Admissions of Failure


Corrections in crisis and what needs to be done about it.

So, in 1977, with the agreement and great support of my wife, Patty, and some dear Christian friends, I started Prison Fellowship. Little could I have imagined back then that Prison Fellowship would one day be the largest Christian outreach to prisoners in the world.

During those early years of the ministry, we identified potential Christian leaders among inmates, we took them out of prison on furlough, discipled them, and put them back in the prisons to lead the church. Soon, we began holding discipleship seminars in the prisons. And it seemed like the ministry caught fire: We were getting more volunteers; our staff grew; we held more and more seminars in more and more prisons, reaching more and more prisoners.

But there was one problem. States were building new prisons faster than we could get to them! The nation's prison population was exploding — and still is, now decades later.

Why? Why was the United States a virtual Petri dish for growing criminals?

It was not until I read the landmark 1977 study called The Criminal Personality that I was able to begin to fully appreciate what was going on. The study's authors, psychologist Samenow and psychiatrist Yochelson, rebutted the conventional wisdom that crime was caused by environment — like poverty and racism. It was caused, they said, not by that, but by individuals making wrong moral choices. So the solution to crime, they said, was "the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle."

Then it hit me. Our entire penal system was seeking an institutional solution to a moral problem.

My thinking was only confirmed by Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson at Harvard, who in their 1987 book, Crime and Human Nature , determined that crime is caused by the lack of moral training in the morally formative years.

Yet our nation's entire approach to crime and criminal justice minimizes the moral dimension to the crime problem!

Yet our nation's entire approach to crime and criminal justice minimizes the moral dimension to the crime problem!

For years, people on the left have insisted that poverty and oppression are the chief causes of crime and that more and better-funded social programs are the answer. On the right, a lack of "toughness" was the problem. What was needed were more and longer prison sentences, both as a deterrent and to get criminals off the streets.

The result is a corrections system in crisis. Most systems are operating above safe capacity, despite the prison-building boom of the past two decades. Of the 2.3 million in prison, an estimated 700,000 will be released from prison this year unprepared for life on the outside. Two-thirds of them will be rearrested within the next three years.

That is why, this week, Mark Earley and I will be detailing this crisis and, more importantly, explaining what Christians can and are doing about it. Stay tuned, because together we can provide a moral solution to a moral crisis. And we can turn our prisons into a yet another symbol: a symbol of the hope Christianity makes possible.

This is part one in a four-part series.

One in Ninety-Nine

According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, there are more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails: one in every 99 adults. We are by far the world's largest jailer. Our closest rival, China, has a third fewer prisoners than we do, despite having four times as many people.

The numbers get worse the closer you look: One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. And for African-Americans, the number is one in nine.

Then there are the costs: an average of nearly $24,000 a year to incarcerate one inmate and that does not count the building. At least five states spend more on corrections than on higher education. For the rest, the cost of corrections is "saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs none of them can afford."

These increases in prison population and the "soaring costs" are the result of policy choices we have all made. Since the late '80s, elected officials have responded to the public's fear of crime by lengthening sentences and enacting laws like "three-strikes" and you are out. I know, I was a Senator and Attorney General during that time and was in the midst of it.

This cannot continue indefinitely. "Tough" has had its chance — it is time for "smart." We need to punish "low-risk offenders" in ways "that save tax dollars, hold offenders accountable," and actually rehabilitate them.

If these measures had made us safer, they might be worth it. But they have not. For starters, most of the increase in prison populations took place after crime rates began to go down and continued even after they bottomed out. In a sense, the process is on "auto-pilot," doing what it does regardless of the crime rates.

As a result, according to David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, "we are not incarcerating all the people who commit serious crimes — but we are probably incarcerating people who even don't need to be."

Among the people "who don't need to be" in prison are nonviolent offenders — especially nonviolent drug offenders. The lion's share of the increase in prison population has been driven by drug offenders. And we are not talking "drug kingpins," either. As Kentucky's Justice Secretary put it, "We are just getting the people who went out and got caught. We are getting the low-hanging fruit."

This cannot continue indefinitely. "Tough" has had its chance — it is time for "smart." We need to punish "low-risk offenders" in ways "that save tax dollars, hold offenders accountable," and actually rehabilitate them.

This is the position that Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice affiliate, Justice Fellowship, have advocated for nearly three decades. Non-dangerous offenders should be punished in ways that "make it more likely [that they] will be able to pay victim restitution, child support, and taxes."

That includes things like intensive probation, electronic monitoring, and community service. The only limit here is our creativity.

And our foundation is Scripture. When Zacchaeus admitted to Jesus that he had defrauded tax payers, he offered to pay restitution — which was in keeping with the Law.

Christians can lead the way. We can move beyond the mere "toughness" rhetoric that locks up Americans in expensive prison cells for reasons that are only tangentially related to public safety. Let's lock people up that are a danger to society. Let's not lock people up whom we are just mad at.

This is part two in a four-part series.

Melting Hearts

As she sat in her boyfriend's car, a young Texas woman named Dee Dee Washington was shot and killed — an innocent bystander of a drug deal gone bad. For 14 years, the man who fired the shot, Ron Flowers, never admitted to killing her — not until, that is, Ron was admitted to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), the prison program launched by Prison Fellowship in Texas.

IFI applies principles of restorative justice by confronting offenders with the harm they have done to their victims. During one of IFI's Victim Awareness sessions, Ron finally admitted that he did commit the murder, and he prayed that his victim's family would forgive him. He wrote a letter to Dee Dee's mother, Mrs. Anna Washington, expressing his repentance and deep remorse.

For her part, Mrs. Washington had written angry letters every year to the parole board, urging them to deny Ron parole. But when Ron confessed, Mrs. Washington felt an overwhelming conviction that she should meet the man who had killed her daughter.

Unlike our criminal justice system, which focuses solely on public safety and order, restorative justice is also about repairing the harm caused by crime. An important part of the reparative process is victim-offender reconciliation. These meetings allow "victims, offenders, and community members" to discuss what happened and its "aftermath" — to seek repentance and forgiveness.

Prison Fellowship staff carefully prepared Mrs. Washington and Ron for the meeting. Mrs. Washington finally could ask the questions that virtually every victim wants to ask: "Why did you do it?" "How did it happen?" Ron reassured her that her daughter was not involved in the drug deal. As Ron told her about the day that he killed her daughter, Mrs. Washington took his hands in hers and said, "I forgive you."

I was in Houston for Ron's graduation from IFI. As Ron crossed the stage to receive his diploma, Mrs. Washington rose from her seat and walked over to embrace Ron, the man who had murdered her daughter. She then told all of us in the audience, "This young man is my adopted son."

After Ron's release, Mrs. Washington helped him adjust to the community, sat with him at church, had him over for dinner, and even stood by him when he was married.

Only God could bring about such reconciliation and healing.

Unlike our criminal justice system, which focuses solely on public safety and order, restorative justice is also about repairing the harm caused by crime. An important part of the reparative process is victim-offender reconciliation. These meetings allow "victims, offenders, and community members" to discuss what happened and its "aftermath" — to seek repentance and forgiveness.

This is more than an ill-defined sense of "closure." Coming face-to-face with victims can cause offenders to think about their actions and their consequences in a way that punishment alone never can.

Anyone who has spent time around inmates knows that many view themselves as victims — something that is harder to do when you have spoken to the real victims. Research suggests that inmates who meet with their victims are more likely to pay court-ordered restitution than those who do not.

You see, as I have said countless times, crime is a moral and spiritual issue. That being the case, rehabilitation can happen only when offenders see their offenses as more than rule-breaking: They must see them as a transgression against God and other people.

While promoting order is the God-given role of government, there is more to justice than police, prosecutors, and prison. Justice also means repairing the harm caused by crime, which requires going where government cannot go — to the human heart.

This is part three in a four-part series.

The Heart of the Matter

It no longer costs taxpayers $23,000 a year to house, feed, and incarcerate Eddie McNeil. Instead, he pays taxes. His wife, Connie, does not need welfare support — as do many women who divorce their imprisoned husbands. No, she is happily married to Eddie. Eddie's children, rather than becoming embittered and engaging in high-risk behavior or becoming foster children, are instead reconciled to their dad and doing well in school.

This barely describes some of the benefits the state of Texas has reaped by working with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative®, or IFI. Launched 10 years ago by Prison Fellowship, IFI is an intensive faith-based program that has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism among those who participate.

And it was IFI that teamed up with Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® program to help heal and unite a family brought to its knees by crime and incarceration.

Years ago, Eddie had made a mess of his business. He ended up in prison with a three-year sentence. During this time, his family nearly unraveled. Financial losses mounted as Eddie, the family bread-winner, sat behind bars. Connie's cancer returned. She lost her job and home.

Connie and the children were on the verge of living on the street. Then Eddie signed his kids up to receive Christmas gifts through Angel Tree — gifts bought and delivered by church volunteers. To Connie, "it was a signal in the darkness that Eddie still loved her" and the kids.

And Eddie, after three years of searching for God, transferred to the IFI program to prepare for his eventual release — a daunting task for any prisoner. Intensive life-skills instruction, counseling, work assignments, and mentoring laid the groundwork for Eddie's return to freedom. But while Eddie was pulling his life together, Connie's was disintegrating. She wanted a divorce.

But Prison Fellowship volunteer Tony Menchu stepped into the breach. He began taking Connie and the kids to his church. Then an IFI counselor found Rob and Sarah Woodward, who opened their home to Connie and the kids for seven months — until the church helped them into a home of their own.

Eddie completed the IFI program and walked into freedom and into the arms of his family with the guidance of a mentor — with whom he continues to meet with to this day; and he has been out of prison for three years.

This week, Chuck Colson and I have talked about many urgently needed criminal justice reforms. But no program, no reform, can match the transforming power of Jesus. Eddie's story is a perfect example.

There is no doubting it. Christians — motivated by the love of Jesus — can have an enormous, an eternal impact on the lives of prisoners and their families.

Thanks for listening to "BreakPoint" this week. I hope we have given you some fresh ideas about how we can address the crisis in America's prisons.

Is God calling you to be a force for good? Either in the life of a prisoner, a prisoner's child, or as an advocate for biblically based justice reforms? Visit our websites, and to see how, with God, you can make a difference.

This is part four in a four-part series.


For Further Reading and Information

Learn more about The InnerChange Freedom Initiative® and Angel Tree Ministries.

Catherine Claire, “The Family Plan: Effective Ministry to the Prisoner Must Also Include His Family,” Inside PFM.

Catherine Claire, “Countdown to a Crucial Hearing,” The Point, 1 February 2007.

Mark Earley, “One in 32: America under Supervision,” Inside PFM.



Charles Colson. "Admissions of Failure; One in Ninety-Nine; Melting Hearts; The Heart of the Matter." BreakPoint Commentary March 31, April 1, April 2, April 3, 2008.

From BreakPoint ® Copyright 2008, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint ®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries ®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.


Charles Colson launched Prison Fellowship in 1976, following a seven-month prison sentence for Watergate-related crimes. Since then, Prison Fellowship has flourished into a U.S. ministry of 50,000 volunteers and has spread to more then 50 countries. Beyond his prison ministry, Colson is a Christian author, speaker, and commentator, who regularly confronts contemporary values from a biblically informed perspective. His "BreakPoint" radio commentaries now air daily across the U.S. and he has written 15 books, including The Faith: Given Once, For All What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, God & Government, Loving God, Answers to Your Kids' Questions, The Line Between Right & Wrong: Developing a Personal Code of Ethics, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, and How Now Shall We Live: A Study Guide.

Copyright © 2008 Breakpoint

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