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240 pages
Aug 2006
W Publishing Group

God Behind Bars: The Amazing Story of Prison Fellowship

by John Perry

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Broken Vessels

The story of the most successful prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation program in American history began at a miserable moment of national shame and ends some time in the future. Its principle figure- young, rich, immensely talented, and at the height of his personal and political influence-tumbled from one of the most powerful positions in world affairs to one of the most hopeless and despised: a convicted felon.

Prison destroys many people. It breaks prisoners both innocent and guilty, dangerous and harmless; their spouses and children, who endure physical loss, cultural rejection, and often financial collapse; even those counselors and corrections officers who finally see and feel more anger, fear, and hopelessness than they can bear. But prison did not break Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to President Richard Nixon. By the time Colson reported to federal authorities in the summer of 1974 to begin serving his sentence, there was nothing breakable left in him. A life-changing experience the year before had shattered the old Colson; the new one faced incarceration with steady resolve and brave anticipation. The old Colson, in fact, could have avoided imprisonment altogether, while the new one felt honor bound to uphold standards greater than any government statute.

Life behind bars prompted Colson to look at the whole philosophy of prison as punishment from an entirely new angle. Examining closely the conditions he and others lived under, he worked through his thoughts on a series of questions, jotting down ideas on yellow legal pads like the ones he used in the White House to make notes during his conversations with the president. What was the purpose of imprisonment? What did it achieve? What were the alternatives? What rights did a prisoner have, and what rights should he have?

Like most Nixon Republicans, Colson had been "tough on crime," favoring harsh sentences and limits on parole to get lawbreakers off the streets for good. When rioting inmates armed themselves and took several hostages at Attica Prison in the summer of 1971, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had ordered state troopers to storm the doors. After the shooting finally stopped, thirty-one prisoners and nine guards lay dead. Colson encouraged the president to call Governor Rockefeller and congratulate him for hanging tough. "No doubt about it, Mr. President," Colson had said, gesturing out the windows of the Oval Office. "Our people out there have had enough of being soft on criminals."

A few years later Colson would become a criminal himself, and realize firsthand that the system wasn't so soft after all. One fellow inmate of Chuck's had gone to court accused of minor tax violations, made a remark that infuriated the judge and consequently drew an eighteen-month sentence. Suddenly his once-comfortable family had no father, husband, or breadwinner, and he had a criminal record. Another man, a successful self-made business owner, unknowingly cashed a stolen check for eighty-four dollars. He paid six thousand dollars in legal fees and still spent six months in prison, costing him six months' income on top of everything else. A number of the convicts in Colson's prison dormitory were illiterate, unable to understand the charges against them, their prospects for parole, or any of the legal details of their cases-including their rights as inmates.

Most of all Colson saw the sense of hopelessness that engulfed prisoners behind bars. Except for meals and roll call several times a day, prisoners were on their own to pass the time any way they could. Most of them had no prison job, no hobby they could pursue, no evident interests. Colson wrote later of the men in his dorm who spent their days on their cots in a zombie-like state, dozing or staring at the ceiling. Some worked for hours on menial tasks like shining a belt buckle. They walked at a slow, shuffling pace. "Like an invasion of locusts," Colson observed, "the empty hours eat away at a man's very being. Soon there is near-total disorientation: staring at the clock, its hands never moving; losing track of time and place."

In 1974 when Charles Colson was incarcerated, there were about two hundred thousand inmates in America's state and federal prisons. Today there are more than 2.2 million, an elevenfold increase. These men and women (94 percent of prisoners are men) are largely ignored and forgotten by society. But what happens to them in prison is important to everyone because most of them will eventually be released, and the way they were treated on the inside affects their behavior on the outside. For millions of us it gets personal: one day we'll find ourselves sharing the same employer, the same neighborhood, in some cases even the same apartment building with ex-cons.

About two hundred thousand prisoners are either serving life sentences or will die before their terms are up. The other two million will be back on the street sooner or later. Will prison have made them better people less likely to commit crimes? Will it have dealt decisively with the drug addiction and dysfunctional families most prisoners struggle with? Will it have taught them a trade so they can support themselves and their dependents? Will it steer them away from people and places associated with past criminal behavior, reducing the temptation to fall into old habits?

In spite of their years behind bars and regardless of whatever government-mandated programs they've been through-drug rehab, anger management, family relationships, or others from a long list of possibilities-the majority of ex-offenders are also future offenders. Far from being rehabilitated, prisoners often sharpen their lawbreaking skills and make new contacts on the inside; they become a greater threat to public safety when they get out than when they went in. Within three years, two-thirds of them will be rearrested. And they are only the ones who get caught.

The second time through the penal system these convicts will take more mandatory classes, learn more criminal skills (or teach theirs to newcomers), and make more connections among their fellow inmates and gang members. Some criminals repeat this cycle ten times over the course of their careers, with first offenders adding fresh fodder along the way.

The cost to society of continuing this flawed system is staggering. Current laws and sentencing requirements have led to more people being locked up for longer periods, driving America's prison population to a historic high. Building enough new cells to hold them all is straining government budgets nationwide. Prison construction is booming, with each new cell costing taxpayers about $100,000. Food, clothing, infirmary care, and other expenses add about $23,000 per inmate annually. And that's only part of the system cost. Unreformed exoffenders are on the outside committing new crimes, raising the costs of law enforcement, security, property damage, theft, and medical treatment thousands of dollars. On top of all that is the intangible cost of crime to the victims, their families, the families of offenders, and the community at large.

As one warden with almost thirty years of criminal justice experience recently observed, "The prison system is broken and everybody knows it." Yet despite compelling evidence of an enormously expensive failure, the whole operation rolls along very much the same year after year. Why?

One reason is bureaucratic inertia. Creative, dedicated, energetic men and women work for America's prison systems, but those systems are too often wary of them. The bureaucratic mind-set holds fast to policy and precedent. Like other government organizations such as school districts or the postal service, state and federal corrections systems are staffed by people trained to follow instructions. Success is measured by how well workers stick to the rules. As one prison official explained,"You're rewarded for how well you follow procedures. The thing you want most of all is not to screw up." Innovation and creative thinking equate with risk; doing it the way it's always been done is the safe path to favorable performance reviews and secure progress up the career ladder. Why take a chance on a reprimand by thinking outside the box when it's so easy just to do what you're told? As in the military, directives are there to be followed, not questioned.

A second reason to hang on to a failed prison system is that changing it carries high political risk. Politicians who write the laws, and judges and district attorneys who enforce them, know that being"tough on crime" earns them points with the voters. One of the most obvious ways to prove they're tough is to put more criminals behind bars. So mandatory sentencing laws discourage plea bargains and shorter prison terms, and three-strikes-and-you're-out statutes lock up habitual offenders for decades. The assumption is that the more convicted wrongdoers we lock up, the safer the community is.

A third barrier to prison reform is that for most citizens, prisons and prisoners are completely off the radar. They're out of the public eye, often far from populated areas, and most people don't think much about them one way or the other. With so many demands on public resources, allotting time and money to investigating prison improvements is not a priority. Criminals, the reasoning often goes, are the dregs of society living somewhere far away, and certainly less worthy of tax dollars than schools, hospitals, police departments, firehouses, highways, libraries, and almost anything else. It's what sociologist Phillip Slater called "the toilet assumption." This, he explained, is believing "that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, or unwanted complexities will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision."

For many years, a fourth impediment to improving America's prison system has been that there was evidently no alternative to it. For all the faults in the traditional approach, it at least has the advantage of familiarity. Our prison bureaucracy and legal system are deeply invested in it. With no other viable possibilities on the horizon, systemic inertia, political risk, and public attitude are not necessarily the prime limiting factors to exploring other ways to run prisons and rehabilitate prisoners. Rather the biggest problem is having no radically new directions to explore. With nothing worth championing, there has been no reason to risk a promotion, pension, or election by stepping out of long-held comfort zones.

Charles Colson and the organization he founded, Prison Fellowship Ministries (PF), have now spent thirty years developing an alternative approach to prison and prisoner reform. PF has grown from a shoestring operation in a Washington, D.C.-area basement to the largest and most influential force in history for reshaping society's thinking about prisons, punishment, rehabilitation, restitution, justice, and the causes of crime.

Even though Prison Fellowship has a presence in every prison in the United States and nearly more than one hundred countries around the world, many who praise its work know little about the dramatic events that gave it birth and saw it through the dark valleys and promising peaks of the past three decades. High-profile politicians, religious leaders, show business personalities, sports heroes, and other public figures have played various roles in these events-some helped, some hurt, and others dragged their feet unsure how far PF should go.

Literally millions of men, women, and children know the story firsthand. These are the prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families, prison officials, politicians, crime victims, law enforcers, volunteers, and supporters who have been touched in some way by PF. Still others will remember Charles Colson as a player in the high drama of the Watergate affair, which led to President Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974.

But for people under forty who have never been directly affected by crime, the name "Charles Colson" or "Prison Fellowship" might bring nothing immediately to mind. In the end though, they're the ones who may be most amazed at how PF's radical approach to crime and punishment has begun a transformation of the entire criminal justice system, not just in how criminals are punished but upstream in dealing with root causes of criminality. The ministry's conclusions are obvious to some and startling to others, the remedy even more so. Yet the results of PF's work show current success and future promise beyond anything that has been done before.

In the beginning, Charles Colson could scarcely have imagined his own prison term would spark a chain of events leading to such a legacy. Two years to the day after President Nixon resigned his office, Colson was one of a small group gathered around the seed of an idea they dared to hope might change prisons for the better. None of them had a career in the corrections industry, though two of them had themselves been prisoners. They held few resources for the task ahead and had little to guide them beyond the convictions of their hearts.

Prison Fellowship Ministries started with the simple observation that rehabilitating a criminal is impossible if the criminal doesn't want to change. For the short-term he can be coerced by threats, rewards, or punishment into taking a course, making a promise, or signing a sheet of paper that pleases the parole board or fulfills some procedural mandate. But if a man wants to abuse drugs, steal from his employer, or beat his girlfriend, no rehab program or classroom training will keep him from it.

The only way to reshape an offender's behavior pattern for good, this group believed, was not to impose changes from the outside, but to kindle the desire to change from within.

In the face of skeptics and criticism, Prison Fellowship began putting its theory, already tested on a handful of prisoners, into practice on a wider scale. Its curriculum generated a remarkable transformation: true repentance, rehabilitation, and a desire to live a new, lawabiding life. There was transformation taking place even among career offenders, thugs, and murderers who were considered hopeless within the penal system.

The Fellowship insisted that this transformation from within was not on account of anything it had done, but came instead from the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Colson and his team claimed no power for themselves; rather, they were broken vessels used by God to achieve His purposes. Plenty of hard-boiled observers on both sides of the bars had their doubts. In the beginning critics could argue that PF was just another time-consuming community outreach program that inconvenienced the security staff. Some insisted it was another chance for bored inmates to take advantage of hapless do-gooders. Others questioned Colson's motives, wondering if it was just an attempt from a disgraced former Washington insider to burnish his public image. The critics could argue furthermore that Christianity was complete hokum. But after a while they couldn't argue with the results.

Three years earlier, Chuck Colson would have been an unlikely champion of either Christianity or prison reform. On the contrary, he had clawed his way to the very pinnacle of the Washington power structure, thanks in part to a reputation for ruthless efficiency-getting things done even if it meant "running over his own grandmother."