My name is Luis Rodriguez, and I grew up in Harlem, New York, with my mother. She raised me in the Pentecostal Church. However, I got caught up in addiction and violence and was in and out of jail from the age of 16.
In the ’70s, the streets where I grew up were flooded with marijuana, heroin, and, eventually, crack. My older brother gave me some marijuana to smoke when I was 7. I went to jail on my 16th birthday for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer.
In 2001, after moving to Florida, I was arrested on charges of attempted murder of a police officer, and I was looking at spending the rest of my life in prison. Immediately, I felt God tugging at my heart, so I decided to repent of my sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior.
My charges were later dropped to aggravated assault, and my sentence was reduced to five years in prison and 10 years of probation.
While in prison, I began sharing my faith with my fellow inmates. I had access to a library of Bible dictionaries and concordances, so I was able to prepare for the ministry work I wanted to continue when I returned home, too. I attended church services and looked forward to special events that were listed on the calendar. Words can’t describe how elated my fellow inmates and I were when we knew Prison Fellowship® was coming to do a program.
While I was incarcerated at a maximum-security prison in Everglades, Florida, I ended up taking part in three consecutive Prison Fellowship weekends — two in English and one in Spanish. The weekends were awesome. There were at least 20 volunteers that spent the weekend sharing their testimonies and studying the Bible with us. They were times of inspiration, love, and encouragement. What an experience that I will never forget. I still have my certificates of completion for the programs.
Tom Douglas is a legendary country music songwriter who was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His musical collaborators include country music stars like Miranda Lambert, John Michael Montgomery, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Collin Raye, and Lady Antebellum. His song, “The House That Built Me,” was named the 2010 Song of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
His most recent project, however, lacks the star power of any of these previous collaborations.
“I am having a songwriting class with seven inmates,” Douglas tells the Tennessean newspaper. “We’re talking creativity; we’re reading The Great Gatsby, and we’re trying to write a really good song together.”
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“I’m really trying to get the inmates to tell their stories,” he says. “They’re seven guys, and each guy has four lines in which he encapsulates his life story in the verse of the song.”
A few weeks ago I was in a Florida prison, visiting the residents of a faith-based dorm there. As soon as he saw me, one man named Richard came up to me and gave me a bear hug, even though the prison regulations discourage physical contact between visitors and prisoners. He was just too excited to tell me his good news!
Richard was one of the first graduates of The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) in a Florida prison. TUMI is a rigorous, seminary-level program that prepares men and women behind bars to be Christian leaders in their facilities and back in the community after they are released.
Richard has been one of the leaders in the faith-based dorm since he graduated, but his life is about to enter an exciting new phase. He couldn’t wait to hug me because he was about to be released!
I have spoken with many prisoners who are terrified of the prospect of being released. They don’t know where they are going or how they will live. They don’t know what to expect. Richard’s joyful face told a completely different story. He had already made contact with a church that he planned to join, and where he would have an opportunity to serve. Instead of a jarring, nerve-wracking reentry experience, Richard was anticipating a smooth transition from one area of Christian service to another. He couldn’t wait to get started.
Programs like TUMI are true game-changers. As the TUMI program and other faith-based reentry initiatives expand across the country, more and more former prisoners are being prepared for lives of purpose and belonging after prison, instead of returning to lives of crime. That’s good news for everyone! Learn more today.
The following post originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship blog.
On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced the rollout of his anti-poverty proposal, “Expanding Opportunities in America.” In the proposal, Ryan highlighted the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated and pushed for loosening the economic burdens that these men and women face upon return to their communities.
“We have seen a dramatic rise in incarceration over the past 30 years and a consequential explosion in corrections budgets,” said Craig DeRoche, executive director of Prison Fellowship’s advocacy arm, Justice Fellowship. “Congressman Ryan may be House Budget Committee Chairman, but his proposal is focused on the most important cost: the devastating impact the system has on families and communities. We must refocus the justice system on its true purpose to restore those affected by crime − victims, offenders, and communities.”
Ryan’s proposal calls for reforms in three areas: sentencing; prison programming to reduce recidivism; and supporting state, local, and non-governmental initiatives.
First, the proposal cited dramatic increases in mandatory minimum sentences, especially for non-violent and low-level crime, as a significant contributor to the growth in the federal prison population. Only six percent of the federal prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes. Ryan called on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for drug offenders that “may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.”
Longer sentences do not necessarily result in prisoners being better prepared to rejoin society. In fact, Ryan’s proposal cited Justice Fellowship’s analysis on how “prison culture often has the opposite effect.”
Accordingly, Ryan advocated for passing a second piece of legislation, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (a similar bill was introduced in the Senate: the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act). The legislation seeks to identify the risks and needs of federal prisoners in order to assign appropriate rehabilitation programming and to increase incentives to participate in programming.
Finally, the proposal featured promising initiatives led by state and local agencies and non-profit organizations to help prevent crime and reintegrate men and women returning from prison. Ryan specifically lauded the work that faith-based organizations do to turn around people’s lives.
“We are thrilled that Congressman Ryan’s criminal justice reform recommendations include two of Justice Fellowship’s federal legislative priorities,” said DeRoche. “These bills help advance key principles of restorative justice. The Smarter Sentencing Act will establish proportionate consequences for non-violent drug offenders and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act will encourage constructive culture within prisons. If we are going to truly fix the problems of the criminal justice system, however, it will take more than legislative proposals. We need citizens advocating for reform and stepping up to care for all those impacted by crime.”
Will you join the call for reform? Use Justice Fellowship’s easy online advocacy tool to email your legislators in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act today!
If you are interested in bringing restoration to those impacted by crime, Prison Fellowship Ministries offers many opportunities to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. Prison Fellowship volunteers serve as mentors to men and women behind bars, and provide both physical and spiritual support for those reentering society through the Bridge Churches program. Through Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship is able to share the love of Christ with the families of prisoners, providing Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parent, and providing support and encouragement to these families year-round.
To learn how you or your church can be a part of this ministry, please visit www.prisonfellowship.org/get-involved.
Illinois lawmakers have decided it’s time to take a fresh approach to counteracting all the gun violence and overflowing jails in their cities. And this fresh approach starts with the young people.
Illinois’ legislature has passed a law allowing the state to automatically expunge the minor arrests records of juveniles. With some exceptions, the slates of juveniles arrested but not charged will be wiped clean, erasing the arrests as they enter adulthood.
ABC News reports, “The goal is to give tens of thousands of teens a better chance to find work or get into college, rather than letting a minor episode with police possibly doom them to a life on the gang-dominated streets of some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.”
While expungement has been an option for some time now, many are unaware of the opportunity or unable to hire a lawyer and pay for the process. But with the passing of this new law, more young people with minor arrests are getting a second chance at living a life free from a criminal record.
Although some state lawmakers oppose the soft message automatic expungement may send to young people, others note that past methods have failed and a different plan is necessary to change the course of the city’s future.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he wants to see more young people graduating school and making a successful career for themselves. He states, “If they have a record, it’s harder, [and] if they don’t have a record, they’ll get a job, and they will be less likely to have a life of crime.”
“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.