Posts tagged with: prison

georgia-prison-welding-class_1With the rise of the information economy, many millennials have steered clear from blue-collar jobs and manual labor, often prodded by their parents to pursue a “real education” and “a better life.

As folks like Mike Rowe have only begun to highlight, such attitudes have led to a serious skills gap in the trades, one that appears to hold steady even in the face of record unemployment. Yet despite these cultural shifts, such work does indeed provide significant value to the economy while affirming the dignity and creative potential of the worker.

Thus, while some prefer to hold their noses at the trades, others are seizing it as an opportunity to create and share value. Such is the case at Walker State Prison in Georgia, where a unique welding program offers to train prisoners in the high-demand trade of welding.

According to the American Welding Society, we will be short by nearly 300,000 welding-related positions by 2020 (HT), giving participating prisoners a good shot at meaningful careers upon their release.

And the prisoners aren’t complaining. They are eager to offer their skills, learn a craft, and contribute to society. Watch some highlights here:

One can’t help but be inspired by Christopher Peeples, for example, who at 26 years old is about to finish a 10-year prison sentence. Thanks to the program, he looks forward to wonderful job prospects, and his Dad (a craftsman himself) has been quick to share in the excitement. According to NPR, one recent alumnus of the program had three job offers upon his release, one of which offered $50,000 per year with a company truck.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t about money or even stability. It’s about authentic, whole-life rehabilitation.

By pursuing work in a needed skill — by orienting hearts and hands toward service to others and thus to God —  these men are entering into a transformative, collaborative exchange that will shape their very souls and spirits. Material provision is just the byproduct.

Of course, it would require no small amount of these programs to fill the skills gap we’re facing, and so the question remains: what are others waiting for?

As we continue to expand our economic imaginations and pursue vocational clarity, these prisoners offer a powerful example on how we ought to view and approach such work.

What a blessing it truly is.

Blog author: ehilton
Thursday, July 23, 2015

benevolence farmsIn today’s American, nearly a quarter million women are incarcerated, primarily for drug-related or non-violent crimes. That’s roughly an 800 percent increase in the past 30 years. And female felons don’t have any easier a time finding work than their male counterparts. Typically, about half of those released from prison have no stable home, no transportation … and few legal job skills. Many of these people struggle with addiction and/or mental health issues as well.

One woman, a social worker-turned-entrepreneur in North Carolina, has found a way to join her passion for fresh food with her passion for helping these women. Tanya Jisa now oversees Benevolence Farm,

nestled in pastoral lands west of Durham, N.C., which will serve as a transitional living program for just released female ex-convicts. For a period of six months to two years, these women will learn about how to operate the farm, growing their own food along with produce to be sold at farm stands, farmers markets, and local grocery stores.


alfonso-mechanicAlfonso was looking for a “fast life,” and as a result, he got mixed up in illegal drugs and landed in prison.

For many, that kind of thing might signal the beginning of a pattern or slowly define and distort one’s identity or destiny. But for Alfonso, it was a wake-up call.

While in prison, he began to realize who he really was, and more importantly, whose he really was. He began to understand that God created him to be a gift-giver, and that the work of his hands was a form of worship to his Creator.

When he was released, he started an automotive repair shop, where he continues to meet the needs of his community in a variety of ways, material, spiritual, and otherwise.

Hear more about his story here:


Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Texas Easter Prison Visit_6“If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars,” wonders Stephen H. Webb, “how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?” At First Things, Webb argues that revival of Christianity will only come when we reform America’s prisons:

Prisoners are test cases of how Christians deal with sinners in extremis. I don’t just mean that compassion for the imprisoned can serve as a corroboration of Christian charity, although that is surely true. I mean that the whole experience of imprisonment is absolutely central to the coherence and credibility of the Gospel message. How can captivity, a great biblical theme, have any meaning today if we treat incarceration as nothing more than “serving time”? How can salvation be proclaimed as the ultimate joy even in this life if we live in a society that continues punishing prisoners long after they have been released?

One of the strongest parallels between prisons and theology has to do with our conceptions of the afterlife. For example, many people treat the possibility of rehabilitation behind prison walls with the same skeptical indifference that even devout Catholics now bestow upon purgatory: We can’t even fathom how moral change happens, if at all, in either place, so we leave its remote possibility up to God. Cynicism at home breeds disbelief abroad. Nobody believes that isolation and humiliation reform criminals, just as nobody really believes that a cleansing fire burns away unconfessed sins in purgatory, yet without any plausible alternatives to humiliation or fire, the healing effect of punishment remains as mysterious for the Church as it does for the judicial system.

Read more . . .

Last week on the Acton PowerBlog, Anthony Bradley raised the issue of the war on men, specifically the high rate of imprisonment among men in the United States.  At one point in time, America acknowledged that prison might be a place of rehabilitation rather than simply the warehousing of criminals (read Ray Nothstine’s work on Angola Prison to see that rehabilitation in prison is possible.)

Catholic blogger Mark Shea interprets the high rate of imprisonment as a sign of the de-Christianization of our culture: we’ve de-valued life, and slavery becomes acceptable. The infographic below shows that prison – no longer rehabilitative and no longer warehousing – is profitable. Prisoners are cheap labor and big business. Rather than tending to criminals, visiting the imprisoned and helping men and women who’ve committed crimes become better people, we’re using them. It might be a money-maker, but is it just?

Prison, Inc - The Secret Industry

As Joe noted last week, over at Think Christian, H. David Schuringa highlights the primacy of the church’s ministry to prisoners and their families. He points to efforts both great and small:

Over the last 20 years, prison ministry has finally gotten back on the church’s agenda. There are not only large, national ministries like Bill Glass Champions for Life, Kairos, Prison Fellowship and Crossroad Bible Institute, all dedicated to preparing inmates for reentry, but also thousands of smaller groups and churches going into prisons and jails to bring the Good News.

Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, was a long-time friend of the Acton Institute, and his story is featured in a compelling way in our new curriculum, Our Great Exchange.

Jim Liske, the current CEO of Prison Fellowship, hosts the series, which includes a session on “Compassion,” featuring Chuck’s story from political insider to prison insider…and beyond. As Chuck says, “I did everything my way. And it crashed and burned.”

For a preview of the session on compassion, check out the video featuring Chuck, “Like I Am.”

America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.

prison-ministryNo one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.

For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,


Angola inmates in the prison auto shop. (Photo by Erin Oswalt for Acton Institute)

In mid-September I ventured down to South Louisiana to visit and tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola Prison. My commentary this week “Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead” is based on that visit. Burl Cain, Angola’s warden, will be featured in an upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty. I will be providing more information on Angola and my time down there, but think of this commentary as an introduction of sorts to what I witnessed.

A portion of the upcoming interview with Cain will reflect upon Chuck Colson. That good things are happening at places like Angola are in a large part directly related to Colson and his legacy and work on behalf of Prison Fellowship. I’ll have a lot more to say about Angola, but when you study in-depth the history and mystique of this prison, for it to change like it has, you know God is present.

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”