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Looking for hope behind bars

Inside and out, the state prison in Pendleton, Ind., looks dismal and depressing. The 30-foot stone wall thwarts the temptation for the 1,500-plus inmates to escape. More barriers include fences just inside the wall, topped by rolls of razor wire.

Built in 1923, what was then known as the Indiana Reformatory was a temporary home for bank robber John Dillinger. Today, the renamed Pendleton Correctional Facility, just northeast of Indianapolis, is a maximum-security prison that still houses many of Indiana’s roughest offenders.

Lockdowns are common. Fights break out, sometimes between rival gang members. Visitors go through a series of steel-bar doors and leave mobile phones and wallets behind. Some inmates rise at 3 a.m. for breakfast, so everyone can get through the cafeteria line.

That’s the bad news.

Former Indiana Secretary of State Ed Simcox wanted to give some state civic leaders a better side of the story behind the bars on a recent tour. Simcox is an influential Republican who works behind the scenes in politics and recently cut back on his duties with the Indiana Energy Association. But he’s not stepping back from the prisons though.

Simcox adopted prison reform as a second vocation while he was secretary of state in the 1980s, and was inspired by the reform efforts of the late Nixon White House lawyer Charles Colson. He was on Colson’s Prison Fellowship board for almost 30 years and still tries to enlist friends to volunteer in prison ministry.

“This is not a feel-good ministry,” he warns. “It’s not for everybody. To work in this ministry requires a capacity to forgive and to thereby appreciate the limitless ability of God to forgive us of our sins and to accept us into His Kingdom.”

The good news at the Pendleton prison includes an American Legion chapter inside its walls, with inmates taking some parts in Shakespeare plays with coaching by Christian college faculty. Some military veterans, now behind bars, help train dogs for disabled veterans through a special program. Inmates do the cooking, making “heart-healthy” meals—less salt and sugar than the usual routine at a fast-food place.

Inmates can also petition to join PLUS (Purposeful Living Units Serve), a program emphasizing faith and character started by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and expanded by current Gov. Mike Pence. Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Bruce Lemmon is sold on PLUS, but not just on faith: He cites studies showing such efforts reduce problems behind bars and cut crime among inmates after they’re released.

Simcox likes to have inmates tell civic leaders of their faith journeys, noting how they make the most progress when they learn to serve others, not just reform their own lives.

Real prison reform, according to Indiana Correction official David Liebel, comes through volunteers, not just paid professionals.

“There is a lot of proclamation of Christ and the gospel in prison,” said Liebel, who is the department’s head of religious and volunteer services. “What’s needed is seeing the gospel lived out. Most people spend their lives staying away from prison. When you take the time and visit and aren’t being paid, that speaks volumes to men in prison.”

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.


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