Prison Fellowship

The Power of Repentance

By Jim Liske | Posted September 20, 2013

Restoration is all about seeing God’s Kingdom come in the lives of our neighbors and in the culture, bringing them back to the whole, joyful state He originally intended. But that restoration must happen in us before it happens through us. So where do we begin? With repentance.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that repentance is really a good thing, and not a process to be avoided or dreaded. Through repentance, I lay aside old, sinful habits, and I come more fully alive in Christ every day.

To repent means to bring our minds into agreement with God about our behavior, and then, like the prodigal son, to turn away from sin and come home to the Father. Repentance is the first step in being restored to all that God has been longing to do in us, through us, and for us.

And you know what happens when we take that step? Heaven explodes with celebration. Angels dance and sing. Banners are unfurled. God sees us coming from a long way off and runs to usher us into the party.

Repentance is beautiful before God. Through it He invites us into that sense of absolute cleanliness.

Men and women in prison hunger for a new start that comes only through that first step of repentance, and for 37 years, Prison Fellowship® volunteers have been going behind bars to help them take that first step toward home. Visit to learn how God will use your prayers, support, and volunteering to set off an unbelievable celebration in heaven today.

Paying Attention

By Jim Liske | Posted September 16, 2013

Jim Liske_200x300At an Angel Tree summer camp, I was walking down the beach with a boy named Jackson.*

Jackson, about 12 years old, was eager to engage me. He told me all about school and his likes and dislikes. When I asked him about camp, he responded, “Camp is awesome … but my foster home is not. They don’t pay any attention to me.”

It suddenly dawned on me why Jackson was so ready to share his life with me: He was starved for the attention of an adult who would really listen.

That evening during a worship session, some of the campers were invited to explain what God had taught them about a Scripture verse and how it applied to their lives. Jackson came up to share about John 3:16. He said it meant that God was paying attention to him even before he was born.

I wish I could show you a picture of the giant smile on Jackson’s face as he shared that epiphany in his young life!

We’ve probably all had times in our lives when we felt invisible or unimportant, but that feeling is magnified in the life of a child with a parent in prison. But God is paying attention to Jackson and all the children like him. And He’s inviting us to pay attention, too!

Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program is a life-changing opportunity to show prisoners’ children how precious they are to their incarcerated parent – and to God. Now is the perfect time to register your church, community organization, school, or business for Angel Tree Christmas 2013. To learn more, visit

From Prison to Law Clerk

By Steve Rempe | Posted September 13, 2013

Shon Hopwood is very familiar with criminal courts system – from both sides of the bar.

In his autobiography, Shon Hopwood tells of his transformation from inmate to law clerk for a judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

In his autobiography, Shon Hopwood tells of his transformation from inmate to law clerk for a judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

As a young man in his early 20s, Hopwood took part in a series of bank robberies in Nebraska.  “[I was] a very stupid, foolish, and reckless kid,” Hopwood says of his youth.  He was convicted and sentenced t0 13 years behind bars.

During his incarceration, he started working in the prison library, becoming a “jailhouse lawyer” and preparing petitions of certiorari (appeals to the Supreme Court) for his fellow inmates.  Two of those petitions were accepted by the Court, and one resulted in an eventual overturning of a conviction, and the reduction of an inmate’s sentence by four years.

Since his release in 2008, Hopwood has become a husband, a father, an author, and a student at the University of Washington School of Law.  He recently accepted a clerkship with a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – a highly sought position among law students.

The judge who originally sentenced Hopwood is stunned by the transformation.  “[M]y gut told me that [he] was a punk — all mouth, and very little else,” Judge Richard Kopf says in an interview with National Public Radio.  “My viscera was wrong. … Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck.”


Breaking the Cycle

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted September 13, 2013

A reentry organization founded in Cleveland, Ohio, is working to eliminate misconceptions that employers have about the risks involved in hiring ex-prisoners.

Breaking the Cycle, Inc. has assisted hundreds of veterans, ex-prisoners, and other returning citizens in finding employment and productivity in their lives. The group has been providing career counseling and social media training to ex-prisoners in Cleveland since 2008. Breaking the Cycle strives to reduce recidivism by hosting job-readiness classes and community job fairs for the Cleveland area, which is home to about 16,000 ex-prisoners.

Now Breaking the Cycle has partnered with a business coaching and consulting company called Opulence Enterprises, LLC to raise awareness about the benefits of hiring ex-prisoners. The alliance between the two groups will focus on teaching companies how to hire productively, screen applicants effectively, and improve employee retention.


Swimming Upstream

By Alan Terwilleger | Posted September 11, 2013

A version of the following article originally appeared on the website of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. To learn more about the work and the mission of the Colson Center, visit their website at


It’s a story Chuck Colson told many times, but it’s worth re-telling-especially as many of us see our culture, our society, darkening day by day.

Back in the 1990s, Chuck was witnessing the growth and the effectiveness of the ministry he founded, Prison Fellowship. From its humble beginnings with a couple of employees and a handful of volunteers in 1976, Prison Fellowship had exploded across the country with volunteers and ministry in every state. Untold thousands of inmates had come to Christ. Their children blessed by Angel Tree.

And yet … the nation’s crime rate kept rising. Prison populations were growing faster than new prisons could be built.

What was going on? Chuck wondered. And then he came across a 1977 study by Stanton Samenow and Samuel Yochelson called “The Criminal Personality.”


A Meaningful Ministry

By Sara Blair Matthews | Posted September 5, 2013

Tony and MaryellenInitially, Tony Torrez wasn’t sure if prison ministry was his calling. He didn’t know how he would connect with the prisoners and felt he was already making a difference in the homeless community. However, after a volunteer at the Arizona State Prison at Winslow persuaded him to come to an orientation, he couldn’t say no to becoming involved. Tony and his wife MaryEllen ended up engaging in a volunteer career that spanned more than 23 years and changed countless lives.

Tony and MaryEllen Torrez got married in 1955 and have five children. They established their lives together in the small town of Williams, Arizona, in the early 1970s. Although Tony was a barber by profession, he always sensed that ministry was his calling. “For many of those years I ignored that calling, but God kept telling me that He wanted me to preach His Word, so I finally listened,” Tony said. He became an ordained minister in 1992, when he was in his 50s.

When the Church Has No Room

By Jim Liske | Posted September 3, 2013

The following article originally appeared on the Worldview Church website, a ministry of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview that is part of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

In Shawshank Redemption, “Red,” the character played by Morgan Freeman, calmly tells new inmate Andy Dufresne, “Haven’t you heard? Everyone in here’s innocent.” It’s a foregone conclusion that someone accused of a crime will claim innocence. “I didn’t do it,” is the worn-out phrase that echoes off the walls of courthouses and prisons. But for Brian Banks, a 28-year-old linebacker making headlines at the Atlanta Falcons training camp, it was horribly true. He lost years of his life behind bars after a schoolmate falsely accused him of rape. He wasn’t cleared until his accuser recanted.

It’s deeply disturbing that in our justice system a 17-year-old black teenager, accused of rape, would be counseled that it was safer to “plead out” than to defend his innocence in court. His lawyer told him he could serve a little time behind bars and on probation, and then the nightmare would be over. It’s even more disturbing that, even if well-intentioned, the lawyer wasn’t really telling the truth.

Ex-prisoners know all too well that their sentence truly isn’t over on the day a prison official hands them a bus ticket and a paper sack of street clothes. There is a second sentence that goes on and on. Men and women who have supposedly already paid their debt feel the weight of that second sentence …

  • every time they have to check a box on an application for legitimate employment,
  • every time they are denied the right to vote—The ACLU estimates that 5.3 million Americans are disenfranchised by felon voting laws, and it took Prison Fellowship’s own Chuck Colson 21 years to have his voting rights re-instated—and
  • every time that landlords, neighborhoods, and social institutions put up “no vacancy” signs.

Thanks to these barriers, far too many of our citizens returning from prison don’t ever get what Brian Banks has gotten with the Falcons  ̶  a second chance to live a full, contributing life that makes the most of their potential. As a result, an inestimable amount of human capital is allowed to collect dust. And, we’re losing out on more than just athletic talent like Banks’s. We also miss out on everything former prisoners have to teach us about fixing what’s broken in society.


The Empathy Deficit

By Jim Liske | Posted September 3, 2013

Jim Liske_200x300Antoinette Tuff was sitting at the front desk of the elementary school where she worked when a mentally unstable young man entered with an assault rifle and a bag full of ammunition. But instead of the too-familiar narrative of a tragic school shooting, another drama played out.

While teachers evacuated the students, Tuff talked the gunman down. She opened up to him about the low points in her own life. She told him that she loved him and everything would be OK. Relaying instructions from a 911 operator, she kept him talking for 25 minutes until she could persuade him to empty his pockets, put down his weapon, and surrender himself to authorities.

It’s often been argued that tougher gun laws or background checks would prevent mass shootings. But Tuff’s display of compassion and poise reminds us of the most powerful weapon against violence: empathy.

Empathy says to others, “Like me, you are made in the image of God. You have value and dignity, and I will treat you as I would want to be treated.”

Only when we lose sight of empathy – when we see others as “less” than us ̶ can we rationalize victimizing another person. Unfortunately, as a society, we are drifting farther from empathy. We blame. We stereotype. We demonize those with whom we disagree. We have a national empathy deficit, and we see the fruits of it in the headlines daily.

But there is hope. The way of Jesus is the way of empathy. Without sacrificing truth, we must graciously and courageously reassert the value and dignity of each person God has made: young or old, male or female, incarcerated or free. When we do, love wins the day.

The Power to Forgive

By Steve Rempe | Posted September 3, 2013

Cooper“How do people forgive a crime like murder?”  The headline from a BBC News Magazine story asks a question that most of us hope we never have to answer, but it is a question that we would all be wise to ponder.

The BBC article interviews Bill Pelke.  In 1985, Pelke’s grandmother was brutally killed by four teenaged girls in her home in northwest Indiana.  Fifteen-year-old Paula Cooper, viewed by prosecutors as the leader of the group, was convicted of murder for the stabbing death of the 78-year-old Bible teacher, and sentenced to death.  A subsequent appeal based on Cooper’s age reduced the sentence to life in prison.

At the time of the conviction, Pelke said he felt the conviction was appropriate.  But after reflecting on the values he had learned from his grandmother, and seeing the impact the sentencing had on Cooper’s grandfather, Pelke began to reconsider.

“My grandmother would not have wanted this old man to witness his teenage grand-daughter die,” he says. “Everyone in north-west Indiana wanted Paula Cooper to die – Nana would have been appalled by the anger.”

Pelke decided that forgiving Cooper was what both God and his grandmother would have wanted him to do.  For eight years, he attempted to meet with Cooper, only to be denied the opportunity by prison officials.  Finally, on Thanksgiving day in 1994, Pelke was allowed to come face-to-face with his grandmother’s killer.

“I walked in and gave her a hug,” Pelke recounts.  He then offered her his forgiveness.

Pelke’s act of mercy was not without its detractors.  His relationship with his father, who found his mother’s body after her murder, was damaged for years following the decision to forgive Cooper.

“I knew I was doing the right thing,” says Pelke, “and later my father forgave me for forgiving Paula Cooper.  He came a long way.”

Such a desire to offer forgiveness to someone who has done something as unconscionable as murder is difficult for many to understand.  Was Cooper not guilty of the crime?  Had she done anything to warrant Pelke’s forgiveness?  To hold out the promise of compassion in the face of such evil seems unjust – even unnatural.

And that’s because it is unnatural.


Sports and Prison Ministry Join Forces

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted August 29, 2013

There are a few things in life that nearly everyone likes – food, music, a good laugh. And most people enjoy some form of sports, too, whether it be playing or spectating. Athletic events have proven to be a successful channel for encouraging all different kinds of people to get involved in prison ministry.

Since 1987, The Saints Prison Ministry has been bringing the Good News of God’s saving grace to prisoners who might not be too excited about walking into a chapel to hear a sermon. The Saints have several Christian sports teams – softball, volleyball, soccer, and basketball – that travel around the country, visiting prisons and playing ball with prisoners. Rather than holding a church service inside the chapel, The Saints hold a service out on the field or on the court. They focus on bringing prisoners hope for the future and faith that God has a purpose for them despite being behind bars.

One inmate interviewed in the video below notes that playing softball with The Saints makes him feel free from prison for a few moments. The Saints have had the opportunity to bring this feeling to prisoners in more than 400 prisons around the country and in Canada. According to their website, more than 26,000 prisoners have professed their faith through the sports ministry.


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