Married Behind Bars

A woman I'll call Brenda was stunned by the words coming down the telephone line. "Honey, I've been arrested," her husband told her. "I can't talk now." Brenda hung up the phone in shock. Over the coming months, she would painfully discover that her husband Kevin had lied to her--that there were whole areas of his life she never knew existed. And working out their difficulties wasn't easy--not with Kevin locked up in a prison camp five hours' drive away. Brenda was also abruptly forced to support their three children on her own. Is it any wonder that 85 percent of marriages break up when a spouse is incarcerated? The inmate--usually the husband--feels guilty and helpless. The one left behind--usually the wife--is shocked and hurt. But Brenda and Kevin were among the lucky few. Kevin's despair drove him to seek out a prison Bible study, and he accepted Christ. Eventually Brenda joined him in his new faith. The couple credit their new spiritual perspective with giving them the resources to keep their marriage together. Marriage is one of the little-remarked casualties of crime. Men who break the law have already broken their tie to the community at a fundamental level. But after their conviction, they're likely to lose the most important bond of all: to their wife and children. Of the few couples who do stick it out, 80 percent split up within a year after the spouse is released. The long separation has made the couple strangers to one another. These men often become isolated and rootless, at odds with society. Thus is born the cycle of crime, with roughly 75 percent of violent crimes today committed by repeat offenders. In light of these statistics, marriage counseling behind bars takes on a surprising significance: It not only helps marriages stay together, it also helps men turn from a life of crime. In Prison Fellowship's marriage seminars, men are encouraged to apologize to their wives and to continue their responsibilities to those at home--even though they now live in a cell. Wives are given a supportive environment to express their grief and loss. And they're encouraged to give their husbands a second chance. We can no longer pretend that the breakdown of marriage is a purely private tragedy, with only private consequences. As Tucker Carlson writes in Policy Review, "Wives and children are the great civilizers of men. More than law, police, jail, or fear of death, having a family induces men to become good citizens." This link between family structure and crime helps us to see that God's moral codes aren't just an arbitrary set of rules. If we obey this moral code--even when it's hard, as it is with prison marriages--we begin to see the power of the social structures God created for us to live by: They help maintain the social order. It's evidence that marriage has public benefits and deserves public support through laws that make divorce tougher. Otherwise, the public will surely pay the price.


Chuck Colson


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