I’m just back from the republic of Texas and Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference. One of my fellow lecturers was Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ben Phillips. In between sessions, he showed me a recent Houston television news piece on SWBTS’s Darrington prison extension, where Phillips and other Southwestern profs are bringing prisoners to Christ, with a plan to send graduates of the program to other Texas prisons. Many of these men may grow old and die in prison, but they won’t die without hope, and they won’t die without becoming a blessing to their fellow prisoners at Darrington and other Texas prisons.
The cover story of a recent Religion & Liberty tells about a similar program on a larger scale, at Angola Prison in Louisiana, where many men on death row, with no hope of parole, have been transformed by the power of the Gospel.
It’s hard to imagine an example more dramatic than Angola prison, but if there is one, it’s the work of Rwandan Bishop John Rucyahana, Prison Fellowship, and others to bring the grace of Christ to the imprisoned genocidiers of Rwanda. Through this work, many of the men involved in the 1994 genocide that took almost a million Rwandan lives have repented of their participation in the genocide, sought and obtained forgiveness from the families of their victims (itself a miracle), and been reintegrated into society after serving their prison sentences.
To learn more, see Bishop John featured in Session 5 of the recently released PovertyCure DVD Series, a session that focuses on the power of the Gospel to transform lives in the developing world and unleash human potential.
Or take a look at another recent Acton DVD series, Our Great Exchange. Session 4 of this series tells the story of Chuck Colson, of his time and prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, and how he came to Christ and started Prison Fellowship.
These prison ministries are development economics above and beyond anything secular man can manage.
The United States faces a dilemma. A strategy of lenient prison sentences in the 1970s was followed by rising crime rates, as criminals realized that long prison sentences were relatively unlikely and most who were sentenced were out on the streets relatively quickly, freed to commit fresh crimes. A move toward stiffer prison sentences in the 1980s helped lower crime rates, but the U.S. incarceration rate has increased some five fold since that time, with more than 2.2 million souls now behind bars in the United States, many of them made worse by the experience, and all of them posing an increasing burden on our increasingly fragile economy while their human potential for free, dignified, and productive labor goes untapped.
There are no magic bullets for this problem. It’s a real dilemma. But there is a powerful medicine and an extraordinary hospital capable of transforming burdensome criminals into brothers and co-creators–the Gospel and the Church.