For most Americans, prisoners and their families are an example of "out of sight, out of mind." But every once in a while you come across a story that forces you to look.
One such story recently ran in USA Today. It told the story of three brothers: James, Frank, and Sonny Caston. Each of them is serving a life sentence in Louisiana's Angola prison.
The Castons grew up in what the paper calls, "tiny Lake Providence, Louisiana." They were raised by a father who idolized the outlaw Jesse James so much that he named his two oldest sons after the James brothers.
While names alone are not destiny, in this case, family breakup and a childhood characterized by abuse and neglect did not help the Caston boys stay on the straight and narrow. So, by their early teens, their neighbors called them the "James gang."
Like their father's hero, the Caston boys "graduated" from property crime to murder. By the time they were 22 and 21, respectively, Frank and Sonny were serving a life sentence for the murder of a sheriff's deputy. Jesse eventually made it three-for-three after confessing to murdering his wife and her best friend.
While the Castons are an "extreme" case, in the sense of their shared violence, their story of crime running in families is not unusual. Researchers have long known that a disproportionate percentage of crime is committed by a very small percentage of the population. By some estimates, 6 percent of the population is responsible for more than 50 percent of all offenses.
What most of these offenders share are broken and/or, as in the Caston's case, dysfunctional families. They lack examples of what it means to be the kind of man who loves his children, supports his family, and teaches his kids right from wrong. Fatherlessness makes young men anywhere from two to four times more likely to be incarcerated.
What is more, the data also shows that many of these offenders come from families with criminal histories. A Boston study of one neighborhood found "one family whose contacts with the local criminal justice system spanned five generations." Virtually every male example in their life was a bad one.
Without timely intervention by people committed to breaking this cycle, the tragedies will only perpetuate themselves. One generation will give rise to the next and the next.
Breaking that cycle is the mission of Prison Fellowship. It is why our ministry is to both prisoners and their families, because when you reach an inmate with the Gospel, that impact goes far beyond one person's life. It changes a family and even an entire community. A transformed man or woman goes from perpetuating this cycle of crime to breaking it.
When Angel Tree volunteers minister to the children of offenders, they are working to break the cycle. When we champion initiatives that support the family of prisoners and healthy family reconciliation, we are working to break the cycle.
And when you hear about this issue, today, on "BreakPoint," we are working to break it together, because without the support of followers of Jesus, the cycle continues. And we cannot plead "out of sight, out of mind" when the Lord Himself asks us about it—and He will.
This commentary first aired on February 15, 2008.