Prisoners, Culture, and the Gospel

One in Thirty-Two
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If you’ve ever had the opportunity, as I have, to attend the annual convention of the American Correctional Association you will notice that there are vendors everywhere.

And why not? Corrections is definitely a growth industry. Sadly, according to the Department of Justice, one in every thirty-two American adults is under some kind of correctional supervision: either behind bars or on probation or parole.

While some see this as a chance to make a buck, here at Prison Fellowship we see it as challenge to the Church.

One in thirty-two American adults translates to more than seven million people: approximately 2.2 million in prison and jail; 780,000 on parole; and more than 4 million on probation. To put these numbers in some perspective, 7 million is more than the population of all but twelve of the states!

As I said, this means plenty of opportunities for companies that sell goods and services to corrections departments. But it also means that the work and vision of Prison Fellowship is more vital than ever.

Looking at these numbers, I see at least three opportunities for Prison Fellowship and the Church to bring a Christian perspective to bear on the problem. The most obvious one is in ministering to prisoners and their families. If ever a problem cried out for the transforming power of the Gospel, it’s the situation in our prisons.

A recent study by Keith Chen of Yale and Jessie Shapiro of the University of Chicago confirms what everyone who has ever gone into prisons knows: Conditions in our prisons harden inmates and “substantially” increase the likelihood of recidivism after release.

Chen and Shapiro acknowledge that there may be no practical way to make prison conditions “less harsh or restrictive.” That’s why reaching prisoners with the transformational power of the Gospel is so important: It gives them the hope and power they need to overcome the forces working against their success outside of prison.

Another opportunity lies in the need for promoting restorative justice and meaningful reforms. The fastest-growing segment of the prison population is women. And as Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project has pointed out, most of this increase is due to the way we deal with nonviolent drug offenders. There are better ways to deal with these kinds of offenders besides throwing them into prison.

Then there’s the inescapable fact that crime, and its consequences, are at heart a moral and cultural problem. That’s why Chuck Colson launched BreakPoint fifteen years ago: He saw how an increasingly postmodern and secular culture contributed to soaring American prison populations.

Just as an example, look at the breakdown of the family in this country. The shift in attitudes toward the family has worked its way down to every community in America, with disastrous results. With fatherhood too often abandoned, delinquency rates have skyrocketed, and spending time in prison too often has become a rite of passage.

What I want you to do is pray: Pray for Prison Fellowship, and pray about how you and your church can be part of the response to this challenge. The opportunity is there; are you?


From BreakPoint®, December 20, 2006, Copyright 2006, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. “BreakPoint®” and “Prison Fellowship Ministries®” are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.