Ask Jonathan what he was like when he first entered the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and he’ll tell you without hesitation: Rowdy. Violent. Angry. He acted on his rage with no inhibitions or apologies, causing trouble and fighting.
Recalling the early days of his lengthy prison sentence, Jonathan says, “It felt like they took my life anyways. They took everything. So, why not do whatever I want? What more can they do [to me]?”
Today, some would say Jonathan still looks the part of the tough guy, tall and strong, with brown hair slicked back in a ponytail. Like many of his peers, he has his fair share of ink on both arms and enough stories to go with them.
But Jonathan’s best story is the one he never imagined getting to tell, and it began in a way he never expected.
A CHANCE TO CHANGE
VALUES OF GOOD CITIZENSHIP
When Jonathan first arrived at North Dakota State Penitentiary in handcuffs, joining a biblically based life-transformation program was the last thing on his mind. Growing up in a strict household, he felt “forced” to be a Christian and attended church often as a kid. Since both of his parents had a history of addiction, and his dad had served time in prison, Jonathan supposes the structure was his dad’s way of trying to keep his son on the right path.
In his early 20s, Jonathan was staring down a 20-year prison sentence for a violent crime. He had no hope or desire to change. Continual poor behavior led to many disciplinary write-ups and stints in restrictive housing. Before long, he had a staff assault on his record.
By the time he heard about the Prison Fellowship Academy®, Jonathan no longer considered himself a Christian. The program’s biblical basis didn’t draw him in, but he was looking for a chance to make changes and decided to apply for the program anyway.
Located in prisons nationwide—and open to people of any faith or no faith—the Academy is a restorative community that helps replace participants’ criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and life principles. The Academy’s targeted curriculum and compassionate coaches guide participants to become change agents as they embrace the Values of Good Citizenship.
“I was shocked they took my application,” Jonathan says, admitting to his bad reputation. “I thought, ‘They’re not going to let me in.’ But the worst they could tell me was no.”
SURPRISED BY HOPE
Then to Jonathan’s surprise, he was accepted into the program. When he enrolled, he discovered the Academy was more than he bargained for. He found a group of men who lived in peaceful community and desired to build one another up. Prison Fellowship® staff members David and Eddie coached them through curriculum dealing with topics like anger management, healthy relationships, and life skills. This training wasn't just transforming his mind. It was changing his heart.
One morning, Jonathan went to his mentor in tears.
"I just want change," Jonathan told David. "I'm just tired of this. I'm tired of struggling."
The trust they had built with one another allowed Jonathan to open up. David helped Jonathan process his questions about faith and God, assuring Jonathan that the God of the Bible had a plan for him. It was no accident that Jonathan ended up in the Academy.
With caring mentors walking alongside him, Jonathan developed a longing to change. Soon he realized he was powerless to transform on his own.
“But with God and Christ, I can do all things,” Jonathan says. “It’s their power and their strength.”
'With God and Christ, I can do all things.'
A SHIFT IN CHARACTER
Over time, Jonathan’s inward transformation started becoming apparent to those around him, including people like Officer Dan, a lieutenant with more than 15 years’ experience in corrections.
Officer Dan remembers the day Jonathan showed up at the prison in a waist chain and leg irons, on his way to restrictive housing. Back then, Officer Dan knew Jonathan’s reputation for violence; Jonathan saw the officer as just another “prison guard” who wanted to discipline him.
Later, when Jonathan joined the Academy, Officer Dan began to notice a shift in Jonathan’s character. He saw what the program offered participants who desired to do the work.
“They gain confidence in themselves, to act and think in different ways, in good ways,” says Officer Dan. “Even the ones that struggle for a while—people can change, if they want to. And Prison Fellowship definitely gives them the tools. We see the changes in them because of it.”
Before, Officer Dan and Jonathan’s interactions stemmed from trouble. But in time, they started having meaningful conversations and building rapport.
One day, Jonathan was accused of something he didn’t do, and Officer Dan went to bat for him. He took Jonathan’s word for it—a level of trust Jonathan could hardly believe.
“At that point, I knew that this guy wasn’t out to get us,” says Jonathan. “This guy is for what’s right and what’s fair.”
CREATING BETTER NEIGHBORS
When Jonathan speaks of Officer Dan, his eyes gleam behind black-rimmed glasses. He adds, “It’s always encouraging to have somebody like him, when there’s so many people that don't believe [in transformation]. They’re like, ‘Oh no, he didn’t change. He’s just faking. He’s enjoying the housing. He’ll go back to what he was doing.’ But he believes in it, and I know he believes in it. It’s cool to have that relationship with him.”
Jonathan is grateful that corrections leaders in his state see the opportunity to make prisons more restorative. In recent years North Dakota has experienced a seismic shift, moving from a more punitive approach to a model that upholds people’s humanity—not simply warehousing prisoners but striving to rehabilitate.
Officer Dan agrees that treating every person with basic dignity matters: “When you see [a prisoner] do something that’s positive and you compliment them on it, and you can see that it affects them. I've had guys in their mid-30s cry and say that nobody’s ever told them they did anything right. That’s truly an eye opener. It’s sad, but at the same time, it sure gives hope of what we can do in the future.”
While some might see Jonathan’s past write-ups and intimidating stature, Officer Dan sees a disarming smile, a friendly demeanor, and a wealth of leadership potential.
“As long as we can give people the tools, and they decide to change, we’re going to have better communities,” says Officer Dan. “By spreading Prison Fellowship, we can continue to give these guys tools to help them become better neighbors.”
'By spreading Prison Fellowship, we can continue to give these guys tools to help them become better neighbors.'