God is changing hearts in prisons, and Prison Fellowship® volunteer Charlie Bench wants you to know it. For more than 20 years, Charlie has been serving at the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility in Minnesota. That means he has participated in the Prison Fellowship Academy® since its inception. Now 83, Charlie has no plans of slowing down.
Charlie has served countless incarcerated men and women working toward a renewal of their hearts and minds. It’s a calling and a privilege that he says has changed everything for him.
A HEART TO SEE OTHERS FREED
Early in his walk with God, Charlie joined the Navigators, a ministry that works toward helping people apply the Bible to their everyday lives. This experience cultivated a heart in Charlie for reaching hurting people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
"I came in contact with the Navigators when I was in the Air Force in Germany,” Charlie recalls. “I had strayed like a lot of other young men, and I came back and repented at a conference by the Navigators.”
Charlie adds that their mission to know Christ and make him known became—and remains—his own.
He was especially eager to help those tired of the life they’d been living, those who didn’t want to succumb to life patterns that resulted in repeated incarceration. Charlie became a Prison Fellowship Academy volunteer in the early 2000s, serving as a program manager who recruited other volunteers from churches. He—and those he recruited—were eager to come alongside people who didn’t want to end up in prison again.
“Could we help them do that?” he recalls asking himself. “That calling, that challenge, if you will, was to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to help them change their addictive thinking, change their criminal thinking.”
Charlie makes it clear that from the beginning, the work of Prison Fellowship has involved a deep dive. He and his colleagues recognized that many traditional Christian programs in prison emphasize Bible study and scripture memorization, and while those have merit, they often did not address the heart-level issues that brought people back to prison. The Academy, although open to people of all faiths or no faith, taught truth based on biblical values that participants used to rebuild their lives from the ground up.
“[We wanted them to] become something totally brand new—so that what they did wasn't their identity any longer, but who they were and who they were becoming,” Charlie says.
CALLING AND DISCERNMENT
Charlie began hearing of Prison Fellowship’s work in the 1970s after attending fundraisers for the ministry.
Despite having no experience with prison ministry, Charlie sensed the call to volunteer while he was in church. A field director with the organization, who was also a member of Charlie’s church, invited him to be part of what Prison Fellowship was doing at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. Charlie recalls, “He said, ‘I’ve been praying, talking to Jesus about you. I know your heart and I think you’d be just right.’”
After a time of prayer with his wife, Sally, Charlie submitted an application to volunteer with the ministry.
Through the application process, Charlie eventually met Dan Kingery, who at that time was a program counselor and today serves as Prison Fellowship’s executive vice president of field programs. In a restaurant in the early 2000s, Charlie and Dan discussed what to expect as a volunteer.
“Dan has told me since then,” Charlie adds, “that he went back to his motel room in Lino Lakes and got on his knees and spread out the four or five applications on the bed. He was praying and felt God’s leading to choose me. And then he let me know, ‘If you want it, it’s yours.’”
'That calling, that challenge, was to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to help them change their addictive thinking, change their criminal thinking.'
At that time, the Academy was known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI). First launched in Texas' Carol S. Vance Unit in 1997, IFI became available in additional states. In 2016, the program was relaunched as the Prison Fellowship Academy.
While the program’s name may have changed, its mission has not. The Academy offers a restorative community that enables its participants to exchange criminal thinking and behaviors for a life of purpose, lived with intentionality. Its curriculum and coaches guide participants in living out Values of Good Citizenship™: community, affirmation, productivity, responsibility, restoration, and integrity.
As of April 1, 2023, there are 210 Academy cohorts in 37 states, carried out by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers like Charlie.
What has changed most about the program, Charlie says, is that its curriculum is more focused and can be used in any facility.
Charlie recalls beginning the program with 50 men and limited materials. It was his inauguration into prison ministry, and he witnessed lives changing gradually and steadily. Along with his fellow volunteers and Prison Fellowship staff, Charlie learned that this kind of enduring change could only occur in the presence of patience.
“It didn't happen overnight, and we saw the wisdom in being long term, not having some quick fix,” Charlie says. “In fact, we began to coin the phrase to help some understand that ‘this is not microwave; this is crockpot.’ It's going to take time.”
Charlie witnessed lives changing gradually and steadily.
READY TO LAUNCH
During each participant’s year in the Academy, Charlie explains, there are staff and coaches helping them grow every day. The Academy is a community that prepares participants to thrive as good citizens both in the program and upon release.
Charlie notes that one of the most important moments in walking alongside an incarcerated person doesn’t take place on the inside. It happens when it’s time for their release.
“We're finding that when [Academy participants] come out, we want to protect that investment,” he says. “So we have a monthly meeting where we come together and have breakfast.” It's an informal effort—not part of the Prison Fellowship Academy model—made by the graduates and volunteers.
Charlie adds that Academy volunteers urge men and women returning to their communities to do so with endurance and humility—qualities that Academy volunteers helped instill to combat triggers that might cause returning citizens to revert to their past behaviors. While not all Academy volunteers continue walking beside participants after release, Charlie and some of his co-volunteers are grateful for the chance to do so.
“What they began in prison continues for the rest of their life, because we're here to help them through all of that,” he explains. “Through finding suitable housing, finding a career, we encourage them to walk with the Lord, and [not to] be in a hurry to recapture your lost years.”
‘I AIN’T LEAVING’
Charlie’s service as a Prison Fellowship volunteer didn’t escape the notice of its founder, Charles Colson, who wrote in a 2005 letter to Charlie, “We appreciate you, Charlie, not only for the wonderful job you have done on our staff, but for your great spirit and your wonderful encouragement to all of us.”
An ordained minister since 2012, Charlie still volunteers weekly with the men at Lino Lakes, and he and Sally minister at a women’s prison in Shakopee, Minnesota. Throughout his years as a volunteer, Charlie has taken just one break—when he became ill with COVID-19 and had to spend several months in the hospital.
For Charlie, volunteering in the Prison Fellowship Academy has afforded him a front-row seat to witness Christ transforming countless lives. But the life most changed, he says, is his own. Charlie says while he used to read about crimes in the newspaper and get upset, God has changed his heart.
“When I read about what somebody has done, my first response is, ‘Okay, if you wouldn’t come to Jesus out here, we’ll get you in prison,’” he says. “That’s what’s changed me. God broke my heart. I have compassion. I have mercy.”
Retirement from serving as a volunteer isn’t really in Charlie’s vocabulary.
“I don't know how to sum it up in one word or one phrase,” he admits. “It’s a lifestyle. It's in my DNA. I've told the men out at Lino Lakes, ‘When I die, they're going to bury me over here in the corner of this classroom. I ain't leaving.’”
'We appreciate you, Charlie, not only for the wonderful job you have done on our staff, but for your great spirit and your wonderful encouragement to all of us.'
-Prison Fellowship Founder Charles Colson