Welcome to prison. It’s a desolate, lonely place. Cold. Hard. Dark. Soul-crushing. The only thing in abundance is time. It’s designed to exact punishment and provide an incentive for changing behavior. But by every objective measure, it’s not working. Is there a better way?
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion. I’m Leigh Jones.
This season we’re going to prison … to shine a spotlight on ministries that carry the hope of Jesus into some of America’s darkest places.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, the most dangerous nation 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.
The United States detains more people behind bars, per capita, than any other country in the world. About 2.3 million people are locked up in prisons, jails, and other detention facilities. That’s nearly 700 people for every 100,000 residents.
And that’s why we call it mass incarceration. Turns out, it’s a relatively new phenomenon. In 1980, the U.S. prison system held just over 300,000 people. Forty years later, the prison population has ballooned to almost 1.5 million. That’s an increase of nearly 800 percent.
So, how did we get here? Well, it starts with the birth of a nation and, ironically enough, a desire to do a better job rehabilitating criminals.
Ashley Rubin is a sociology professor at the University of Hawai’i. And she’s an expert in U.S. prison history.
RUBIN: I guess the most important thing to keep in mind is that prisons are relatively new in human history.
What? I was not expecting her to say that.
RUBIN: So to back up a little bit when I say prison, because that's the word that you know, a lot of times people use prison and jail interchangeably, sometimes penitentiary. And so by a prison, I mean, a place where we punish convicted criminals or people convicted of crime, especially serious crime, for relatively long periods, usually defined as a year or two or longer. And so this the the idea is like this is actually intended to be the punishment as opposed to in a jail where somebody might be in jail because they're awaiting their trial. … And we did not have a facility like that worldwide until the late 1800s.
Before that, criminals usually faced swift, and often severe, corporal punishment. Rubin credits changes in Christian thought for making that less socially palatable. Around the time of the Enlightenment, Christian teaching began to focus more on reformation and restoration, with a bigger emphasis on forgiveness. That led to the idea that criminals shouldn’t just be punished. They needed to be given an opportunity to change.
RUBIN: So … you have a lot of people who are increasingly uncomfortable with capital and corporal punishment. So especially because we're using these for basically everything. So you know, you steal something, you get executed, you break the Sabbath, you get executed. So it's, it's a little overused. And from an Enlightenment perspective, this is irrational because you're not modulating the severity of the punishment to the severity of the crime. And so there's a big move to kind of rationalize our penal codes. And the American Revolution gave us that opportunity, because now we have to write our own new laws.
So reformers wanted a better, more productive method of punishment. But they didn’t have very good options to choose from.
RUBIN: And so they started sending people to jail for longer and longer periods of time, which at the time is really like a month or two. … but very quickly, our jails got extremely crowded.
So, they’d fixed the punishment problem, but now they had another problem: overcrowding. That led to a whole host of additional problems. But it also presented an opportunity.
RUBIN: So for a lot of reasons jails were seen as this very problematic entity. And so they … [14:45] thought like, Well, you know, maybe we want to organize their time a little bit. Let's make punishment actually useful. Let's, thinking about the Revolution, thinking about the New Republic, let's make them into good, useful, virtuous, industrious citizens. That was actually a quote that they would use. And so they would put them to work.
That led to the creation of what Rubin calls proto prisons. The first generation of state prisons in America. Every state had one, and they were really popular. And, of course, that led to the same problem jails had.
RUBIN: They got overcrowded, because they were so popular, people just kept sentencing them to prison and these new facilities, they got overcrowded. They weren't actually as well regulated as they were supposed to be. There were some corruption issues with the new people in charge. Prisoners also revolted in various ways. They would set fires and escape and basically find ways to kind of undermine the prison regime. And so after that, that kind of period, there's about a 10 year period where people were like, we had these fantastic prisons, they were working so well, we had such high hopes this was going to cure crime. And now they're not working. And they're really, really bad.
Some community and government leaders advocated for going back to the old system of corporal punishment. But the reformers clung to the idea that prisons could work. They just needed to be better … and bigger.
RUBIN: And so out of that came the second generation of prisons, which is really what we have, essentially today in various incarnations. But this is where we start to have cells for individual prisoners, we have a kind of more ordered environment. So the most popular model at this time was called the Auburn system. And in this one, people would be in solitary confinement, at night, in relatively small cells. And then during the day, they would work in factory settings. And this is basically the model of prison that we had until about the early 20th century, basically, after the Great Depression.
For several decades after those second prisons opened, things worked fairly well. But reformers and hardliners, for lack of a better word, continued to disagree on the purpose behind incarceration.
The reformers got a boost after the Civil War when young men returned from the front lines with emotional and mental scars, and few job prospects. Many turned to crime and ended up in prison. Even the hardliners agreed they needed help, not punishment.
RUBIN: But just as this is going on, where people are thinking, like let's, you know, rehabilitate first time offenders, let's rehabilitate juveniles, they were also increasingly recognizing that there was a group of people who are also irreformable.
Prison administrators in the 1870s and 1880s started documenting how many inmates had family members who were also in prison, or had been in prison at some point. You might say they were families of criminals. And they started referring to this group as the crime class.
RUBIN: And in this period, we actually start to get the creation of criminology, an idea is that crime was something that you could pass down to multiple generations and along with other types of bias, and so it's interesting because you have, like, on the one hand belief in rehabilitation, but for some people, and for others, you you get a kind of a belief in their irredeemability. And so here's where we start to get a split.
The post-war period also prompted a shift in the kinds of prisons getting built.
RUBIN: Before the Civil War, our prison system was really homogenous. And whether you were in the North or the South, or the East Coast or the Frontier, most prisons looked pretty similar, they basically, were all on the Auburn system. After the Civil War, … a lot of the prisons in the South had been burned down because they're basically factories. And so the the Union troops burned them down, and a lot of the Southern states didn't have the funds to make new prisons.
So, they got creative. They started leasing prisoners to plantation and factory owners who suddenly found themselves with a worker shortage. They also put them to work on public projects, like building roads and railroads. Think, chain gangs.
RUBIN: And then finally, they started around the same, I would say about 1905 onwards, a number of southern states started making what we call plantation style prisons. And these were usually former plantation slave plantations, that were disproportionately black people who had been convicted in a lot of cases of petty offenses to work the land. In some cases, I because these were really large chunks of land. And you get some people who were literally working the same land they had been before the Civil War, or that their parents and grandparents had worked, which is just, you know, mind boggling. And we still have a lot of those today and Parchman Farm, I think in Mississippi, and Cummings farm in Arkansas, Angola in Louisiana.
Several of those plantation-style prisons would come to feature prominently in a revival movement you’re going to hear a lot about in the coming weeks. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While prisons in the South put convicts to work, prisons in the North adopted what became known as the Big House model.
[CLIP FROM SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION]
RUBIN: So this is the classic, you know, prison movie prison, the Alcatraz's Michigan State Prison, Stateville prison.
These prisons generally were built between 1910 and 1940. They had multiple tier cell blocks. The sliding, grated doors. These are the kinds of prisons you probably think about when you think about prisons.
RUBIN: But the the reason they're called big houses was because the prison population was bigger than ever before. So these were prisons that had a capacity of like 5,000 to 6,000 people, they also got overcrowded. So they ended up with more people than that. But just for perspective, prisons in the second generation of prisons were usually built for capacity of about 250 people. They went up to about 500. With overcrowding, you'd get more, but now we're literally designing prisons to contain like five or 6,000 people.
The late 1940s ushered in another era that emphasized reform. Rubin calls it the correctional era.
RUBIN: And this is where we get correctional institutions. Prisoners are no longer prisoners or convicts, they’re inmates. And guards are no longer guards, they’re correctional officers. You start getting prisons with like pretty names. So California was like the bellwether on this front. So you get California Institute for Women. Nothing in there says prison. It's just you know, it's a it's a good place. Um, a lot of prison hospitals start being built. Here, psychotherapy becomes really big. So you get like all sorts of therapy, biblio therapy, hydrotherapy, psychotherapy, talk therapy, group therapy, all those things.
Toward the end of this period, the Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty, and the decarceration movement gained ground as sociologists began emphasizing how bad prisons were for people. But then life on the outside started to unravel. And society’s response was to get tough on crime.
RUBIN: And so is this really promising time that just ended very badly, you also start to get serial killers, the Manson case, I, you know, the Zodiac, like all these things are happening. And society feels like it's falling apart. You get the assassinations of, you know, President Kennedy, his brother, MLK. So it's just kind of like this period where everyone thinks everything's falling apart, not unlike today. And so it kind of helps to kind of shift people away from kind of being expansive and open and kind of, okay, with the idea of expending resources on rehabilitation, you do also get a critique from the left on rehabilitation, because a lot of these rehabilitative practices, as nice as they sound, some of them were actually quite horrible in practice. So … [54:30] for a lot of reasons, people start to kind of move away from rehabilitation, and both from the left and the right. And basically that convergence, convergence allows a number of these laws to get passed, and we kind of shift into this very punitive time.
In the midst of this time of upheaval, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. The year was 1972. It would have been a fairly unremarkable crime … if President Richard Nixon hadn’t been behind it.
That single incident of breaking and entering triggered an earthquake in American politics that threatened to tear the country apart. But it also ushered in a new era of prison reform and restoration … led by evangelical Christians.
COLSON: I just want to say one thing, and I’m not going to say anything else. I have committed my life to Jesus Christ.
That’s Chuck Colson, the White House lawyer known as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man.” He was charged with obstruction of justice.
COLSON: I can work for the Lord in prison or out of prison. That’s how I want to spend my life. And what happened today is the Lord’s will and the court’s will, and I of course accept that fully.
Convicted of his own guilt and his newfound faith in Christ, Colson pleaded guilty in 1974. He spent seven months in federal prison in Alabama.
COLSON: In prison, I discovered a lot of human beings who had committed crimes. You had a mix of people. Every kind of crime you could imagine. Every strata of life. And I discovered, they’re all like I am. I suddenly realized that I’m not any different from these guys. I’m not any better than these guys. I committed a crime too, that was, you know, nobody got killed but we were both prisoners. We had that common identification. It was a great, eye-opening experience for me. I knew them to be as good people as I’d known in my life anywhere. I mean, could be my neighbors. Could be my closest friends. I felt a real burden for them because I saw them with nothing to do, most of them. They’d lie in their bunks and they’d stare into the emptiness. And they’re rotting. Their souls are corroding. And that’s the worst part about prison. There’s this feeling of you have no purpose, you have no meaning. Nobody cares about you. So I really found myself caring for them, as human beings.
When Colson left prison, he vowed to return … and bring help.
JOHNSON: Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976. That was a milestone.
That’s Byron Johnson. He’s a sociologist and directs the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
JOHNSON: Most people thought, Oh, boy, another Watergate figure, this is a joke. Well, he would give the rest of his life to working with prisoners. And while he wrote a lot of important books, about other matters, up until he died, he was still going into prisons.
Prison ministry wasn’t a new thing in 1976. Plenty of Christians were going behind bars to share the gospel. But Prison Fellowship coordinated those efforts and advocated for more.
Twenty years into its work, Prison Fellowship wanted proof that its programs worked. So Colson and his team hired Byron Johnson to do a study.
JOHNSON: And one of their programs that was most effective was Bible studies, where volunteers go into a prison and lead these Bible studies over time. And we found that they were effective in helping people do better once they got out of prison. And you're thinking, well, that's a pretty modest intervention. And that got Prison Fellowship thinking, what if we did more than just Bible studies?
Colson wanted to expand faith-based programming to an entire unit, immersing prisoners in spiritual and educational training. He pitched it to leaders in 11 states before finally finding a willing partner.
JOHNSON: Then he came to Texas and met with Governor George Bush, and said, Would you be willing for us to do this experiment in Texas? And Bush said, I'm a huge proponent of faith based programs. So, yes. When that deal was struck in 1997, when the prison was launched, that was a milestone.
Prison Fellowship launched its experiment in the Carol Vance Unit, just outside Houston.
JOHNSON: And so half the prison they gave to Prison Fellowship, and half the prison remained a regular facility. And so the idea from Prison Fellowship was let's keep them separate, because we don't want the the inmates from the general population to contaminate all the good work we're doing here. But what happened is, the inmates were doing covert mission operations from the faith-based side to the general population, preaching, teaching, baptizing. And so over time, the whole prison became a faith-based prison. And then they started replicating that in other states around the country.
At about the same time, another reformer was making big changes at the largest maximum security prison in the nation.
CAIN: I’m fortunate to have an abundance of common sense and it was all common sense and just the way you treat people and it’s the way you were raise teenagers, and so it just came natural about being helpful to them and trying to do what was right and keep them being in.
That’s Burl Cain. In 1995, he became warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It’s more commonly called Angola. That’s the name of the plantation that once stood at the site.
CAIN: the year I get there in ’95 we didn’t have higher education, no Pell Grants. I’m an educator, I was grumbling about no Pell Grants. Some folks came through to see me and said hey, why don’t you let the Baptist seminary come over and give you a full college for free. I said, you’ve lost your mind. No, we’ll do it. And I said, okay, good, I want it. … But what happened is within months we saw the culture change. We graduated the first class in 2000 and that’s the first Christmas that we let women start working inside Angola down in the bowels of the prison, the cell blocks and all, because the culture of the prison had changed so much that it was safe.
Burl Cain had ample evidence the program worked. But like Prison Fellowship, he wanted proof. So 11 years after that first class of prisoners got their seminary degrees, he asked Byron Johnson and his team to do a formal research study.
Michael Hallett was part of that team. He’s a criminology professor at the University of North Florida. He’d already done some research on prison ministry. And … he wasn’t impressed.
HALLETT: I approached prison, you know, the the prison system resorting to religious volunteers so much, essentially, as a form of prison privatization. So it all of my professional work and criminology has really been about correctional budgeting and the crisis, you know, the collapse of prisons amid rising inmate populations and diminishing budgets. Right. And so, you know, way back in 2006, I published a book titled Private Prisons in America, one chapter of which dealt with faith based programming in which I characterize faith based programming as just a means of reducing correctional budgets by relying on religious volunteers as a line item. In other words, everything you can get a religious volunteer to do, you don't have to pay for.
But Hallett’s perspective changed after studying Burl Cain’s initiatives.
HALLETT: I was the one who basically led the research on the ground at Angola. I did all the interviews, interviewing literally hundreds of inmates at Angola about their life story. And those life stories, my my colleagues will tell you, there were many days where I was just reduced to tears, where I actually had to stop, I had to stop and take a break, because it was just too painful.
Every inmate he interviewed had a gut-wrenching story about how they ended up behind bars. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Remember, these inmates had spent months, years even, diving into Scripture and soaking up the gospel message.
HALLETT: You know, the Bible has a way of opening life back up to people, right? It's a it's a story about shipwrecks, and it's a story about crisis. And it's a story about people. You know, most of the major characters except one in the Bible, have made major mistakes, right, I made out named them, David. I mean, even even even the biggest stars of the Bible, you might say had real flaws. And this is a story that ends up resonating to inmates, okay, because they're hungry for any possibility of resurrection. And something to which they can say yes, that doesn't just reject them out of hand. Right? So the message of unconditional love and acceptance of have never be ever being ineligible for God's love has a way of opening up life to people in many ways for the very first time in their lives.
Hallett heard that story of redemption and restoration over and over again. And he realized the inmates who had accepted Christ in prison took their new faith very seriously. It wasn’t just a gimmick to get into special programs.
HALLETT: So I had a, I had an inmate say to me in Michigan. He said this, you know, and I've learned so much in terms of Bible study from inmates. Oh, my goodness. I mean, these guys, these guys can go toe to toe with any theologian. Okay. So So I started doing a Bible study with some of these guys in, in Michigan, and, and this guy sits down, I'll never forget it. He says, Well, right now we're just gonna sit down. We're doing a study of First Kings. I said, okay. Have you read First Kings? I had, but not in any kind of detail. Okay. Well, he sits down, he says, this book is gangster. This book is gangster. I said, we mean by you. I said, Okay. What do you mean by that? He said, Well, you know, First Kings is the 11th book of the Old Testament. It's a story about the collapse of David's reign, and all the scheming and plotting and gangster kind of things going on, at the fall of the Empire, right. And so he said, you know that the stories of the Bible are about people who have made mistakes, but who are searching for a way out. And I think that's exactly right. And that, that in a sentence, is the power of the gospel in prison.
The power of the gospel in prison. That’s what we’ll be exploring over the next nine episodes.
Almost everyone in prison has one thing in common: trauma and brokenness. They come from shattered and impoverished communities, dysfunctional families. They never imagined a future for themselves that didn’t include at least some time behind bars. In many cases that’s because the people closest to them walked the same path.
Next week, we’ll visit ministries working to break that cycle, starting with its youngest victims.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Leigh Jones, the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.
Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in some of the world's most hard-to-reach places. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, the most dangerous nation for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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