Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Effective Compassion: Hard evidence - S3.E10


WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Hard evidence - S3.E10

What proof do we have that prison ministry really works?


For the last nine weeks, you’ve heard stories of people who’ve experienced radical transformation behind bars. Jesus called them out of a 10 by 10 foot hole and now they’re living in freedom, even if they’re still not physically free.

FOSTER: I didn't realize it at the time. But I finally realized that was the day I surrendered. And I began trying to walk out my faith… something that was always missing was no longer missing…

FIELDS: We’ve had guys that have been down over 30 years that would never talk to anybody about anything, that have been holding these things since they were children. Guys done horrendous things, but in these classes, they break down and they cried.

HEUBERGER: The problem is that if you're not ready, you're not ready… it's got to be in God's timing. And you’ve got to be at the end of yourself I think.

THOMPSON: And they put me into a dorm where these guys were having Bible study every day. They were sitting down reading the Word of God challenging each other in their everyday walk, challenging to read the word out loud. And so I fell into it. I was like, Lord, this is where I needed to be.

For these men and women, prison ministry worked. The proof is in their testimonies. Powerful confirmation. But it’s also … anecdotal. Not likely to convince skeptics.

Maybe they were the lucky few. And those who get out and go on to live productive lives? Maybe they would have succeeded even if they’d never had the help and support of fellow Christians.

If we’re going to say prison ministry works, we need to know it works on a wide scale, not just for a select few. In other words … we need hard evidence.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Leigh Jones.

Underwriter Spot
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

Byron Johnson is a sociologist who directs the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. You’ve heard from him throughout this season.

JOHNSON_1: As a believer, I always wanted to study the role of religion…

Johnson’s interest in prison ministry started at the very beginning of his career.

JOHNSON_1 (con’t): …And, and so, for my dissertation, I studied a particular prison, where they had been capturing data for a significant length of time on religious experiences, including becoming born again. And so I wanted to see if prisoners who became born again, for example, were less likely to be rearrested once they got out of prison. And unfortunately, I didn't find that to be the case.

That got Johnson thinking about the reasons why. And the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. The same problems that contributed to someone being arrested and put in prison in the first place make it highly likely they’ll end up going back to prison.

If you’ve been with us for the last nine weeks, that should sound familiar. But at the time, Johnson was still putting all the pieces together.

JOHNSON_1: So that kind of got me interested that the dissertation in doing research on prisoners and and, and so I started doing more research in that area. Then we started studying kids, and drug addicts, and faith-based drug treatment programs. And, you know, every time we did a study, that dissertation was the last time I found that effect. Almost every study we've done shows how powerful the faith factor is.

Johnson has spent the last 30 years researching the power of that faith factor. And not just in prison. His studies focus on why faith helps people do “pro-social” things. The antithesis of the antisocial behavior that lands people in prison.

JOHNSON_1: A lot of criminologists are interested in predicting, why do people do bad things? I'm interested in the other side: how is it that? Why is it that so many people don't do bad things? What keeps people do you know, making the right kinds of choices? And then for people who've made bad choices, how can you flip that? Because the field of criminology has, has contended for decades, that you can't change that. It's set.

The more Johnson dug into the research, the more he found those criminologists were wrong.

JOHNSON: And faith is now helping us to provide a lot of empirical evidence that even secular cynical criminologists agree now is pretty overwhelming, that faith is a big deal. And we shouldn't be resistant to it. We need to understand why is it that it really does seem to be so redemptive and powerful in the lives of people?

Convincing secular, cynical criminologists isn’t easy. They need hard data. None of this anecdotal stuff. So when he’s designing his studies, Johnson has one overarching goal in mind: getting the research published.

JOHNSON_2: If we can't get it published in academic journals, then it's really not worth doing. And so all the studies that we have done of various ministries, like Prison Fellowship, those studies wind up in peer reviewed academic journals, and so they they can't get in those journals unless they pass muster as being credible, rigorous research.

And over the last three decades, that approach has paid off. In prison after prison, from Texas to New York, Johnson and his team have collected empirical data showing that prison ministry does indeed work.

JOHNSON_2: And so there is a significant body of research that shows these programs can be very effective in reducing recidivism, reducing, improving inmate behavior, lowering the likelihood of inmate on inmate violence, or inmate on staff violence, reducing the likelihood of suicidal ideation. So we have significant research not based on one or two studies, but on a number of studies over a significant period of time.

In one Texas prison, Johnson’s team found that inmates who went through a faith-based program were much more likely to get out and stay out. Only 14 percent of them ended up back in prison, compared to 41 percent of the general population.

One of his early studies involved the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, now known as Prison Fellowship Academy. Only 5 percent of early program graduates went back to prison within 16 months of release.

And as you heard last week, other programs have similar success rates. For graduates of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program … just 8 percent go back to prison within three years of release. At ROD Ministries, the recidivism rate has ranged from 5 to 10 percent during the last 20 years.

With so much evidence that prison ministry works, it would be tempting to think of it as something of a silver bullet. But Johnson admits, these programs don’t work for everyone.

JOHNSON_2: You know, some Christians think, you know, the Scripture says My Word, will not return unto me void. So they think, Okay, anyone that's exposed to the gospel, it's going to work. It's not true. It doesn't work in the free world. And it doesn't work in prisons. But for me, but for many of the people that are exposed to these programs, they actually do work. And we can say that, statistically speaking.

Over the last nine weeks, we’ve investigated just about every aspect of prison ministry. And you’ve heard from men and women at every step in the process. But most of them haven’t been out of prison long.

Anna Johansen Brown recently met a man who’s been living out his transformation for 14 years. Here’s his story.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: Jon Kelly grew up on the north side of Philadelphia with his single mom and little sister.

His mom worked multiple jobs trying to provide for her kids.

Jon Kelly 1: She was doing her best. It's just you can't be everywhere at the same time.

From a young age, Kelly struggled in school, cut class, got into fights, got suspended. But his real trouble started when he was 12. Not even a teenager…not yet in high school.

Jon Kelly 1: One of my closest friends at the time, his cousin, was a drug dealer, and had just came home from prison. And he kind of took me under his wing. And, you know, he was selling drugs and have a couple of different crack houses, crack houses would be kind of like an abandoned house…where, you know, it's kind of like McDonald's, people are just going there to buy drugs, use drugs and leave. And they can make a lot of money. I mean, you could make 1000s of dollars in one day. And so, you know, I got my opportunity to try to sell drugs.

Kelly roamed the streets of Philadelphia selling crack cocaine. He says wanting to be cool and fit in was part of the reason…but not the whole story.

Jon Kelly 1: We just broke, you know, like, there was times where it was winter time with no heat and hot water…and you hungry. And you know…when your stomach is hungry, and you need something to eat. And someone is like, bro, you could sell this and do that and you go make $800 a day like, or today or this week, like you'll do it.

Kelly went to four different high schools during his freshman year…then dropped out completely. At 13, he got his first conviction. Aggravated assault.

From there, it was a predictable road. In and out of juvenile detention, getting arrested, getting shot at.

But when he was 16 or 17, Kelly had a realization.

Jon Kelly 1: I realized I wasn't a good drug dealer.

Didn’t have the patience, didn’t have the drive. So he picked a new career path.

Jon Kelly 1: And so some of the guys, we’re just robbing drug dealers.

It seemed to make sense.

Jon Kelly 1: And I thought at the time like, oh, that's, you know, I'm a law abiding citizen…I'm not bothering people who are working nine to five.

Turns out, extorting drug dealers is a risky business. Things get ugly…fast.

Jon Kelly 1: And unfortunately, I went with a group of friends to rob one of the drug dealers in the neighborhood and one of my friends shot and killed him. And so I had just turned 19. We all got arrested.

At the time, there was so much violent crime in Philadelphia that the jail didn’t have any room in its maximum security cell block. So Kelly went into solitary confinement.

Jon Kelly 2: So solitary confinement is known as like the hole, or 23 and one. So you're in a room the size of like a bathroom for 23 hours a day, you get to come up for one hour, that hour, you can either make a phone call, or take a shower, your hands and your feet are shackled together through a chain.

Jon Kelly 2: I remember the guard came by, I remember I remember him sharing like the gospel of me with me not really paying attention.

But solitary confinement is…solitary. And soon, Jon Kelly was bored out of his mind. He asked the guard for something to read. Something. Anything.

Jon Kelly 2: And he said, Well, I can get you a copy of the Bible. I like whatever man just give it to me. I don't really care.

It was one of those NIV New Testament and Psalms. On the cover, it said “There’s hope for you. Jesus cares.” Kelly opened it up and started reading the Bible for the first time in his life.

Jon Kelly 2: And you gotta remember I'm a high school dropout, low reading level, you know, failed seventh grade one, went to four different high schools in my freshman year, dropped out.

But he started in Matthew and read straight through to Hebrews without stopping.

Jon Kelly 2: Where it said, like today…if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart. And remember, just like, like scales fell from my eyes and…finally I saw like my sin in high definition…and I gave my life to the Lord right there in the cell.

Kelly’s lawyer didn’t believe him. Everybody goes to jail and finds Jesus. It doesn’t stick. But Kelly was adamant. He told his lawyer that following Jesus was about repenting…and that meant confessing sin.

Jon Kelly 2: And so you could tell the, the judge, I want to plead guilty, and then whatever he wants to do to me, you could do to me, because, you know, I deserve that.

So in 2002, Kelly pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and went to prison for six years. It could have been 40. But Kelly’s behavior behind bars offered strong proof that he was a changed man.

When he got out of prison in 2008, he went to live with his mom. And he started going to church.

Kelly’s jailhouse conversion wasn’t the product of an established prison ministry. He didn’t have believers providing challenging, personal, and spiritual mentorship while behind bars. But during his transition out of prison…at Christian Stronghold Church in west Philadelphia…that’s where he learned what Christian community was all about.

Jon Kelly 2: And so, you know, coming home from prison, as a convicted felon, trying to get a job. And then different married couples, different men in the church are taking me under the wing to disciple me and saying, hey, you know what, man, there's, there's a plate at my dinner table everyday for you. We'd love you to come by the house. And so everything I learned about what it means to be a godly man to steward my finances, to be a husband, how to respect women, have a work ethic. I learned that from the men and women at Christian Stronghold Church in West Philly.

AUDIO: worship music

While in prison, Kelly felt God calling him to ministry. At the time, he’d thought it would just be in prison for the rest of his life. Now, he had a chance for something else. So, Kelly moved to Chicago, attended Moody Bible Institute, and started a church in the Austin neighborhood.

AUDIO: Jon Kelly preaching

Austin is Chicago’s largest neighborhood. West side of the city. Violent crime is 354 percent higher than the national average.

In some ways, Kelly fit right in. He knows what it’s like to be in prison…and to be on the streets. And God uses that, now, in Kelly’s ministry every day.

Jon Kelly 2: When your pastor is on parole…It just it disarms some people and allows them to open up transparently in their struggles and for God to minister to them. So … God has taken some of the pain and used it for good.

AUDIO: worship music

Kelly now partners with Prison Fellowship. He lobbies Congress for prison reform and he trains churches on how to welcome people…regardless of their background. He also takes groups out on the streets.

Jon Kelly 2: Even the police department, we partner with them and other churches, they let us know, like, Hey, here's the five different corners, you know, that we just been getting the most calls the most shootings.

And then we would go out on Wednesday nights and take over those corners. We go, you know, pass out meals, pray with people, share the gospel. And right before COVID, there was about two years in a row, and which, on the west side here in our neighborhood on Wednesday nights, there was no shootings, whenever the churches were out on the corner. It's crazy, right? No shootings at all, when the churches was out on the corner.

Going out on Chicago’s bloodiest street corners takes guts. But Kelly says if you’re willing…there’s no limit to how God can use you. Even the smallest act of obedience can bear much fruit…like a prison guard giving a Bible to a young man in solitary confinement.

Jon Kelly 2: Shout out to that prison guard, right, who I never saw again after that, for being salt and light that day, on that cell block, right? …He doesn't even know that I came to have faith in Christ.

Jon Kelly 2: And I just want to encourage people that, you know, it's easy to look at Chicago or look at this, and like, Oh, they're doing that, but the field is, is white for harvest all around us. And I think just thinking about man, what does it look like for me to love my neighbor? And to open up my dinner table? And, and would I be willing to walk alongside a John Kelly, back in 2008, that God could use you far more than you could imagine.

LEIGH JONES: Radical transformation like that is not a guarantee for every inmate who encounters prison ministry. But Byron Johnson says the ministries with the highest success rates do have a few things in common.

Like all ministries offering effective compassion, prison ministries that work best provide help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. They’re also focused on the long game. They’re not just trying to win converts. They’re trying to make disciples.

And that starts with a process Johnson calls identity transformation.

JOHNSON_2: If I've had a very dark past, I've seen horrible things. And I've done horrible things. Just to say that I've prayed a sinners prayer. For for many people it you may think, okay, they've prayed the sinners prayer, they are now a believer. All things have become new. Well, at some theological level, that may be a completely accurate statement. But these people are still struggling with a past that haunts them.

Change isn’t a one-time event, and it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why longevity and consistency are also key.

JOHNSON_2: These volunteers keep coming in, you know, they don't come in, preach a sermon leave. And then they come back in six months and preach another sermon. They're there every week. And they work with these people. And and what happens, we find that they are able to reconcile this past, they are able to forgive others, and they are able to forgive themselves. And over a period of time, they begin to adapt this new identity. So there's the old self, and then there's the new self. And of course, this is consistent with Scripture.

A lot of times, this process happens in a group setting. Think Bible study. Or classes where inmates learn to process past trauma.

But Johnson says the gold standard for discipleship is one-on-one mentoring. In fact, if he were designing a prison ministry from scratch, that’s where he’d start.

JOHNSON_2: I'm a big believer that mentoring matters for people, no matter where you are in life. And I think we all can benefit from a mentor. And certainly, offenders need that just as much or more than anybody else.

The final key to effective prison ministry involves multiplication. Making disciples who make disciples.

JOHNSON_2: One of the things that I'm most interested in moving forward is the role of inmates themselves leading efforts like this, so that prison faith-based programs are led by prisoners.

That’s the goal of programs like the Prison Seminary Foundation, where inmates are trained to be ministers. You heard about its work in Episode 5. But most programs aren’t designed with that type of ministry handoff mentality. Instead, they focus their efforts on recruiting more and more volunteers from the outside.

That’s great, especially for those volunteers. Seeing the inside of a prison inspires compassion, and can be the impetus for system-wide reforms. But as the last two years have shown, ministries can’t depend on always having access to prisoners.

Johnson says ideally, ministries should approach prison work the same way churches approach foreign missions.

JOHNSON_2: It's just like sending missionaries, of course, you want to send missionaries all over the world, but everyone knows that if you can train people that are indigenous, that is going to be more effective. … And so I would love to see the future. in the future us understanding how and why inmate-led religious movements may be one of our keys to moving forward.

Identity transformation is a vital part of helping an inmate recognize that he is a new creation in Christ. But that doesn’t mean his old life won’t haunt him. Jenny Rough recently met a man in Virginia who learned that the hard way.

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: Jesse Wiese is a 44-year-old attorney. He practices real estate law and wills and trusts at a small firm in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

AUDIO: Door opening and closing [cut out wind sound after]

ROUGH: Hi. I have an appointment with Jesse.

ADMIN LADY: I’m going to put you across the hall. Would you like something to drink? A water or a soda?

ROUGH: I think I’m okay, thank you.

Wiese graduated fifth in his class at Regent University School of Law. He’s married. Has a family. And he’s also involved with Prison Fellowship, where he works with state and federal legislators on prison reform efforts.

JESSE WIESE: Hi, Jenny. How are you?

ROUGH: Good. How are you doing?

But Wiese’s life hasn’t always been so … healthy. Two decades ago, he was a hurting 21-year-old. Suicidal. A college dropout. Flailing and floundering. Making a series of bad decisions.

And then one day, he made a really bad decision.

JESSE WIESE: It was May 5th, 1999.

He decided to rob a bank. It happened in the morning.

WIESE: And I waited for the person that opened the bank. And I followed him in with, with that loaded .38. And I took him in the bank. It was only him and I in the bank. I had him I asked him to open the vault. He said he couldn't open the vault, the vault is on a timer. But he had some cash in the stills and the tellers. So he put all that in in a bag. I tied him up. I went to the—


WIESE: With duct tape.

The bank employee told Wiese the side door would trigger an alarm. To leave by the front door.

WIESE: But little did I know that there are these dye packs inside of the stack of bills that they gave you. These little explosive cartridges. [ROUGH: yeah] And so by walking out the front door, it triggers them. And so what happens is they release dye. So they make the money all red.

Also in the bag: tear gas.

WIESE: I'm driving down the road and the bag is in the back and there's red smoke coming out of the windows. And I'm snotting and crying, you know, trying to figure out like what is happening.

He pulled over, tossed the bag in the trunk, and kept driving. When the first police car passed by, Wiese told himself it was a coincidence. Then a second police car approached, and that cop flashed his lights.

WIESE: I pull into this dirt road. The police officer hits me from the tail, so I spin out. Then when I look up it's like black Suburbans, megaphones, and the whole nine yards.

Turns out, that same bank had been robbed a few months before. The bank employee had seen a lone car in the lot and wrote down the plate numbers.

Wiese’s arrest seemed like an unlikely conclusion for a life that began with all the right things. He grew up in the Midwest where he attended a private Christian school.

WIESE: And so I grew up with a very strong Christian foundation and upbringing. … But by the time I was probably 15, you know, you start challenging the beliefs of your parents as most, you know, teenagers do. … Didn't like the legalism. Was very critical of, you know, you shall nots, and just found myself trying to make my own way.

He didn’t respond well to what he saw as hypocrisy in the church. But even as he questioned his faith, he searched for answers to life’s big questions.

WIESE: I had a really strong appreciation for truth and what is truth. … So I really started just having these kind of philosophical, these big philosophical questions. Why am I here? What's the purpose of life? Why do people laugh? I mean, really like what is the point of all this, you know, are we just kind of this thing that kind of emerged out of this primordial goo? Or is there a purpose and a plan? … I just felt this angst and this frustration of the world. It was man shaking his fist but not really knowing why.

He graduated from high school. But during his first year of college, he dropped out. He continued to question the point of life. He says a lot of 18- to 25-year-olds go through that sort of existential crisis. But Wiese internalized it to an extreme. He bought a .38 caliber revolver. Then he went home and found himself in dire circumstances.

WIESE: After holding a .38 loaded revolver in my mouth and looking in the mirror. … The reason why I didn't pull the trigger was my dad had this white leather couch. … But I said, you know, I don't want to get blood on my dad's couch. And so that was the only thing that kind of, so I'm thankful for that couch.

He reached a conclusion that day: If life is full of pain, just pursue pleasure.

WIESE: Rationally in my mind, that means, okay, well there are no rules. I make the rules. Rules are arbitrary.

A hedonistic lifestyle meant he needed money.

That brings us back to the back robbery. He swiped a guy’s car keys at a local gym. Then he drove the car a few states away, to Iowa.

WIESE: So my grandmother lived in Iowa and when I was a kid. I used to go to all the time and, you know, just these little rural towns and little small banks. And so I thought, hey, it's kind of out of the way. … So my thought was to go rob the bank then take a bus, a Greyhound bus, to Las Vegas and launder the money, you know, a bunch of movies. And, and then, I don't know what I was going to do after that. I had no idea. [ROUGH: Right.] Be happy, I guess.

He checked into a hotel near the bank and cased it out.

WIESE: So I had binoculars and I would sit up and see when they come in and when they go out and who opens bank at what time? And then I ran out of money. So I had to check out my hotel. So then again, I was stuck at this kind of crossroads and I'm like, what am I going to do? You know, should I go back home? I don't have any money. What am I going to tell people? And so that again, I kind of pushed me in this other direction.

Only one week had passed from the moment he placed the gun in his mouth to sitting in the front seat of a smashed car with red smoke pouring from the trunk. Looking back now—after so much time, and so much healing—he can tell the story with humor. But back then, of course, nothing was funny.

WIESE: I say all that in kind of a jestful way, but it was not a jestful feeling. It was very serious and very intense. And I was very focused on me kind of moving in this trajectory.

Wiese was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

He had enough remorse after the crime to apologize face-to-face to the bank’s president. He genuinely didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But Wiese says even going through the criminal justice process didn’t change him. Neither did prison, even though it wasn’t a place he wanted to be. The prison was dubbed the Gladiator camp because it housed those under age 25. Full of gangs and guys fighting and stealing one another’s stuff. Not to mention, drab and depressing.

WIESE: It was built on an old landfill. And so even though it was a brand-new prison, some of the buildings were sinking and the grass wouldn't grow anywhere. … Not very inviting. So I feel like that really reflected my inward condition. So if you think about the prodigal son who, you know, his inward condition was a pigsty long before he found himself in one.

So what finally brought Wiese to his senses? He traces it back to Prison Fellowship Academy. It’s an 18-month program that teaches inmates core life skills from a Christian perspective. You met several other graduates in Episodes 5 and 7.

But Wiese wasn’t that interested in the classes themselves. The program was offered at a different prison that had slightly better facilities. So Wiese applied simply to get out of the Gladiator camp. His first day at the new prison made quite an impression.

WIESE: When I walked in here and saw the green grass, I remember just thinking, you know, maybe there's something living here, you know, something that's different because it was, it was a stark contrast just like green grass from not having seen anything like that. And just against this concrete backdrop.

Class topics ranged from substance abuse to managing finances. Helpful, but Wiese says the core of the program is what helped him develop relationships—with God and others. Like his counselor, Dan.

WIESE: We would get into these, not debates, but discussions. … He says things like, “When I pray, I get on my knees.” And that just struck me because I'm like: Hmm. You actually believe this. Like, you actually believe that that there's somebody out there that's listening to you. And that you're literally humbling yourself before this creator.

He also remembers Friday nights:

WIESE: Local churches would come in and they would put on a worship service and give a message. … I would start weeping uncontrollably. … But it was just being in that presence that was just doing something to me. … In looking back, I really think it was the Lord just cleansing me of all my preconceived notions. … I finally came to the conclusion that there was a God and it wasn't me.

And that’s when Wiese’s Emmaus Road journey really began. He read everything he could get his hands on. He got an undergraduate degree in biblical studies from Moody Bible Institute. It took six years because class assignments were handwritten and the materials had to be sent back and forth through snail mail. He continued to participate in the Prison Fellowship Academy program by becoming a peer mentor.

In the early 2000s, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Prison Fellowship Ministries under a constitutional challenge. Wiese testified at the trial. When he met with lawyers to prepare, he asked a lot of questions.

WIESE: Did you ask for civil, like a jury trial? Or did you ask for a bench trial? I think you should do a jury trial on this case. … I was very interested in it. And so one of them said to me, “You should think about going to law school.” I said, “Pfft. I can’t go to law school. Are you kidding me?” And I was like, huh. Maybe I should.

He started studying for the LSAT while still in prison. Not long after his release, he took the test. He wanted to go to a school that understood a Christian worldview, that understood redemption. One of those is Regent University, so that’s where he applied.

WIESE: I had recommendation letters from anybody I had met across my lifespan.

He interviewed with the school and was admitted. Then he obtained a parole transfer so he could move to Virginia.

WIESE: So I came to law school, met my future wife the first day. And then, yeah, I loved every minute of it.

The studies fit well with his lifelong quest to discover truth. After graduation, he passed the bar exam on the first try. Next came the character and fitness process. That didn’t go as smoothly. Even though the committee recommended him to get a license to practice law, the Virginia board of bar examiners overturned it.

The board told Wiese to wait two years and apply again. So he did. Again, the board denied him admission. Here’s what it said:

WIESE: It's impossible to prove rehabilitation. And so, I mean, that's obviously not the approach that most people hold, particularly the criminal justice system. And so there, some of the arguments were, Hey, you know, law, school's a bubble. You really can't judge a person's character while they're in law school. And prison's a bubble and you really can't judge a person's character in prison.

He took his denial to the Virginia Supreme Court—and lost 4 to 3. He wondered whether all the time, energy, and money he’d put in had been a waste.

WIESE: Then I thought it was done. But I just couldn’t, there was an ember in there somewhere.

By then, his bar passage had expired, so took the bar exam again. Passed a second time. But that still wasn’t enough for the state board of bar examiners, who denied him admission for the third time. And for the second time he appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. This time … he won.

The entire process took 10 years.

Wiese credits his mentors at Prison Fellowship for investing in him and encouraging him to persevere.

WIESE: When you come into the prison system, there are very few hands reaching out to help you.

Wiese says change is hard, inside prison or outside. The ministry gave him a path, a road to follow. Helped him become the man God called him to be.

WIESE: When I think about like, okay, how did I get from here, from there to here? … I think, I think at the core is just the ability to develop relationships with people that were where I needed to be. Or being able to see what it looks like to be in that place. And then as you see that, and then you get motivated to do that, then everything else just becomes something that you to help pull you in that trajectory.

LEIGH JONES: One of the things we’ve heard over and over again during the last nine weeks is that many ministries like Prison Fellowship are filling the gaps of prison programming. Burl Cain started the seminary program at Angola because he wanted prisoners to get an education. The government wouldn’t fund it, but the Baptist seminary offered to provide it for free.

Over time, the U.S. prison system has come to rely on ministries to provide the extra programming they need.

But of course, just like in other areas of public life, Christians face pockets of resistance to openly sharing their faith behind bars. Sociologist Byron Johnson says some people don’t believe Christians have any business being so active in a government-run system.

JOHNSON_2: A lot of these faith-based programs will be challenged in court, some have already been challenged in court. And there are people that have said, I don't care that they work, they're unconstitutional, and comments like that. And and they mean that. The fact that they're effective is beside the point. And you and I would say that is the point. Are they effective? Or are they not? They don't care.

Critics of Christian ministries complain they’re over-represented in the effort to help inmates. They want to see more secular volunteers, more representatives from other religions.

But Johnson notes, no one is preventing those groups from working with inmates.

JOHNSON_2: If a mosque can provide the necessary volunteers, bring them on. But right now, almost exclusively, these volunteers are Christian. And, and a lot of the Christian volunteers are evangelical. And so people have to ask the question, why, why is that the case?

But he says asking that question won’t likely produce an answer to satisfy critics. And that could eventually put more pressure on Christian ministries.

JOHNSON_2: So do I see a day where these groups could be, you know, kept from participating? I sure do. … And and when you talk to faith based organizations, this is one of the things that's on their mind constantly is, can they continue to do what they're doing? And so it's a big concern.

But even secular politicians and activists know the U.S. prison system needs help. Too many of the 600,000 men and women released from prison every year come out worse than they were when they went in.

Without programs to jumpstart rehabilitation, that won’t change.

JOHNSON_2: And so if you're going to sabotage the whole whole idea of rehabilitation, one of the things that you would do is just to give offenders a bunch of idle time. And so that's why you talk about inmates on the yard, where they're just standing around, or they're just sweeping. Anybody knows that just sweeping a hallway isn't going to do very much for offenders.

In the end, the security of Christian programs behind bars may come down to money. Byron Johnson says when funding gets tight, programs are the first thing to go. Officials won’t cut security, they’ll cut programs.

And that creates an opportunity.

JOHNSON_2: But for me, the more important thing is that in a day and age when programs are consistently being cut, the government can no longer afford to provide programs, these programs led by faith-based volunteers become even more important, because sometimes they're the only programs that are left.

The U.S. prison system began with the idea of rehabilitation. And that has remained its ideal, even if it’s never lived up to it in practice. Maybe that’s because rehabilitation without spiritual transformation isn’t possible. Only Jesus can truly set men and women free.

And that’s why the work of Christians behind bars is absolutely vital.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. And we’ve had an incredible team of reporters that helped make this season possible: Sarah Schweinsberg, Kim Henderson, Jenny Rough, Bonnie Pritchett, and Anna Johansen Brown.

Special thanks to Byron Johnson from the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. And to all the organizations we covered during the last 10 weeks: Westside Ministries, Christian Encounter, Straight Ahead Ministries, Good News Jail, the American Bible Society, Prison Fellowship, Sugar Creek Baptist Church, the Prison Seminary Foundation, the Death Row visitation committee from Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi, Appalachian Bible College, Burl Cain and the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Kairos Outside, Hospitality House, the Eastern County Transitional Living Center, JumpStart Ministries, Restoration Outreach of Dallas, and the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

I’m Leigh Jones, the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.

Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast/.

North Korea is one of the most secretive, closed-off countries in the world, but World Help has a network of trusted partners there with 20+ years of experience smuggling Bibles and other aid to believers. These partners use donations to print, ship, and secretly distribute Bibles as well as food to people who have been desperately praying for help. And since North Koreans share their Bibles with trusted family and friends, each copy impacts around five people. Click here to learn more and donate.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...