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Life behind bars

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WORLD Radio - Life behind bars

Season 3 of Effective Compassion focuses on prison ministry


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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, January 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: life behind bars.

Season three of our stand alone podcast Effective Compassion launches next week. This year, we’re focusing on prison ministry. Here with a preview is Managing Editor Leigh Jones.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Michael Hallett has spent a lot of time behind bars. Angola in Louisiana. Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Sing Sing in New York.

Some of the largest, toughest prisons in America. He’s interviewed hundreds of inmates.

HALLETT: What I didn't appreciate, before I spent 10 years and so much time in maximum security prisons, is the hopelessness and the lostness. And the heartbreaking stories of men and women in prison who have a much longer story of personal collapse than before they went to prison.

And no part of the U.S. prison system is designed to fix that brokenness.

HALLETT: Where we find ourselves today is in a deep crisis in American corrections, and across the board in terms of concerns both about serving inmates as well as protecting society.

Nearly 1.5 million people are locked up in U.S. prisons. Every year, about 40 percent of them get out, only to come right back in again.

Within three years of their release, two thirds of paroled prisoners are rearrested. More than half of them will go back to prison.

JOHNSON: I'm always amazed when people complain about recidivism rates being high, I'm thinking, are you kidding?

That’s Byron Johnson.

JOHNSON: You would expect that they would be significantly higher considering the conditions under which we now find ourselves. And so, again, if it weren't for the faith community, I shudder to think what, what we'd be experiencing in our prisons right now.

Johnson is a sociologist at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Michael Hallett is a criminologist at the University of North Florida. Together they’re studying the effect of faith-based programs behind bars. Their main focus is on transformation.

HALLETT: The main power of the Christian message is 'forgiveness is at the center', right? Sinfulness is prerequisite to Christianity, it seems to me. And so that's what it brings to the story. And what we found is that in prison after prison, empirically documented, a profound transformation that looks a lot like rehabilitation, you know, abrupt behavior change, complete transformation in terms of self expression and self identity.

Transformation. Rehabilitation. That’s the power of the gospel in prison.

And that’s what we’ll be exploring over the next 10 weeks.

We’ll start with ministries working to keep people out of prison in the first place. People like Jackie Turner. She grew up mostly in foster care. And by 19, she was on a trajectory that would put her behind bars for a long time.

Then she found a group of Christians who offered to teach her a different way to live.

TURNER: My whole life before here, was all destruction, chaos, pain, abuse, trauma and all types of stuff. I got here in rage, I left here with full hope.

We’ll visit a drug court in Mississippi where addicts are getting a second chance to kick their habit and stay out of jail.

People like Rachel Williams.

WILLIAMS: I did my first hard drug when I was 19—cocaine. I did that in a closet with my best friend who was also a drug addict, had done it for years, you know? And she said, “Here, try this. It won't hurt you.” I was like, “Okay, you know?” And so I did. And that was it.

And we’ll take you behind bars, where prisoners are finding hope and freedom, even if they’ll never experience life on the outside again.

Men like Hubert Troup Foster.

FOSTER: And it was, 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. Because something that was always missing was no longer missing. I was in a 10 by 10 foot cell, but I had more peace than I'd ever had in my life…

But prison ministry doesn’t end when a prisoner’s sentence is over. We’ll also meet Christians shepherding people as they make a start on new lives despite the stigma of their old convictions.

We call this work effective compassion. Gospel hope for life change, applied with wisdom and discernment. And just like other effective Christian help, prison ministry that truly works has three basic components: It’s challenging, personal, and spiritual. Only those three things together, through the work of the Holy Spirit, lead to transformation.

Byron Johnson admits, it’s tough work.

JOHNSON: I don't believe prison ministry is for everyone. And I don't think prisoner re-entry ministry is for everyone. But I do think that people are called to do unusually difficult things, like being a missionary. And so I do think that people that have that kind of a calling, need to respond to it. But I'm not naive. I think that these are real struggles.

Michael Hallett believes prison ministry has the ability to do more than just transform the lives of inmates. It could also be the catalyst for reforming the entire system.

HALLETT: Will prison ministry solve all our problems? Absolutely not. Is it for every prisoner? Absolutely not. Is it for every prison? Absolutely not. But does prison ministry offer us some rudiments of how to rethink the American prison system and how to equip it in such a way that people are left measurably better off than they were when they came in? At a time when it is not at all uncommon that people are made worse for their experience in prison rather than better.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leigh Jones.


BUTLER: The first episode of Effective Compassion Season 3 arrives Tuesday. Subscribe to Effective Compassion on your favorite podcast platform to make sure you don’t miss a single episode.


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.

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