This year, Prison Fellowship (PF) celebrates its 30th anniversary. Created in 1976 by Charles Colson after his release from prison for Watergate-related crimes, the organization now operates in 114 countries and is the largest prison ministry in the world. Last year, 24,531 PF volunteers supported by 16,797 churches ministered in 1,604 prisons in the United States. PF's related ministries, like Justice Fellowship, Angel Tree, and the Wilberforce Forum, work for safer prison conditions, religious freedom, the well-being of prisoners' families, and other issues. CT associate editor Rob Moll spoke with Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley about developments in prison ministry and legal challenges to its prisoner release program.
What is different about incarceration for the prisoner today versus the prisoner of 30 years ago?
One of the most significant changes in the criminal justice system over the last 30 years is the growth of the number of people in prison. When Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship in the mid-'70s, there were a quarter of a million people in prisons in the United States. Today that figure is 2.3 million. There's been a ten-fold increase over the last 30 years in the prison population.
Recidivism rates are staggering. Two-thirds of inmates will be re-arrested within three years of their release. With those numbers and with the public policy changes over the last 20 years that have incarcerated more people, we've had a ballooning prison population.
How has Prison Fellowship addressed this rising prison population? It has certainly been a growing mission field. Prison Fellowship's response, both in the United States and around the world, has been to seek to mobilize the church to believe what Jesus said ...1