Fixing a Broken System

A lot has changed since Prison Fellowship first started going into prisons. The population behind bars has gone from approximately 250,000 to 2.1 million, an eight-fold increase. And it isn't only quantity; the "quality" of the men behind bars has also changed: Inmates are younger and harder, a hardness that the brutality of prison life only makes worse. This "hardness" makes one unchanged fact about prisons and prisoners all the more frightening: the recidivism rate. Today, as in the 1970s, approximately two-thirds of all men released from prison will be rearrested for a serious crime within three years. That means that the need for Prison Fellowship is greater than it has ever been. Earlier this month, a report by the Re-Entry Policy Council highlighted the urgency of re-thinking our efforts at rehabilitating prisoners. According to the report, "the vast majority of offenders . . . aren't receiving the help they need before their release from prison . . . " Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzalez acknowledged this at his confirmation hearings. He told senators that "we have an obligation to provide some kind of support structure, to provide some kind of training to people that are coming out of prison . . . " Even it weren't, as Gonzalez said, "the right thing to do," it would still be in our self-interest. According to the report, nearly 70 percent of the 650 thousand prisoners released this year "will commit new crimes within three years." That's over 450,000 new crimes. The combination of high cost and failure to protect public safety is why Senator Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas calls our corrections system "broken." As with welfare ten years ago, we need to "reinvent," not just tinker with, the way we do corrections. The reinvention Brownback speaks of is on display in his home state. The Wall Street Journal calls a pilot project in Shawnee County, Kansas, a "possible model." This project "[identifies] inmates a year prior to release . . . focuses on where [they] will live," and helps them with both work skills and finding work. According to Roger Werholtz, Kansas's Secretary of Corrections, there's "anecdotal evidence" suggesting that the two-year-old program is already having an effect on recidivism. If this sounds familiar to regular "BreakPoint" listeners and readers, that's because the program referred to in the Wall Street Journal is Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative. As in Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota, the Kansas project and Christian discipleship hold out the promise of closing the revolving door at the entrances to our prisons. What's more, the evidence for this is more than anecdotal: A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study found that recidivism for graduates of our Texas program was 8 percent, compared to 20 percent for a matched group and 67 percent nationally. What a witness for the Gospel! We know what's needed to help fix our broken system: taking these inmates, introducing them to Christ, as we're doing in the prisons, and then discipling them when they get back out into society through the Church. This is once when Congress should put partisanship aside and not listen to the ACLU and other naysayers, but start helping the people of faith do what we do best.


Chuck Colson


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