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 in Matthew 25, that if you visit a prisoner, you visit him.

We help the church understand our responsibilities as congregations and as individuals to be involved in making disciples behind bars and [helping] those disciples [as they] come out of prison. We welcome them back into society, particularly those who have been changed by Christ and need a church home, a Bible study group, a mentor.

One program you run to prepare prisoners for release is the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which recently lost a court battle. What does that program do and what court challenges are you facing?
Prison Fellowship launched the InnerChange Freedom Initiative ten years ago in Texas to try to deal with the problem of recidivism. The concept was based loosely on a program in Brazil in which the authorities pretty much turned the keys of a prison over to the local Catholic parish and said, "We can't do anything with this place; see if you can." The prison became a model of transformation.

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Twelve years ago, folks from the Texas Department of Corrections and leaders at Prison Fellowship visited the Brazilian program. We decided to try something similar in Texas.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is a pre-release program that works with inmates for two years prior to their release and one year after their release. Two hundred men live together in a faith-based, holistic program. It's not only based on spiritual transformation. It also includes academic training, vocational training, life skills training, substance abuse treatment, and post-prison assistance with employment and getting rooted into a local church. Every prisoner is assigned a mentor who will work with them both in prison and when they leave the prison. The program is now in six states—Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Missouri.

The program in Texas was studied by the University of Pennsylvania, which confirmed a study by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The studies showed that those who graduated from the program had a 17 percent re-arrest rate and an 8 percent re-incarceration rate after two years. That's a pretty dramatic decrease in recidivism.

However, if people come into the program and drop out, their recidivism rates aren't any better than in the general prison population. Unless you finish it, you're not going to be able to read very well.

We were sued in Iowa three years ago after operating for about seven years with no legal challenges. We were sued by Barry Lynn and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The judge ruled in June, and it couldn't have been any more adverse. He ordered that the program be shut down in 60 days. He ordered that Prison Fellowship pay back all of the money that it had received from the state of Iowa, which amounts to $1.7 million.

He also took it upon himself to define evangelicals as distinct from other Christian groups. He said that the views that evangelicals hold on the substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection of Christ are not widely held by Christians. And it led him to the conclusion that there's nothing that an evangelical can do or say that isn't aimed at converting someone. Based on that, he found the program was not constitutional.

We've appealed the case, and while that is pending, the judge's order to shut down the program and pay back the money we've received from the state is on hold.

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How have churches responded to your attempts to get them more involved in prison ministry?
When Chuck got ready to found Prison Fellowship, he says Billy Graham told him, "Why don't you preach, because you're going to have a hard time getting the church to embrace a ministry to prisoners."

Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of local churches that have their own prison ministries. There are great organizations like Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, Kairos Prison Ministry, and Bill Glass's Champions for Life. The combined effort of all of us working together is that we see churches today much more willing to embrace prison ministry than they were 30 years ago.

The church fundamentally views prisoners differently than the secular world, because they have been created in the image of God.

How does that translate to Prison Fellowship's public policy work?
Justice Fellowship works on restorative justice, which is an attempt to bring biblical principles to bear on the criminal justice system at large: how the criminal justice system views inmates, how it views the justice process, how it understands the notion of justice, how it views restitution and punishment, how it views the needs of the victim.

Are you working on any particular piece of legislation?
We're working on legislation on Capitol Hill called the Second Chance Act. It's a bipartisan bill that creates grants for states and community groups to work with prisoners who are being released.

The future of prison ministry lies in working with those who are coming out of prison. For many years, a lot of people viewed prison ministry as what goes on when someone is in prison. What we're finding is that if we want to see God continue to raise up men and women from within prison, see them come to Christ, make lifestyle changes, and be fruitful for the rest of their lives after they get out of prison, some of the most critical ministry occurs when they leave the prison gate.

A lot of our energy is being devoted to that critical period. When a prisoner comes out of prison, he is as vulnerable if not more vulnerable than in prison.

If more people are in prison, that's fewer people on the streets committing crimes. Is an increase in prison population a bad thing?
There's an attitude that says we're going to solve social problems by putting more people in jail. Obviously that's not working, because the vast majority of these people are not entering society better off. What goes on in prison doesn't stay in prison. It spills out into the community.

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A second thing that's contributed to that has been minimum mandatory sentences that take away the discretion of judges. That has proven not to be a good idea. We have instituted minimum mandatory sentences for a whole range of offenses, and it has resulted in long sentences and taken away judges' discretion to fashion the sentence based on the crime.

I understand there has been a dramatic increase in female prisoners.
A lot of it has to do with drugs, a lot of it has to do with methamphetamine abuse. It's tragic. Going into a men's unit is tragic enough. Going into a women's unit is doubly tragic, because almost all of them have children, and the shame that they bear for being separated from their children is a heavy, heavy burden.

What is Prison Fellowship's overseas ministry?
All of our overseas ministries are independently funded and independently chartered. So Prison Fellowship is not a missionary organization in the old-fashioned use of the word. People in those countries said, "We want to start a Prison Fellowship ministry in Ghana, in Bolivia, in Costa Rica." They begin the program, and they fund it. Their staff is indigenous, and their funding is indigenous. It's a model that has allowed for rapid expansion. It hasn't been plagued by East-West, North-South cultural differences that American missionaries often run into.

Our ministry looks very different in every country. But we share a common statement of faith, and we share a common objective to reach out to prisoners.

Related Elsewhere:

The official website for Prison Fellowship has more information on InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a response to the ruling and the pending appeals, and links to media coverage.

Mark Earley responded to the ruling in several radio shows, linked to from PF. He also wrote this op-ed in The Washington Post.

Russ Pulliam commented on the decision in the Indianapolis Star.

A copy of the decision and a Q&A about their lawsuit against InnerChange is available from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Becket Fund website posts resources and documents from the court hearings.

CT's coverage includes:

Bad Judgment | Ruling imperils faith-based programs around the country. (Charles Colson, August 1, 2006)
Imprisoned Ministry | The future of Prison Fellowship's rehabilitation program, and other faith-based social services, are in the hands of an appeals court (July 14, 2006)
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Study Lauds Prisoner Program | Prison Fellowship releases InnerChange research at a White House roundtable. (June 1, 2003)
Suing Success | Prison Fellowship says its Inner Change program is clearly constitutional (April 1, 2003)
A Healthy Cult| A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God's power transforms culture. (Charles Colson, June 12, 2000)
Weblog: Christian Prison Program Sued (February 1, 2003)
Prisons: Unique Prison Program Serves as Boot Camp for Heaven (February 9, 1998)

Other news coverage includes:

God Pods | Audio. NPR's Morning Edition (September 7, 2001)
Promise and Pitfalls in Taking Religion to Prison | The New York Times (April 12, 2001)
Group sues Iowa over religious prison program | Associated Press (Feb. 17, 2003)
Secularists target prison charity | The Washington Times (Feb. 18, 2003)
Lawsuit: Prison Fellowship violates First Amendment | Baptist Press (Feb. 19, 2003)
Faith-based prison program challenged in court | ABP (Feb. 23, 2003)
Prison Preaches Rehabilitation Through Faith | Audio. NPR's Morning Edition (December 23, 2004)
Bible-Based Prison Treatment Program Shelved | Audio. NPR's Morning Edition. (June 7, 2006)

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