To go into prison is to be marked for life. Regardless of the time spent, the lessons learned, and the changes made, these men and women will forever be identified as prisoners—a “scarlet letter” firmly affixed upon them, and readily visible to all. Future employers, landlords, and even co-congregants will identify them first and foremost as “ex-cons,” and suspicion will guide their interactions.
And in some cases, these marks are more than metaphorical.
“Freedom Tattoos”—a program created by Pedagogium: The College of Social Sciences in Poland, is offering former prisoners in that country the opportunity to have tattoos they received during their time in prison covered with new, more appealing artwork. The ugly words and images created with makeshift implements during their incarceration are thus transformed into images that reflect their own personal metamorphosis.
An ad promoting the program features two women recently released from prison. One of the women, a young mother, has the word “vendetta” tattooed on the back of her neck, the product of time spent at a juvenile detention center. “Now I want to [cover this tattoo] for my children,” she says, “Because I love them. It’s simple.”
It was just a few months before Chuck went home to Jesus. We were sitting in his home in Naples, Florida, and he was “schooling” me, as he did several times in the nine months he and I were together at Prison Fellowship. On this particular afternoon, he was flipping through his ever-present yellow legal pad, talking about his special passion for ministry in the federal prison system. Chuck served seven months in the federal system, and it was there God touched his heart and lit the fire of future ministry.
Chuck went on to talk about how we needed to find a way to convey the message of restoration and redemption to the Department of Justice because, he believed, “if they could just see the change that takes place in a prison when the inmates come to Jesus and live out their faith, they will want us in every prison in the country!” I can still hear the passion transparently displayed in his voice and see it on his face.
Late in 2014, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Chuck Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. This Task Force, a nine-member, bipartisan commission, will make recommendations to shape the federal prison system into a more effective, redemptive institution. I have been asked to serve on the Task Force to represent Prison Fellowship Ministries, Chuck’s point of view, and prisoners and their families across the country. Though Chuck has gone home, God is giving him his heart’s desire. We now have a profound opportunity to influence the future of federal corrections!
Justice Fellowship applauds today’s unanimous Supreme Court’s decision in Holt v. Hobbs, which upheld the right of a Muslim prisoner to grow a ½ inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. This is a clear endorsement and victory for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which sets a high standard for protecting religious liberty. This legislation, which our late founder, Chuck Colson, worked diligently with Congress to pass, properly prohibits the government from restricting a person’s religious liberty unless there is a compelling government interest and the government is using the least restrictive means in restricting that liberty.
According to Justice Fellowship Policy Director Jesse Wiese, “The history of America’s penology is deeply rooted in providing the opportunity for prisoners to make amends on both a religious and societal basis—to remove the ability to do so diminishes the value of the individual and has negative effects on public safety. In fact, allowing men and women to exercise their religious beliefs while incarcerated has been shown to increase public safety.”
Wiese, who was himself incarcerated during the early 2000s, stated that, “During my incarceration, I was allowed to practice my faith in ways that would directly contribute to my success upon release. Unfortunately, prison seldom teaches men and women how to be good citizens and rarely affords the opportunities to practice the norms that society demands upon release. Having the freedom to exercise, or practice, my Christian faith—and having that activity constitutionally protected—afforded invaluable opportunities to practice good citizenship. “
Justice Fellowship maintains that today’s Supreme Court ruling protects this freedom and sends a strong message of dignity and hope—both of which are desperately needed for the men and women in our nation’s prisons and jails.
Read the Holt v. Hobbs decision here.
If you weren’t able to participate in Angel Tree this season, you can still snag a glimpse of the difference the program is making in the lives of children with incarcerated parents. We’re taking you to Palma Ceia Baptist Church in Hayward, California, where kids gathered on Dec. 13 to learn about God’s love and receive Christmas gifts as reminders that their parents in prison care about them. You’ll hear Rev. Tommy Smith Jr. share why he and his church participate in Angel Tree, and some of the families who attended the Angel Tree party will tell you what the program means to them.
If this video does not load, please click here to view it.
In the Bible, justice is about much more than fairness or catching and punishing “bad guys.” Biblical, or restorative, justice centers focus on restoring everyone affected by wrongdoing—including the offender, the victim, and the community around them. It’s based on shalom, a Hebrew term encompassing peace, wholeness, righteousness, and harmony.
Justice Fellowship is the arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries that promotes the principles of restorative justice in the public square, advocating for laws and policies that reflect the human dignity and value of each person affected by the cycle of crime and incarceration. We envision a criminal justice system in which those who violate the law are held accountable and restored to their full potential, victims are respected and supported, and communities and churches are deeply involved in the work of restoration.
One of the most important places we need to see restorative justice is in the laws of our respective states and the country as a whole. Since 1993, Justice Fellowship has fought for important reforms like the Second Chance Act, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and the Fair Sentencing Act, as well as legislation at the state level. But we’ve never fought alone. Friends like you step up to call your representatives, write letters, ask for meetings, and make informed decisions about criminal justice in your community and your state.
Would you like to be a part of establishing biblical principles of restorative justice in your community? Learn how by clicking here.
With the help of so many volunteers and partners around the country, Prison Fellowship spent 2014 bringing the Gospel to prisoners, helping former prisoners successfully return to their communities, and supporting families affected by crime and incarceration. This past year, thousands of men and women behind bars surrendered their hearts to Christ, and 50 new “bridge churches” began walking alongside newly released men and women. We’ve seen God work through Prison Fellowship and our partners to transform lives and equip Christian leaders to change the culture of prisons and communities.
Here are just a few of the incredible ways God propelled prison ministry, justice advocacy, and Christian leadership forward last year:
Michelle Rainey was 15 when her mother was arrested on drug charges, leaving her the responsibility of caring for four younger siblings.
Her new responsibilities did not allow for what many would consider a normal life for a teenaged girl. She dropped out of school to support the family, and spending for things like Christmas gifts did not fit into the tight budget.
“The first couple of years, [my brothers and sister] did not have Christmas presents,” Michelle says. “It was all I could do to keep us fed. There wasn’t money for extra stuff.”
That would change, thanks to Angel Tree, a local church, and two loving volunteers.
“The first year we found out about Angel Tree, somebody called for gift wishes,” Michelle recalls. “Then, a few weeks later there were presents somebody delivered to our house.”
“That was pretty awesome. The kids finally had a Christmas.”
“This is what the LORD says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters … See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43:16, 19 (NIV)
I love this time of the year. We take a little time with our families to relax, unwind, and marvel at what God has done in the past 12 months—all the ways He has showed up when we needed Him to, and everything He has taught us along the way.
As a ministry, PFM takes stock of all the challenges God has brought us through since our founding. Like the people of Israel remembering their redemption from the land of Egypt, we recall how God brought Chuck Colson out of prison and gave him a ground-breaking vision … how over and over again God has brought us funding and favor with officials so that the work can continue to grow … how friends like you have partnered with us over decades with your faithful sharing of time, prayer, and resources.
We also look ahead to the challenges and opportunities that 2015 holds. God is doing exciting new things. He is truly making “a way in the wilderness” for prisoners, families, and all those affected by the cycle of crime and incarceration.
As you start a New Year, I’d like to invite you to adopt a new habit: Join the Prison Fellowship Prayer Team, a growing community of prayer warriors committed to paving a smooth road for restoration by interceding for specific needs of the ministry and those we serve. Check it out today.
This past December, Angel Tree took gifts and the Gospel to children with a mom or dad in prison all around the county. At Prison Fellowship, we’ve been hearing amazing reports from our Angel Tree volunteers about the lives and families that were touched through the program this Christmas.
A volunteer named Fran writes to us from Tennessee. She’s been involved in Angel Tree for a decade now, and at her church’s Angel Tree banquet just a few weeks ago she met a teenage girl named Taylor* whose mother is incarcerated.
Fran writes, “Before she received the gift, I wanted her to know that it was from her mom and that we helped out as a testimony of what the gift of Christ has meant to our lives.”
Fran asked Taylor for her mother’s name. She told her, and Fran asked to pray for Taylor and her mother.
As Fran prayed, Taylor buried her face in her father’s shoulder, sobbing. This was the first time that Taylor had heard from her mom in 11 years.