How faith can curb recidivism
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In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25 verses 36-40, Jesus tells his followers, “I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

These words, probably more so than any others, have helped define how conservatives, and those from the faith community, view the nation’s incarcerated.

Judeo-Christian values balance personal responsibility with forgiveness and mercy. And the words of Christ, taken as a mandate for action, drive the faith community to engage.

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The plight of the imprisoned is very well known to the faith community. Every one of the apostles was jailed at some point, the apostle Paul being most prominent. But even before Paul, the Old Testament story of Joseph highlights the unique perspective God’s children have toward the imprisoned. Joseph was sold into slavery, unfairly accused and thrown in an Egyptian prison. Yet in spite of this, Genesis 40 tells the beautiful story of Joseph’s compassion and care for his fellow prisoners.

In our current context, faith-based groups are on the front lines when it comes to mentoring and caring for the “least of these.” Faith groups, with little to no cost to taxpayers, provide many crucial services, both in and out of prisons. This work has gone on for decades.

In 1976, the late Charles Colson formed Prison Fellowship. Colson, an official in the Nixon Administration, converted to Christianity after leaving the White House. He pled guilty to a crime related to the Watergate scandal and served several months in a federal prison camp. His faith and his experience of incarceration compelled him to dedicate his life to ministering to those affected by crime and incarceration. Along the way, he became a case study in how one who was lost could be found. Colson’s prison ministry programs became popular with wardens across the nation after they witnessed the dramatic results Colson’s faith program had on men and women in prison.

Prison Fellowship is now the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Some of its most impressive results have come from its Academy model, originally known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. First established in Texas, the long-term, intensive, faith-based program holistically addresses the roots of criminal behavior. According to an academic study by Dr. Byron Johnson of Baylor University, prisoners who completed all phases of the program were 50 percent less likely than their peers to be arrested again after release, and 60 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated.

There are many more examples of faith based programs instituted within local jails, state prisons and federal prisons that have proven to be effective in reducing recidivism through training addressing values, vocational, and skills deficits. Recidivism-reduction programs operated by faith groups inside the nation’s correctional facilities have proven to be some of the most effective methods of stopping the revolving door of jails and prisons.

The travesty of the revolving door undermines the sanctity of human life, makes the public less safe, and rips communities and families apart. The solution is to empower faith-based groups to assist corrections officials in rehabilitating incarcerated citizens so that they can return to society and achieve their full, God-given potential as they give back to their families and communities.  

The Faith & Freedom Coalition entered the debate over corrections reform two years ago.  It joined forces with the nation’s most prominent conservative and progressive organizations within the Coalition for Public Safety and the U.S. Justice Action Network to support federal and state corrections reform that helps keep families and communities intact.

Our current corrections system is focused on punishment, often to the neglect of incarceration’s collateral impacts of families and on prisoners’ long-term outcomes. But this is short-sighted. Ninety-five percent of all incarcerated individuals eventually will re-enter society, and it’s up to elected leaders to ensure that corrections the people behind bars have the resources they need to be productive citizens and avoid future pitfalls.

Government should recognize the value faith-based organizations provide through rehabilitation programs inside America’s jails and prisons. Despite the fact that many of these faith-based providers are already deeply rooted in rehabilitating prisoners, and can provide this service at a little to no cost to taxpayers, they are often dismissed or face barriers to getting access simply because faith is a component of their program.

Faith based providers such as Prison Fellowship have proven their ability to improve our nation’s recidivism epidemic by working with federal, state and local officials to establish programming that includes biblical values. These programs teach important life skills that allow corrections officials to achieve their ultimate goal of rehabilitation—so that prisoners can become productive, law-abiding members of society, strengthen families, and ensure public safety. 

Timothy Head is executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and partner of the U.S. Justice Action Network and Coalition for Public Safety. Craig DeRoche is senior vice president for advocacy and policy at Prison Fellowship.


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