When people think of prisoners and convicts, there is often the feeling of judgment and negativity. It is the last place that anyone thinks they would find hope, let alone people yearning for it. But Minister Russell Isler has used prisons as a mission field, answering the call.
Russell Isler has been a minister for close to 30 years and most of that time has been spent helping in jails in Montgomery County. Originally from Western New York, he started volunteering, as a teen, at a local prison after someone needed help with a religion class there. The way prisoners would respond to the Gospel sparked Isler’s interest. “I would see classmates and friends end up there which kind of became the icing on the cake,” said Isler. He started doing training and took some classes and became an affiliated chaplain at Good News Jail and Prison Ministry — the largest independent supplier of chaplains for jails and prisons worldwide. Isler then became the first chaplain at the Niagara County Jail, where he worked until 1987.
Because of Isler’s breakthrough and ministry while he was leading in New York, in 1989 he and his family moved down to Montgomery County, to take on a different position at a new jail. “Everything was working well in New York,” said Isler, who has lived in Germantown since 1999. “I fulfilled my mandate. I needed a new challenge; a greater responsibility.” And a greater responsibility he got.
He’s been ministering at both the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, near Clarksburg, which has a capacity of 1,028, and the county’s Detention Center on Seven Locks Road in Rockville, with a capacity of 200.
In his career, Isler has seen many types of people, has heard many stories, and has witnessed many miracles. One time he was working with a particular young man without a strong family structure, but then the man started listening and being receptive to what Isler was saying, soon enough, he was out of prison, with a wife and children, running his own business and getting his life together. “Seeing the light finally come up,” said Isler. “Seeing them live a positive life is very encouraging. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s great.”
Isler’s work is very evident in the lives that he touches but does not go unnoticed in the eyes of others either. On June 14, Isler was awarded the highest honor that the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry organization hands out, the Bill Simmer Award. Named after the founder of Good News Jail and Prison Ministry himself, it is given to a minister who stays the course and leads an effective career. “It did come as a surprise, but I was humbled to receive it,” said Isler. Summers, who was close friends with Isler, challenged him to get it as the first African-American male in this line of work, and Isler rose to that challenge.
Prisons and jails aren’t the only places Isler ministers to. When his son and daughter attended Northwest High School in the early 2000’s, their friends and classmates benefitted from Isler’s guidance as well. “I’ve always been an advocate of parents being involved,” said Isler. “The principal at the time would allow me to come in and talk to troubled teens.” It gave him an avenue to try and talk to those children before they were behind bars. His son, Sean Isler was more than appreciative of his father’s role in his classmates’ lives. “Many students would talk to him about their personal trials and tell him about their college outlook,” Sean said. “He never had a formal title, but he had an open heart.”
Currently, Isler continues to work and serve as the chaplain at the Montgomery County Detention Center and is a full-time pastor at Montgomery Baptist Church. Isler just wants one thing out of his work: that people’s lives be changed because of God and their lives be turned around for the better. He wants to instill the hope that his ministry has shown and wants those affected by it know that he did it out of love. “I’m just somebody who cared enough to help.”
Top: Rev. Russell Isler with the plaque he received as the recipient of the Bill Simmer Award from Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. Photo courtesy Russell Isler.
Next: The Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, where Rev. Isler works with prisoners. Photo by Germantown Pulse.