to an intersection. They stopped there and prayed. They drove to Belton and moved their family here.”

In 1985, Harold Ellis founded the Bell County JAIL Ministry. JAIL is an acronym for “Jesus Acts in Inmates’ Lives.” Ellis and eight volunteers operated from a small office on Central Avenue in Belton.

“It took a couple of years to catch on, as most new programs do,” remembered Maj. Bob Patterson, former administrator for the county jail. “There was Harold and a handful of volunteers. After that it just exploded. We now have 400 to 500 volunteers that go into the jails. To build a program like that from scratch is just great.”

The mission of JAIL Ministry, Inc., according to the website, is “to bring restoration through Jesus Christ to the lives of inmates, juvenile offenders, victims, law enforcement professionals, and affected families, thereby having a positive influence on our society. Changed hearts mean changed lives.”

JAIL contacts include professions of faith, baptisms, rededications, Bible studies, church services, distributions of Bibles and other Christian books, Bible correspondence courses, prayer requests, volunteer visits, anger resolution, recovery classes, and Project Angel Tree gifts to children of inmates.

This was the vision of Harold Ellis. There was a cross on his desk, made from steel prison bars mounted on a wooden block. Inscribed on the horizontal beam was a quotation from the Book of Matthew: “I was in prison, and you visited me.” This simple message summarized his mission.

No one knows for sure how many inmates Ellis ministered.

“You’re talking tens of thousands,” Patterson said. “He was working in the Texas Department of Corrections for years prior to coming to us.”

The JAIL Ministry also operates a critical incident response team and provides spiritual counseling for law enforcement officers. During the Christmas season, JAIL sponsors Project Angel Tree, bringing toys and clothing to children who have a parent in prison. Currently, the JAIL Ministry involves over 300 volunteers and more than 40 area churches.

Ellis was honored many times during his career. He served as chairman of the Texas Baptist Men’s Criminal Justice Committee from 1991-1993, was the 1998 recipient of the “Hope in Our Hearts” award by then-governor of Texas George W. Bush, received the Sheriff’s Association of Texas Presidents Award in 1999, and was honored by Bell County with “Harold Ellis Day” on October 23, 2001. In June 2002, the National Sheriff’s Association named him Chaplain of the Year.

Ellis, an ordained minister, was a deacon at First Baptist Church of Belton, Texas. He was a member of the National Sheriff’s Association, serving on its Chaplains’ Steering Committee. He was also a member of the Texas Jail Association, Belton Ministries Fellowship, and coordinator of the Bell County Critical Incident Team.

Harold Ellis was survived by his wife Sharon Ritchson Ellis, whom he married September 23, 1967; one son, Barton Ellis of Temple, Texas; one daughter, Michelle Kimery of Plano, Texas; one sister, Cheryle Fox of Pine Bluff, Ark.; and two grandchildren.