“I was a judge you really didn’t want to appear in front of,” says Tom Kohl, presiding judge in Washington County, Oregon. “I was really harsh, especially toward drug addicts that were charged with crimes.”
An estimated 30,000 people abuse alcohol or illicit drugs in Washington County, and Tom felt little compassion when they appeared before him in court.
But Tom’s attitude changed when he learned that his own daughter, Megan, was abusing drugs. As he saw her sinking deeper into drug abuse, his sympathy for drug addicts grew, and he began a drug court in March 2005 to help people like her.
Drug court is an intensive treatment program for addicts who have been charged with crimes. It involves counseling, group therapy, employment, and a weekly meeting with a judge.
“Our mission in drug court is to save people’s lives, to break the cycle of addiction, and to restore family relationships,” says Tom.
Tom hoped that drug court would help his addicted daughter.
“[My wife and I] were praying that Megan would be brought into the system because she wasn’t being accountable to anyone,” says Tom. “People who are moms and dads of addicts can understand that prayer.”
The Kohls’ prayers were answered when authorities charged Megan with meth distribution in May 2006, but she would never have an opportunity to face justice.
On July 21, 2006, at the age of 21, Megan was murdered.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” says Tom. “When I received word from the police officer … there was so much sorrow, despair, hopelessness.”
Humor is a very powerful thing. It has the ability to entertain. It can connect people who otherwise might have very little in common and allow old friends to revisit happy times and places. A well-timed joke can relieve tension, foster conversation, encourage, bring cheer, and alleviate melancholy.
It can also inform, elucidate, and raise awareness of serious issues – sometimes in ways a simple recitation of facts cannot.
On his “Last Week Tonight” program, comedian John Oliver delivers a lengthy monologue focused on the state of the corrections system in the United States. The commentary deals with a wide range of prison-related issues – from mandatory minimums, to solitary confinement, to the privatization of prisons, to the number of children with at least one parent behind bars. At one point, Oliver plays a clip from Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” program which is specifically intended for children of inmates.
“Just think about that,” Oliver says incredulously. “We now need adorable, singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain the number seven or what the moon is.”
How are Christians called to serve our broken neighbors? In a sermon to Ridge Point Community Church in Holland, Michigan, Prison Fellowship Ministries President and CEO Jim Liske discusses the importance of being “people of restoration” for those in need of God’s healing.
“Our destiny in faith is to be people of restoration,” says Liske. “And that means going to where the brokenness is, and determining that we are going to bring the Kingdom. We’re going to bring God’s rule and reign, and we’re going to bring the Gospel and we’re going to bring grace, and we’re going to refuse to identify people by their past. And our faith is going to say, ‘No, hope is here, I can see the improvement, and God is going to empower it.’ That’s our task. That’s our opportunity. That’s our calling.”
In the aftermath of any senseless act of violence, we cry out, “Why?” We feel more vulnerable in the communities we live in. We reach out for solutions that would prevent something similar from happening in the future. But most often, we are left without any real answers.
In my work with the incarcerated all over the country, I find myself in a unique position to get answers to the tough question of “why.” While visiting a prison I asked a group of men, all sentenced for murder, why they took another person’s life. All of them answered the same way: They didn’t see the victim as a person, but as an object that stood between them and what they wanted. They all agreed that if they would have rightfully recognized that victim’s human value, they never could have killed them.
It turns out that Scripture offers us a simple, time-tested antidote to this damaging perspective: “Love one another” (John 13:34); “value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); and “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
When Judge Tom Kohl’s daughter was murdered, he took these words to heart. This Prison Fellowship® volunteer went to visit his daughter’s killer, explain the love of Jesus, and offer forgiveness. Judge Kohl’s testimony has helped many people behind bars to find forgiveness and peace with God. But that would never have happened unless he first recognized the God-given value in another person – even in the man who took his daughter’s life.
Jesus’ call to “remember the prisoner” goes hand in hand with this command to value one another. When we do, we naturally build the kind of communities we all want to live in.
Marlon is a living testament to second chances.
Born in Central America, Marlon arrived in the United States at age 6. As a child, he suffered as a victim of abuse. And when he was 7, he witnessed his first drive-by shooting. He watched a man die just feet away from him.
During his adolescence, Marlon was exposed to the world of gangs, and he began selling drugs on Los Angeles street corners. He got heavily involved in the cocaine trade and dropped out of high school. By the age of 17, Marlon was bringing in thousands of dollars a week as a dealer. But one day his world came crashing down. His closest ‘friends’ set him up, and he was robbed at gunpoint and beaten nearly to death.
After this, Marlon vowed to never sell cocaine again.
But it wasn’t long before Marlon met a group of people involved in the marijuana trade and began dealing drugs again. He fell deeper and deeper into a dangerous lifestyle — until he faced a life sentence for attempted murder.
A Fork in the Road
A plea bargain left Marlon with five years to serve in prison, with a deportation to Central America at the end of his sentence.
While incarcerated, Marlon met a Christian inmate who explained to him that he had two choices for his future: He could continue down a path detrimental to both himself and those around him, or he could become a man working to improve his life and his community. Marlon learned more about the concept of becoming a leader of positive change in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), a joint program of Prison Fellowship and World Impact that provides seminary-level education for prisoners.
Today there are approximately 2.7 million children with a mom or dad behind bars in this country. There’s no easy way to tell who these boys and girls are. They are all over the country, in busy cities and sleepy towns, in gated communities and run-down projects. Many of them are carrying emotional burdens far too heavy for their years.
The Church is God’s Plan A for loving the hurting, and local churches, with roots deep in their communities, are the group best positioned to embrace these children and their families, wherever they are. Angel Tree churches sign up to do just that.
Margo Nance volunteers to coordinate the Angel Tree program at Embassy Church in Cook County, Illinois, where many prisoners’ children live.
“Angel Tree affords us an opportunity to go to people we don’t know and minister to them, where we know the need is great,” Margo says.
As an example, Margo shares how a church representative called a child’s caregiver and heard a heartbreaking story of need. The family, including a newborn baby, had just lost its home in a fire. Touched by the family’s difficult circumstances, the church went above and beyond to provide much-needed items for the entire family. The caregiver was so blessed by the church’s restorative concern for her family she came back later to ask for prayer.
If we want to make the invisible Kingdom visible, we must go out of our way to notice those who feel invisible, to come alongside them and say, “You are not alone. God sees you. He loves you, and so do we.”
Churches large and small, urban and rural, can embrace this joyous calling. Learn how to become an Angel Tree church at www.angeltree.org.
The following post originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship website.
With the amount of talk about recidivism, there is very little focus on people who do not commit another offense after their release. It is assumed that everyone who committed an offense poses a high threat of committing another one. But what if that assumption is incorrect?
A new report commissioned by Justice Fellowship finds that many people who committed crimes reach a point where their likelihood of committing another offense is equal to that of the general population. This idea, called “Risk Convergence,” states that formerly incarcerated individuals who do not reoffend over a certain amount of time return to the same risk as the general population.
The report describes three variables that affect the risk convergence timeline for a specific person who committed an offense. The first variable is the age of the person who committed the offense. The younger the individual, the longer it takes to reach a point of risk convergence. A 21-year-old who commits the same crime as a 35-year-old will take longer to have their risk of reoffending converge with the general population. The second variable is if violence is involved with the offense. When someone commits a violent crime, it takes longer for their risk level to come down. The third variable is whether it was a first offense. People who commit multiple offenses may take much longer to reach risk convergence.
For prisoners who began their time behind bars at a young age, release can be especially overwhelming. As these men and women reenter society for the first time as adults and learn how to navigate daily life, they also face the challenge of resisting the old, familiar lifestyle that led to their incarceration.
Michael is one ex-prisoner who has fought this battle, and won.
Growing up in Dallas, the temptation of street life overtook Michael, and he joined a gang. Then, when a dispute with a rival gang arose and a man was shot and killed, Michael’s world turned upside down.
At the age of 18, Michael was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison, which was later reduced to 20 years.
A Change of Course
While serving his sentence, Michael heard about Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) from a fellow inmate. Although he had never given God much thought before prison, Michael decided he would sign up for this reentry program based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Kate Campbell is a summer intern with Prison Fellowship, working with Inside Journal. She is currently studying photojournalism at Boston University.
Recently, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about a program called Reading Connections, which allows incarcerated fathers and mothers to record videos of themselves reading stories for their children. The parent also writes a letter, which is sent to their child along with a copy of the storybook.
In America, over 2.7 million children are growing up with an incarcerated parent. The Reading Connections program helps children maintain a relationship with and their parent during the difficult time of incarceration. Studies have shown that prisoners have a lesser chance of reoffending if they have healthy relationships with their families.
Prison Fellowship Ministries works to reduce the prison return rate by building and restoring relationships, including those between parents and children.
In Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, prisoners have the opportunity to build relationships with their children through the Storybook Dad program. The program began in 2008, and since then it has become an entirely prisoner-run operation.
According to Phillip Dautrich, an IFI counselor for Prison Fellowship, about 50 percent of the men in the Carol Vance Unit participate in the program. Men come into the studio at their scheduled time, choose a book, and then sit in front of a microphone and read the book. Other volunteer prisoners work with the sound equipment to add sound effects to the voice recording, then burn that track onto a CD, complete with a personalized CD case. Fathers can then send the CD and a copy of the book to their child as a birthday present or as part of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program at Christmastime. Volunteers have sent out over 1,500 CDs and more than 750 books.
“It gives the opportunity for the men to start thinking about reconciliation,” says Dautrich. “I like to think that that book is going to be a building block for them.”
Dautrich says that this program has definitely made an impact on both the fathers and the children.
“What we’re seeing now is that the child is now very excited for their dad to come home,” says Dautrich. “From the dad’s perspective, for them this was maybe the first time they weren’t selfish and they did something just for their child.”
This program often starts conversations about fatherhood and reconciliation.
“I don’t know if they’ve ever thought about what it means to be a father, and a responsible one.” says Dautrich. “It opens doors for us to start talking about it.”
We are all called to share the message of restorative hope found in the Gospel. Prison Fellowship strives to restore family connections through its Angel Tree program. Learn more about how you can be a part of this mission of restoration at www.angeltree.org.
The Ghent Altarpiece is a magnificent piece of art. It was commissioned in the early 15th century, and it depicts the most important figures and scenes in the Christian story.
During World War II, the Nazis stole this priceless work of art – along with countless others – and hid it deep underground in a mine, intending to one day put it in a museum dedicated to the glory of the Fuhrer.
As the Allied forces gained ground in North Africa and then in Europe, the United States formed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, a group of art experts mobilized to identify, rescue, and protect cultural treasures from the ravages of war. The film “The Monuments Men” recount how this unique group, often rushed through basic training and deployed beyond the front lines, recovered the Ghent Altarpiece – among many other precious objects – and returned it to its rightful home.
There is a powerful lesson for us in this. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1, NIV).
God has called all of us to be restorers. We are to help people get back into a right relationship with Him, with others, and with all of creation. Like the men of the MFAA, it’s our job to see where men and women who bear God’s image are in jeopardy, and to gently and lovingly restore them to their rightful place, in spite of the danger and discomfort that might be involved.
What a privilege that we have the mission of restoration! Learn how to get involved at www.prisonfellowship.org today.