Whenever I am interviewed by secular journalists, I can count on being asked at least one question: How do you know your Christian programs in prisons work? Can you prove that religion makes a difference?

The queries are understandable: About half of our country is in church any given Sunday, 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and 38 percent claim to be born again; yet greed, scandal, crime, and plain old selfishness abound. A recent Roper poll found that lifestyles among the majority of those who say they are born again are not much different from their secular counterparts.

So, conclude the skeptics, if religion does not change the good people in church pews, why should it change the sinners in prisons?

For years, we at Prison Fellowship have argued that it is Jesus Christ who truly changes prisoners’ lives. But until recently we have had nothing but our own experience and faith to stand on.

Now an independent and widely publicized study (commissioned by Prison Fellowship) has concluded that prisoners who received Christian training had a significantly lower rate of re-arrest after release than those who received no training. John Gartner, the clinical psychologist who headed the research team, called the results “phenomenal.… No one before had ever looked at the effect of religion on recidivism.… There haven’t been any findings of effectiveness that were this strong.”

This was the first such study—and it was indeed good news. But it was nowhere near as good as what I saw during a recent trip to Brazil.

Handcuffed By Love

Humaita Prison in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil, houses 350 offenders. For the past 18 years it has been run not by the state but by Christian volunteers who became part of Prison Fellowship Brazil several years ago. I have been to plenty of Latin American prisons; they are often overcrowded, primitive, and a shock to North American eyes. But Humaita is different.

The prison courtyard is clean, with whitewashed open patio areas trimmed in a crisp, blue paint. In the dormitories, the inmates’ beds are neatly made, their few personal belongings carefully stored.

Signs hang on the clean white walls: “It is not enough to stop doing evil; it is necessary to do good.” In the prison workshop, inmates are admonished, “All honest work is blessed by God.”

The prison is divided into three security levels: closed, for maximum security; a semi-open stage, in which the men learn a trade; and open, in which they live at home, but work full-time and report to the prison every day.

When an inmate enters the prison at the closed stage, his handcuffs are removed by a volunteer who says, “In this prison your heart is handcuffed by love and you are watched over by Christ.” They watch over one another as well, linked in a buddy system that allows them to hold each other accountable for good behavior and spiritual growth.

One brother spoke at a chapel service, telling with great sorrow how he had committed murder and was sentenced to life in prison. But then he had turned his heart to Christ. He knew he could never make restitution for the life he had taken. But when he heard about a person outside the prison who desperately needed a kidney transplant, he decided there was a way he could help another to live. As he told how he had donated a kidney, he spoke softly, then lifted his shirt to show us the scar from the incision in his side. “I bear this mark for Christ,” he said.

While crime has increased 25 percent in the rest of Brazil, it has decreased in Sao Jose dos Campos. One reason for the drop is that street criminals know that released inmates from Humaita will recognize them, stop them, or turn them in—a whole new twist on deterrence.

And volunteers have kept track of every inmate released from Humaita over the past 18 years. Only 21 out of 500 have returned to prison: 4 percent. The recidivism rate for other Brazilian institutions is about the world average—75 percent.

Humaita’s Secret

I have been in prisons in 31 countries and in half the prisons in America. I have never seen an institution like Humaita. Its secret is more than just humane conditions and job training, crucial as these things are. The secret is found in a small cell in the prison’s high-security area.

Our escort, an inmate “officer of the day” who carried the keys to the prison, led us to the notorious solitary punishment cell. In years past, prisoners had been thrown into it naked, were served one meager meal each day through a slot in the door, and were sometimes so crowded on top of one another that they suffocated. But we were told there was now only one prisoner in the cell.

The inmate swung open the heavy steel door a crack and then stopped, asking if I was sure I wanted to go in. I nodded. Still, my stomach tightened as the door swung open.

But as I entered, I saw fresh flowers, an altar, and a central crucifix, with a banner proclaiming Estamos Juntos: “We are together.”

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The prisoner in that solitary cell was Jesus, his cross a vivid reminder that he had served the sentence for all in that prison, and that he was with them still.

And because of this knowledge of the suffering Christ among them, the offenders in Humaita are daily reminded of a truth that many of us offenders who line church pews every Sunday perhaps take for granted: That Jesus became a prisoner, that he paid the price of sin—execution—on our behalf. Those inmates, poor and without privilege, live with a richer sense of God’s grace than I have felt in many an ornate church building.

Does Christianity make a difference? If the grace and gratitude—and the resulting changed lives—that I saw in Humaita could well up in churches across America, the skeptics would no longer have to ask.

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