In recent years, California’s prisons have seen intense overcrowding — to the point that federal judges ruled the quality of life in violation of prisoners’ civil rights.
In 2011, Governor Brown introduced a reduction plan that included moving prisoners with nonviolent charges to county jails and probation centers. Now, with two more years to get the population down to 112,100, California is looking into additional methods for reduction, such as good-behavior incentives for prisoners that could lead to early release and parole.
Time.com interviewed five criminal justice experts to see what lessons California could learn from the experiences of other states as it continues on its mission. Here’s a quick look at what the experts had to say.
Preschoolers AJ and Butchie witnessed a harrowing scene in the courtroom; if it had ended there, these two little boys would have faced a future without hope or promise. But Angel Tree supporters helped rescue them and turn their hearts to their parents.
AJ and Butchie watched in horror that day as both of their parents were brought into a courtroom on drug charges. Catching sight of their shackled parents, the children screamed and flailed to get to them.
Their father, Butch, listened to their heartrending cries of “Daddy, Daddy” — and helplessly burst into tears.
Their mom was released, but Butch was given a seven-year prison sentence.
He attended every Christian program he could, including Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative — an intensive course of study and reentry preparation centered on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Butch’s life was transforming, but his wife, Gwenni, struggled with her own drug addiction. And taking care of AJ and Butchie alone on the outside was demanding.
The following post originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship blog.
There’s no way anyone is going to do this.
That depressing whisper of doubt and futility kept up its nagging as I set up the email that would go out to our national list of supporters.
We were at the end of the August recess for Congress, and our team was determined to get the Second Chance Reauthorization Act moving forward.
It was a worthy goal. Chuck Colson had worked to pass the original Second Chance Act in 2008 under President Bush. Since then, tens of thousands of men, women, and youth have received mentoring, substance abuse treatment, and other types of reentry support after they are released from prisons, jails, and detention centers. Some of these faith-based services will probably be discontinued or reduced in scope if Congress doesn’t reauthorize Second Chance.
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?”