Much has been written in this blog about Warden Burl Cain. (See here, here, and here for examples). During his nearly two decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the prison has shed its reputation as the “bloodiest prison in America,” and has become a model for other prisons seeking to reduce violent assaults among prisoners.
In an article for First Things, Peter Leithart seeks to find the reason for the prison’s transformation. While he notes several programs that have been implemented that have contributed to the change, Leithart suggests the biggest reason for the turnaround is more a change in attitude toward those behind bars.
“Respecting inmates as human beings goes beyond treating them with dignity,” Leithart says. “Angola’s programs are set up on the assumption that inmates have talents and hopes that can be cultivated so they can contribute to life within the prison and even to society outside.”
Such an approach is especially important in a maximum security facility like Angola, where the vast majority of inmates will never leave the prison. The value of the individual is not based on what they can contribute, but on the inherent image of God that exists in every soul. And it is because of the recognition of this innate value that these men actually can contribute to their in-prison community and beyond.
I was running on a bike path along a country road. With corn fields on either side, there was an abundance of grasshoppers on the path. As I ran along I noticed that the grasshoppers rapidly jumped into the high grass on either side in order to avoid getting crushed by my feet.
As God often does, He brought a passage of Holy Scripture to my mind:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in” (Isaiah 40:21-22).
I was suddenly cheered and contented. No matter how ominous issues in this world and this life are to me, they are nothing compared to our loving, powerful God. Issues that rise up to threaten us shrink and flee from God, jumping out of His way.
Restoring prisoners and their families … seeking to transform the culture of corrections … tackling tough social issues upstream from crime and incarceration … these are all BIG tasks. But to the even bigger God who calls and equips us, these challenges are like grasshoppers. They will disappear before our feet as we walk with our eyes on Him.
And He doesn’t send us alone. He gives us one another so we can run the race together. I am grateful for you and your partnership – you are the fuel in our tank. Learn how you can go even deeper into this ministry with us at prisonfellowship.org.
The following post originally appeared as a BreakPoint radio commentary.
If I asked you what prison and salvation have in common, chances are you would draw a blank. I know I would.
But the answer, according to philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb, is “quite a lot.” In fact, he insists that revival in America is contingent on our understanding the connection.
Writing in First Things, Webb notes that “there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation.” The most obvious one is that, for the Christian, sin is a kind of prison and release from this prison lies not in escape, but in a personal transformation effected through grace.
“In a democratic country heavily influenced by Christianity,” Webb continues, “prison is more than a theological metaphor.” It’s a “social reality that reflects our hopes and doubts about what it means to be liberated from our iniquities.”
Stated differently, how we deal with prisoners, whom Webb calls “sinners in extremis,” reflects what we believe about sin, grace, forgiveness, and salvation.
Michael Bellotti went to prison at the age of 24 for drug charges, but he didn’t let his 12-year sentence go to waste.
Michael began painting. Although he had never taken an art class, he painted every chance he got, and all his practice showed amazing results.
While Michael was in prison, he received the news that his cousin had passed away from cancer. To honor him, Michael painted a portrait of his cousin and sent it to his family. For Michael’s aunt, the portrait was an unexpected source of healing, and it sparked an idea for helping other grieving families, too.
In the video below, see how Michael’s paintings have helped more than 30 families cope with the loss of a loved one.
If video isn’t displaying properly, click here.
Every Christmas, Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program delivers the Gospel message and gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. But Angel Tree’s reach extends much farther than Christmastime. Prisoners’ children are experiencing God’s love all year long through Angel Tree summer camps, mentoring relationships, and an exciting annual event called the Angel Tree Football Clinic at Stanford.
Aug. 24 marked the eighth year that the Angel Tree Football Clinic has brought together high-caliber, Christian former college and professional football players and 7- to 13-year-old boys who have an incarcerated parent or face other significant risk factors. This year, about 320 boys from California enjoyed a free day of encouragement, physical engagement, and character development with 35 volunteer coaches who served as their positive male role models.
In the Old Testament we read how Nehemiah, a Jew in exile from his homeland, learned about the state of the survivors. The bearers of bad news told him, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
When Nehemiah heard this news, he didn’t quickly devise a solution. He didn’t distract himself with some pleasure. He didn’t downplay the gravity of the situation. Instead, he sat down and wept. He allowed his heart to be broken and his tears to flow freely for the suffering of his countrymen.
Nehemiah’s initial reaction is a step we often skip over. In our rush to fix things that are broken, we neglect the necessary discipline of letting our hearts be broken.
The forms of brokenness you and I confront as we walk with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and families – incarceration, crime, addiction, poverty, fatherlessness, and more – aren’t just “issues” to be resolved. They are gut-wrenching problems facing people made in the image of God, and before we jump in with solutions, it’s appropriate that we should take time to weep before the Lord like Nehemiah, acknowledging the depth of need and asking for His help.
As we do, something amazing happens. We are reminded that God is bigger. He is able. He gives us courage and boldness and direction, like Nehemiah, to restore lives and communities. And we find that the time we have spent in mourning helps us do so with real, lasting compassion.
To learn what Prison Fellowship Ministries is doing to help compassionately restore lives and communities affected by incarceration – and what you can do to help – visit prisonfellowship.org.
“Several years of prison ministry have convinced me that there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation.” So says religion professor Stephen Webb. In a recent article for First Things, Webb asserts that in order for spiritual renewal to take place in the United States, Christians must first turn their focus to the prison system.
“[P]rison is more than a theological metaphor,” Webb says. “It is a social reality that reflects our hopes and doubts about what it means to be liberated from our iniquities. If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars, how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?”
Webb argues that an understanding of incarceration is central to the Gospel. “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?”
If you imagine away the barbed-wire fence, it feels just like a family picnic on a sprawling green lawn underneath the late-morning sunshine. But for the parents and children in attendance, this is much more than a picnic; this is the day hope is restored.
On Aug. 16, nearly 30 boys and girls huddled around the entrance of Avery Mitchell Correctional Facility in the beautiful mountains of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to spend a day with someone they’d been missing lately: their incarcerated fathers. Some of these kids hadn’t seen their dads in several years; a few had never met their dads before. But, just the same, every child couldn’t wait to jump into their father’s arms on the prison’s front yard.
I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in an average family. Every year at Christmas, we sponsored a child through the Angel Tree® program. I loved the tradition and felt something special when we would drop off the packages in time for a prisoner’s child to celebrate Christmas.
As I grew older, I wasn’t as dedicated or consistent about picking a special tag from an Angel Tree. Sometimes it was hard to find a nearby location running the program. However, once I became a mom, I truly felt the need to spread the love and generosity so that my son, Jackson, would witness how our family could help other families.
Early during the Advent season in 2013, I was excited to pick an Angel Tree tag from the tree at our church. I wanted to be one of the first families to pick a tag since the year before we were late and all the tags had been taken.
This year, Jackson was 3 – old enough to help me pick out the tag and presents, beginning a whole new tradition for the two of us. Also, this year I had a special reason of my own to help out a child.
Our family was in need of finding joy this Christmas. We were missing our baby boy, Nicholas, who was stillborn a few months earlier. Nicholas was survived by his twin sister, but even with the delightful and joyful noises of a new baby at Christmastime, we knew our own little angel couldn’t be with us.
It’s said that the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo never knew what he was going to sculpt when he started. When a piece of marble was delivered to him, he would examine it, and he would envision the form trapped inside it, waiting to be revealed with his hammer and chisel. With the eyes of artistic faith, he saw beauty and majesty where most of us would just see a hunk of rock.
God sees great beauty and potential in each of us. He sees His own image deep within us, put there at creation, even when we are in rebellion against Him. He restores us to what He made us to be, patiently and lovingly working in us until our true beauty is revealed.
He also calls us to be His co-creators – His agents in the work of restoration. As we interact with our spouses, our children, our colleagues, or even just the people standing next to us in line, we are not called to see them as they are. We are called to see them with His eyes, recognizing the beauty and value within, and gently, as co-heirs of God’s grace, helping them to be brought back to His original design.
This applies, too, as we work with men and women behind bars. The world sees them as “hunks of rock,” with nothing to offer and no potential. God sees them completely differently. He sees His image within them, and He saw it as worthwhile to sacrifice His Son for them.
Let’s take up the mantle of co-creators. Let’s put our hope in the unseen, extending to others the same sacrificial love we have received ourselves! As we do, God will reveal His masterpieces of grace.