It no longer costs taxpayers $23,000 a year to house, feed, and incarcerate Eddie McNeil. Instead, he pays taxes. His wife, Connie, does not need welfare support—as do many women who divorce their imprisoned husbands. No, she is happily married to Eddie. Eddie's children, rather than becoming embittered and engaging in high-risk behavior or becoming foster children, are instead reconciled to their dad and doing well in school.
This barely describes some of the benefits the state of Texas has reaped by working with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative®, or IFI. Launched 10 years ago by Prison Fellowship, IFI is an intensive faith-based program that has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism among those who participate.
And it was IFI that teamed up with Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® program to help heal and unite a family brought to its knees by crime and incarceration.
Years ago, Eddie had made a mess of his business. He ended up in prison with a three-year sentence. During this time, his family nearly unraveled. Financial losses mounted as Eddie, the family bread-winner, sat behind bars. Connie's cancer returned. She lost her job and home.
Connie and the children were on the verge of living on the street. Then Eddie signed his kids up to receive Christmas gifts through Angel Tree—gifts bought and delivered by church volunteers. To Connie, "it was a signal in the darkness that Eddie still loved her" and the kids.
And Eddie, after three years of searching for God, transferred to the IFI program to prepare for his eventual release—a daunting task for any prisoner. Intensive life-skills instruction, counseling, work assignments, and mentoring laid the groundwork for Eddie's return to freedom. But while Eddie was pulling his life together, Connie's was disintegrating. She wanted a divorce.
But Prison Fellowship volunteer Tony Menchu stepped into the breach. He began taking Connie and the kids to his church. Then an IFI counselor found Rob and Sarah Woodward, who opened their home to Connie and the kids for seven months—until the church helped them into a home of their own.
Eddie completed the IFI program and walked into freedom and into the arms of his family with the guidance of a mentor—with whom he continues to meet with to this day; and he has been out of prison for three years.
This week, Chuck Colson and I have talked about many urgently needed criminal justice reforms. But no program, no reform, can match the transforming power of Jesus. Eddie's story is a perfect example.
There is no doubting it. Christians—motivated by the love of Jesus—can have an enormous, an eternal impact on the lives of prisoners and their families.
Thanks for reading The Christian Post this week. I hope we have given you some fresh ideas about how we can address the crisis in America's prisons.
Is God calling you to be a force for good? Either in the life of a prisoner, a prisoner's child, or as an advocate for biblically based justice reforms? Visit our websites, prisonfellowship.org and justicefellowship.org to see how, with God, you can make a difference.
This commentary is part four in a four-part series. It first aired on April 3, 2008.