Thirty-three years ago, after serving seven months for my role in the Watergate scandal, I walked out of prison a free man. Not entirely free however, because I just could not get out of my mind the men I had met in prison—the hundreds of thousands like them in prisons across the country.
So, in 1977, with the agreement and great support of my wife, Patty, and some dear Christian friends, I started Prison Fellowship. Little could I have imagined back then that Prison Fellowship would one day be the largest Christian outreach to prisoners in the world.
During those early years of the ministry, we identified potential Christian leaders among inmates, we took them out of prison on furlough, discipled them, and put them back in the prisons to lead the church. Soon, we began holding discipleship seminars in the prisons. And it seemed like the ministry caught fire: We were getting more volunteers; our staff grew; we held more and more seminars in more and more prisons, reaching more and more prisoners.
But there was one problem. States were building new prisons faster than we could get to them! The nation’s prison population was exploding—and still is, now decades later.
Why? Why was the United States a virtual Petri dish for growing criminals?
It was not until I read the landmark 1977 study called The Criminal Personality that I was able to begin to fully appreciate what was going on. The study’s authors, psychologist Samenow and psychiatrist Yochelson, rebutted the conventional wisdom that crime was caused by environment—like poverty and racism. It was caused, they said, not by that, but by individuals making wrong moral choices. So the solution to crime, they said, was “the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle.”
Then it hit me. Our entire penal system was seeking an institutional solution to a moral problem.
My thinking was only confirmed by Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson at Harvard, who in their 1987 book, Crime and Human Nature, determined that crime is caused by the lack of moral training in the morally formative years.
Yet our nation’s entire approach to crime and criminal justice minimizes the moral dimension to the crime problem!
For years, people on the left have insisted that poverty and oppression are the chief causes of crime and that more and better-funded social programs are the answer. On the right, a lack of “toughness” was the problem. What was needed were more and longer prison sentences, both as a deterrent and to get criminals off the streets.
The result is a corrections system in crisis. Most systems are operating above safe capacity, despite the prison-building boom of the past two decades. Of the 2.3 million in prison, an estimated 700,000 will be released from prison this year unprepared for life on the outside. Two-thirds of them will be rearrested within the next three years.
That is why, this week, Mark Earley and I will be detailing this crisis and, more importantly, explaining what Christians can and are doing about it. Stay tuned, because together we can provide a moral solution to a moral crisis. And we can turn our prisons into a yet another symbol: a symbol of the hope Christianity makes possible.
This commentary is part one of a four-part series. It first aired on March 31, 2008.