Prison Fellowship: graduates of hope

May 30, 1999|By George F. Will

SUGAR LAND, Texas -- It is commencement season across the country, including here under a tent in a corner framed by a high fence topped with razor wire.

A handful of convicts at the prison are receiving certificates of graduation from InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a voluntary 18-month, pre-dawn to past-sundown daily immersion in basic Christianity, leavened by lessons in basic life skills.

Five are being baptized today -- full immersion in a tub of water -- as the waving of fans, inscribed "You have been set free from sin, and have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6: 18)," gives way to clapping to the rhythm of "Take Me to the Water."

Few of the graduates have ever graduated from anything else. Soon they will be leaving prison, some wearing woven bracelets inscribed "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Do?). Unlike most who leave America's prisons, most of these graduates will not be back.

Coming soon to a neighborhood near yours: 50 percent of the 1.2 million inmates of America's prisons. Such is the churning of the prison population, that many will be outside within a year.

Many will be outside only temporarily. The rearrest rate for former prisoners is 68 percent. That should quicken your interest in the Prison Fellowship, which runs the InnerChange program.

The low rearrest rate for graduates of the Fellowship's many programs indicates that those programs can help make incarceration a little less a recycling of repeat offenders at a time when the prisoner population is increasing by more than 1,000 a week.

Forest Jordan, a tall, thin man who looks all of his 56 years, is doing his fourth stretch in prison since 1969, this time for large-scale cocaine possession. He is much older than most in InnerChange, but his story is emblematic.

Born in rural Georgia, by the time he was 13 school was only a memory and he was cutting tobacco in Florida, so he struck out on his own. "I've got three daughters. All got different mammas."

When he gets parole -- he is eligible to seek it now but will not seek it until he completes the InnerChange program -- he wants to do two things: apologize to all the young men he meets for the irresponsible behavior of men his age, and then "come back and minister" to prisoners. He recently learned to read so he could read the Bible.

The Prison Fellowship's mentoring program brings people from local churches (mostly middle-aged, middle-class, white men and women) to meet one-on-one, one night a week with prisoners, mostly minorities, average age 22.

Crime has declined nationally for seven consecutive years, for reasons of demography (fewer young men), social trends (among them, crack usage is down among those who saw their parents or older siblings devoured by it), the economic boom, and public policies.

The policies include community policing and more incarceration. But increased incarceration -- the prison population doubled between 1988 and 1998 -- may be building a bomb in society.

The single strongest predictor of an individual's future criminal behavior is having a parent in prison.

So, in a sense, putting people in prison puts children at risk. Of course, that often cannot be avoided, but, fortunately, Prison Fellowship knows half a million children whose parents are in or have recently been released from prison. The Fellowship sends them Christmas presents, and last summer sent 12,000 of them to church camps.

The Fellowship also runs Sycamore Tree, which brings crime victims to prisons to meet with prisoners. Usually they do not meet with the criminals who victimized them, but a woman is here today practicing her faith, meaning forgiveness, with the man whose errant gunfire in a drug deal gone sour struck a passing car, killing her daughter.

The Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, a senior adviser to President Nixon, after Mr. Colson served seven months in prison for Watergate-related offenses.

A former Marine and quite conservative, Mr. Colson is no sentimentalist, but he says that only a nation both rich and stupid would spend $35 billion on what is mistakenly called "corrections."

Prison Fellowship's aim, he says, is not rehabilitation, which implies getting people back to the way they were, but regeneration, making them what they never were.

Considering the records of the men in question, skeptics say regeneration would be a miracle. The Fellowship says, there are precedents. The evidence says it's working.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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