Prison Fellowship

Increasing “Good Time” for Federal Prisoners

By Steve Rempe | Posted February 25, 2013

A current practice in the federal prison system is to allow inmates to accrue “good time” credit for model behavior during their incarceration.  Prisoners can receive up to 54 days* a year for avoiding disciplinary issues during their time behind bars, which can then be removed from the end of their sentence.  The concept is three-fold: prisons would be able to reduce behavioral incidents among the prisoners, encourage progress toward obtaining a high school diploma or GED, while reducing the prison population by allowing those inmates who are ostensibly lower risks for recidivism to return to civilian life.

While some state prison populations have declined in recent years, federal prisons have continued to grow at a rate of about 2.7 percent annually.  The annual budget for the Bureau of Prisons has grown from $330 million in 1980 to $6.6 billion in 2012.  This has resulted in a prison system that is currently 39 percent over capacity.  With tough federal sentencing guidelines, this trend of overcrowded prisons and increasing budgets is likely to continue.

In response, FedCURE, an advocate group for reforming the federal prison system, has proposed increasing the maximum “good time” earned from 54 days a year to 128.  Doing so would save the U.S. government $1.2 billion a year, according to FedCURE chairman Mark Varca.

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No More Window Dressing

By Jim Liske | Posted February 22, 2013

photo-jimOne January weekend I spent two very full days with my daughter and her husband, renovating one of the bathrooms in their house in Michigan. They wanted to do a real overhaul of this particular room, with new plumbing, electrical wiring, and drywall work. We had to cut holes in the ceiling, in the walls, and even in the floor.

As we worked, we found a lot of problems we couldn’t see from the outside. They’d been covered up with drywall and tile. We had to fix them before we could move on. If we had been unwilling to invest the money and effort, we could have just covered them up again with fresh tile and paint, but it would have cost us in the long term. Eventually, a wire would have shorted out, or a pipe would have burst, causing some real damage.

It’s a similar situation when we try to deal with crime by legislating heart change. Proposing new laws or programs might make us feel good in the short term, but in a lot of ways, it’s just window dressing. You can’t fix something that’s broken by just covering it up – you have to deal with the real problem.

We can’t solve crime by instituting the right laws – we need solutions that penetrate to the core of the community and the individual human heart. Each of us – prisoner or free – needs to experience true conviction of our brokenness, and we need the Spirit to drive us to the cross in search of forgiveness.

Transformation starts with the heart. Find out how you can be part of God’s redemptive work in prisoners’ hearts today.

The Prison Problem

By Steve Rempe | Posted February 21, 2013

Harvard_mag_coverThe cover of the most recent Harvard Magazine proclaims it in large letters: “America’s Prison Problem.”

The accompanying article by Elizabeth Gudrais does a good job describing the current state of prisons in the United States.  The author effectively shows that the current system is both inefficient and ineffective.  She points out the sky-high incarceration numbers (2.2 million Americans behind bars) and the staggering recidivism rates for those released from prison (two-thirds will be arrested within three years of release; half will return to prison).  She shows the relationship between incarceration and sociological indicators such as race, poverty, and education level.  She also discusses many of the difficulties that face prisoners upon release, and the reasons why so many of these men and women find themselves back behind bars.

All very important points.  But are these things, collectively, the “prison problem,” or are they symptoms of a greater issue?

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Confessions of a Regular Joe

By Ruth Chodniewicz | Posted February 20, 2013

bruton1_300x200 Joe Bruton knows how to welcome prisoners back into society. He has walked that road himself – twice. But his two experiences could not have looked more different. The first led to total failure, and the second to a whole new life.

Joe grew up in Houston, Texas. He did well in high school, but there was always alcohol around his home, and he accepted it as normal. He began drinking early and added drugs while still a teenager.

That pattern continued when Joe enrolled in college. By his sophomore year, he was a heavy drinker, cocaine user, and heroin addict. To support his habit, he grew and sold marijuana.

He tried to escape the Houston drug scene by transferring to the University of Arkansas. In 1987, Joe received his bachelor’s degree and was accepted into graduate school. He met and married his wife, Janie, a year later. But during his second year of study, the FBI caught up with Joe for drug trafficking. He would spend the next 33 months in a federal prison while Janie struggled with the family finances – and with the birth of their first son.

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Invisible People

By Alyson R. Quinn | Posted February 19, 2013
Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472 - 1553 ), The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, 1536, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection (Courtesy National Gallery of Art) (Click on image to expand.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472 – 1553 ), The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, 1536, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection (Courtesy National Gallery of Art) (Click on image to expand.)

The National Gallery of Art, carved out of a quarry’s worth of marble, stands on the edge of the National Mall. Inside, one finds masterpieces representing many styles, centuries, and artistic subjects. But on my most recent visit there, I looked carefully for artwork depicting prisons or prisoners. Though prisons are ubiquitous in modern societies – and have been for a few centuries – I found only one artistic representation of a prisoner: Christ being nailed to the cross.

If one out of every 34 American adults is in prison, on probation, or on parole, and if millions of children are affected by parental incarceration, why is this topic so often absent from our cultural conversations? How did 2.2 million people become invisible?

Prison is hard to talk about. It’s easy to push prison to the periphery of our public consciousness because, well, it’s awkward. Our sky-high incarceration rates are a magnifying class for our collective shortcomings, and if we want to talk seriously about prison, we must also talk about structural racism. We must talk about poverty. We must talk about failing schools, broken families, and divided marriages. We must acknowledge that we are all just as depraved as those locked away in cells. Frankly, we don’t know where to begin these difficult conversations, and it’s easier not to try.

Prison is hard to look at. Daily life is difficult enough. We have stressful jobs, family obligations, bills to pay, health problems to navigate … Who wants to spend extra time meditating on the harsh realities of prison life? Behind dull, grey prison walls and sharp concertina wire, there is a startling concentration of loneliness, violence, rape, shame, and addiction. Prisons hold some of the ugliest parts of human life, and we, who already have too little beauty in our lives, find it easier to avert our eyes and fill our museums with more pleasing pictures.

We do see some representations of prisoners in movies and television shows, but most are polarizing distortions that engender greater fear and misunderstanding. So where do we look? To Jesus.

He stopped and looked when others rushed by. He got beyond the monstrous stereotypes to see real people made in the image of God. Jesus challenges us to do the same.

At the National Gallery, the picture of the crucified Christ shows not one prisoner, but three. Christ is at the center, and beside him hang two criminals condemned to die. Christ takes on their ugliness and shame and suffers with them, dying for their sins and the sins of all humanity. And then He offers salvation to the one who will trust him.

Peace. Quietness. Confidence.

By Jim Liske | Posted February 14, 2013

photo-jim“The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.” – Isaiah 32:16-18

Peace. Quietness. Confidence. Wow – the life Isaiah describes is the life we all want, isn’t it? And it’s easy to imagine that if we’re going to the right church, and our kids are in the right schools, and if we have enough money tucked away for the future, that the peace we crave is within reach.

But it’s not like that for everyone. Recently I met a little fourth-grade girl who goes to a failing inner-city school. Her mother is a drug addict and her father is in prison. She lives in the projects, and as tough as it is, her home will be razed to the ground in the next 24 months to make room for gentrification. Where is her peaceful dwelling place? Where is her secure home?

Isaiah tells us that the quietness and peace will come not when we strive harder, but when we practice righteousness, and when His Spirit is poured out. Peace will come when that little girl’s parents are introduced to the hope of Jesus Christ, so they can leave behind the destructive choices that jeopardize their daughter’s future. Peace will come when a Christian worldview is applied to urban planning and development. Peace will come when we choose restoration over retribution in our justice system.

Learn how you can help bring God’s genuine peace to our broken world: www.prisonfellowship.org.

Inmates Give Back to Angel Tree

By Alyson R. Quinn | Posted February 12, 2013

La_Palma_250pxEvery year, hundreds of thousands of inmates who otherwise couldn’t provide Christmas gifts for their children do so through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program. In 2012, some Arizona inmates decided to give back – in the amount of $3,300.

La Palma Correctional Center, a prison privately operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, houses 3,100 men in several compounds. In 2011, says Chaplain James Brunk,  one in six inmates signed their children up for Angel Tree, so the men have come to know and value how the program enables them to connect with their families. When Compound 2 held a fundraising food sale – offering items like slices from Pizza Hut and hamburgers from MacDonald’s for sale to inmates – an inmate advisory council selected Angel Tree as the charity to receive the proceeds.

According to Chaplain Brunk, Angel Tree has been an important part of inmate life at Palma since shortly after the facility opened in July 2008. There, designated elders and deacons of the inmate church play an important role in advertising and administering the program.

“The second year that we had Angel Tree,” explains Chaplain Brunk, I turned around to [the inmate church leaders] and said,’ Here is a wonderful opportunity for you to bless the inmates around you … You should be letting guys know this is here to be a blessing.’ The inmates themselves got really excited about it.”

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Who’s My Neighbor?

By Steve Rempe | Posted February 11, 2013

On January 30, three young brothers were canoeing the Salmon Creek in Washington state.  The river current was strong that day, swollen by a week’s worth of rain, and the boys found themselves unable to control their small craft in the rushing water.  The boat capsized, sending the three boys—the youngest of which was eight—into the icy cold water.

On shore, Nelson Pettis heard the screams of help from the frightened youngsters.  He quickly scanned the creek, and saw three heads bobbing in the water.  In a split second, he chose to put himself at risk, diving into the rapids in an attempt to save the boys.  Soon, two other men—Larry Bohn and Jon Fowler—joined Pettis in the creek.  Fighting the current, they were able to direct the boys to dry land, dodging fast-moving debris as they made their way to shore.

The three men are rightly being hailed as heroes who risked life and limb to save the lives of boys they had never met.  And yet, the most interesting part of the story might be why these heroes were in the vicinity of the creek in the first place.

As fate would have it, Pettis, Bohn, and Fowler were performing maintenance work at a nearby park at the time of the capsizing, members of a work release program from the nearby Larch Correctional Center.

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Basements and Borrowed Bibles

By Jim Liske | Posted February 7, 2013

photo-jim“It’s not going to last very long.”

That’s what everyone said about Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) – a values-based prisoner reentry program drawn from the life and teachings of Christ – when it started in Lino Lakes, Minn. The inmates who signed up met in the basement. They had no books but a few Bibles, some borrowed and some torn in half, so that more men could read them.

Ten years later, the doubters are silent. The same men who studied borrowed Bibles in a prison basement are now free and living productive lives – graduates of the program have a remarkably low recidivism rate. The Lino Lakes IFI is out of the basement, too. The program has its own building and a beautiful chapel. Recently I was there for a graduation ceremony and anniversary celebration.

At the ceremony someone recalled IFI’s difficult early days, when the students were getting flack from their fellow inmates. One day, eight IFI students were on the prison yard, feeling depressed. One student remembered that when David felt downcast, he sang. So all eight men started singing praises to God – right there on the yard. They got funny looks, to say the least.

“But now,” the man rejoiced, “when we sing, everyone sings with us.”

These men, who had been rejected by the culture and the community, are having a lasting impact for good. They are changing the culture of the prison – and their communities on the outside. The doubters may have said IFI wouldn’t last at Lino Lakes, but it’s doing more than survive – as God works through the time, prayers, and financial gifts of friends like you, it’s making a difference for all eternity.

Forgiven, Not Forgotten

By Carolyn Kincaid | Posted February 6, 2013

Beth_1_300x200Beth awakened in a sterile hospital room with a few familiar faces crowding over her.

“You’ve been in a coma for two weeks,” her parents told her. “You were in an accident on New Year’s.”

She panicked.

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked. Her dad, a pastor, hesitated to answer.

“Yes,” he replied, his voice shaking.

She tried to put the pieces back together as she lay in her hospital bed, but her foggy memory failed to recall what happened that fateful night . . .

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