By the most recent estimates, an estimated 140,000 military veterans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States. While that number is down from previous reports, it still represents a sizable number of men and women who have served our nation as members of the armed services.
On a recent visit to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative Unit in Texas, Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske met with Anthony, a Marine who is in the last year of his prison sentence. In the video below, Liske recounts running the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014 and praying specifically for Anthony during mile three of the race—one of 26 incarcerated soldiers Liske prayed for over the course of the marathon.
There are many more soldiers like Anthony who are preparing to return to society outside prison walls. Through in-prison programs like the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, Prison Fellowship seeks to equip these men and women once again for a life of service—this time by serving their families, their churches, and their communities.
If you would like to find out more about how you can help prisoners like Anthony, please visit our get involved pages.
When it was first celebrated in the 1860s, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. Americans from the North and South would pause to place floral decorations on the graves of those who had lost their lives in the Civil War. May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom throughout the United States. As the years went by, and Americans fought in many more wars, Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day. It was broadened to recognize all those who, though killed in the service of their country, deserve to never be forgotten.
When I talk to prisoners, they sometimes tell me they feel like, though living, they have already died. Their cells can feel as dark and constricting as a tomb, they have little or no contact with the outside world, and their friends and relatives often cut off ties. Unlike a soldier who falls in battle, a prisoner is both gone and forgotten.
Without a doubt, those who have committed crimes need to be held accountable for their actions. However, contrary to the dominant message in our culture, Scripture challenges us not to forget those behind bars. All of us, whether free or incarcerated, would be imprisoned by our sins without Jesus, and that’s why God calls us to shed the light of His love in the darkest places.
This Memorial Day, we join all Americans in honoring those who fought and died for our country. But we also remember those behind bars whom Jesus died to save. By His grace, they can be brought up from the “grave,” transformed and restored to lead new lives.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:5
To live in prison is to live in the shadows. Forgotten by most outside the walls, these men and women are relegated to the darkest corner of society, erased from public memory, and quarantined to a place defined by a subculture by lawlessness and violence.
While the imagery of the darkened jail cell is somewhat of a Hollywood convention drawn from ancient days, the truth is that prison remains a dark place for many of those who inhabit it. Isolated from friends and family, prisoners are consigned to miniscule living quarters and subjected to a highly regulated daily routine, even as they come to grips with the crimes that landed them behind bars in the first place. For many inmates, the spiritual and emotional darkness that comes with incarceration extends far beyond the limited sun filtering through bar-covered windows.
But even in the darkness of prison, there is light.
While cities like Baltimore have recently experienced much tension when it comes to police-resident relations, Fresno, California, has been having a very different experience thanks to the community-policing initiative Fresno’s chief of police, Jerry Dyer, implemented in 2002.
Just over a decade ago, violent crime was so frequent in Southwest Fresno that Dyer knew he had to start doing something differently. The area was heavily gang-ridden, and residents didn’t talk to the police unless they were in trouble. So he appointed a few of his best men—those with reputations for relationship-building—to start the initiative now known as Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life.
The result? One long-time Fresno resident says, “Our community has been completely transformed.”
Partnership is at the root of this project. Through the police department’s collaboration with local organizations and churches, the initiative has picked up steam over the years. Each Tuesday, a team of teenagers meets to plan upcoming community block parties. The police department hosts dozens of these block parties each year at various churches in the Fresno communities with food, service booths, and fun activities for the kids. The officers use these parties as opportunities to build relationships with residents—especially the younger residents who are most at risk for gang involvement.
More than 40 years ago, Prison Fellowship’s founder, Chuck Colson, was sitting in a federal prison cell. From the heights of power as special counsel to the president, he had fallen to the depths of shame and isolation. I wonder if, sitting in that cell, he ever dreamed of what would be happening in Washington, D.C. decades later.
This week is the third meeting of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which, in the spirit of Chuck’s tireless work for criminal justice reform, has been convened to address system-wide overcrowding and other problems in the federal prison system. The Task Force, on which I am honored to serve, will meet throughout 2015 to conduct its work and present its findings and recommendations to Congress, the Department of Justice, and the president. In a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive grace, Chuck will again, in a sense, be advising the government at the highest level.
No life is beyond the reach of God’s love and restoration, and every man and woman behind bars has been made in His image. That’s why, through the Task Force and the ongoing work of Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship is committed to advocating for criminal justice reform that respects human dignity, protects communities, and promotes accountability.
To learn more, follow the Task Force on Twitter at #ColsonTaskForce and read this article by John Stonestreet, who had the opportunity to interview the Task Force’s chairman, former Rep. J.C. Watts. Finally, if you’d like to support this important work in prayer, please pray for me and the other members of the Task Force, and all the men and women who will be affected by the outcomes!
By pretty much any standard, being a new mom is difficult work. Along with the nearly constant feedings and diaper changes, mothers are expected to teach, protect, and nurture these most vulnerable of God’s creation. Sleep comes at a premium, and opportunities for personal care and development are often sacrificed for the sake of the children.
Now, imagine doing this from prison.
At the Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois, a small number of non-violent offenders who have given birth while in custody have been assigned to the prison’s “E-wing”—home of the state’s only in-prison nursery. Here, Sesame Street characters adorn the walls, and cells come with both a changing table and a crib.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” Cayesha Shivers says in a Chicago Tribune story on the facility. “Every mom here can agree with me. There’s nothing like being able to be there, hands on. Not watching your child grow up through pictures and through letters and just phone calls.”
For a long time, Trisha thought she was alone and that no one could understand what she was going through.
As a young girl, Trisha’s father would lock her and her four siblings out of the house for extended periods. He was involved with drugs; strangers filed in and out of their house constantly. She served as default caregiver for the younger children, and her brother searched the neighborhood to steal food so they could eat.
When Trisha was in the third grade she and her siblings were taken away from their dad because he was making drugs in their basement. His first of two jail sentences left them homeless. Then, while staying in a shelter, they learned that their brother had gotten blood cancer from exposure to the chemicals their dad had used to make drugs. From this point, the five children bounced from relative to relative. First they lived with their aunt, then with their grandmother, and then with their grandfather. The children went back and forth until finally the court decided they had to stay in one place—back with their grandmother.
Trisha’s childhood was a dark and lonely time. She watched her abusive father put a gun to her mom’s head. Her brother is thankfully cancer-free today, but he still wrestles with drug abuse and violence, the issues that plagued their father.
“It’s hard to watch,” she says.
Angel Tree Steps In
Trisha remembers the broken deams and the sadness. She remembers the Christmas they didn’t receive any gifts. Returning to school after Christmas break she had a writing assignment from her teacher: Write about what you got for Christmas. Trisha had nothing to write.
But something changed that first Christmas Trisha and her brother and sisters took part in Angel Tree. She was 9 years old, living in her grandma’s apartment, when Angel Tree volunteers arrived, arms stacked high with gifts. Trisha still remembers a baby doll as her favorite.
For just about every young man or woman in prison, there’s a mom who feels worried sick. She worries if her child is safe, she worries about whether her child will change, and she worries about what will happen when her child comes home. There’s no greater ache than this mother’s concern … and there’s no greater joy when her child becomes a new creation in Christ!
I got to witness this firsthand on a recent trip to a prison. I met a mother whose son has been enrolled in an intensive Prison Fellowship program to help him return to the community. When she met me, this mom gave me a huge hug. She told me how much her son has changed in the program. He has become a great dad to his own kids. In fact, he seems like a completely different person than the son she knew before.
“He treats me with love and respect,” she beamed, her eyes lighting up. She added, “You know, at one time, I didn’t want him to come home. And now I can’t wait until he’s released. He’s a good boy!”
This Mother’s Day, Prison Fellowship recognizes all the moms affected by the terrible cycle of crime and incarceration. And we celebrate the truth that, because of the power of the Gospel, no one’s son or daughter is beyond hope. To support the ongoing ministry that’s bringing fresh hope to mothers all across the country, click here.
“Prayer breaks all bars, dissolves all chains, opens all prisons, and widens all straits by which God’s saints have been held.” – E. M. Bounds
There is nothing that brings Christians together quite like prayer. It unites believers across both space and time, bridging differences in culture, language, and tradition. When Christians pray, the Church is most fully the Church, praising God for His faithfulness and calling on Him to come to those in need.
On Thursday, May 7, Christians in the United States will observe the 64th annual National Day of Prayer. Men and women across the country will take time to repent and seek God’s mercy, lift up those in positions of authority and influence, and to call for a renewal of culture.
Prison Fellowship is calling on our friends and partners to join us as we “remember those who are in prison” this Thursday. We pray specifically for:
- our brother and sister believers behind bars, that God will give them strength and perseverance as they seek to serve him in what can be a dark and lonely place;
- for those incarcerated who have not yet received God’s saving grace, that they may experience His forgiveness;
- for the families of prisoners, that the Lord will bind them together in love and provide for them;
- for those who minister to prisoners, that God’s love may flow from them in new and unexpected ways;
- for wardens and corrections officers, that God will provide them with protection, and that they may play a role in the renewal and restoration of the men and women under their authority.
For those who would like to be a part of a “praying community” committed to lifting up those impacted by crime and incarceration, visit the Prison Fellowship Prayer Team page, and join Christians across the country in weekly prayer for requests provided by prisoners and their families.
As I waited in line to enter a prison I have visited many times, a correctional officer approached me and said, “The warden would like to see you.”
This warden and I have become friends over the years, and we enjoy each other’s company. But this time, as I entered the warden’s office, I encountered a troubled expression. The warden explained that in recent weeks, there had been a series of gruesome slashings at the facility. Men were cutting each other’s faces from hairline to jaw in an effort to leave permanent scars. Without revealing the identity of any of the prisoners involved, the warden showed me a few pictures of the incisions; the damage was nauseating and very disturbing.
The best efforts of the staff had not yet succeeded in bringing this horrible pattern to a halt.
The warden had called me in hopes that I and the prisoners I planned to worship with that day would pray for the violence to stop. While voicing this request, this normally stoic, pragmatic official began to cry.
It’s hard to picture a warden crying. Wardens are more often portrayed as unfeeling or even cruel, but the vast majority of corrections leaders I’ve met are conscientious professionals who care deeply about the safety of their staff, the general public, and the men and women placed in their custody. Like my friend, they feel broken-hearted when they are unable to break the cycle of violence.