Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When Chuck Colson passed away last month, obituaries naturally remembered him first and foremost as the White House counsel brought down by his role in Watergate’s dirty tricks. But his evangelical conversion to Christ turned him into an inspired prison reformer, belying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was the most significant, and certainly the most unusual, prison reformer of the past century. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, and his broader legacy of penal reform, will live on, though the burden now falls to the living to complete his unfinished business.

America began its great prison experiment two centuries ago as a humane effort to replace the sometimes brutal corporal and capital punishments of the colonial era. At the root of the prison movement was a combination of Enlightenment and Quaker optimism about human nature. Reformers no longer saw the roots of crime in weakness of free will or in the Devil’s temptations. Rather, they saw crime as a form of social disease, blaming wrongdoers’ families, associates, and vice-filled cities for dragging them down into crime. The solution seemed to be to remove them from their environments and to instill new, law-abiding habits and discipline.

These prison reformers were far too optimistic about fallen human nature, as were the psychologists, therapists, and social workers who followed them much later. Penitentiaries did not breed penitence but crime. Solitary confinement without work drove some inmates insane or to suicide. Keeping prisoners alone soon proved too costly and difficult to maintain, and rising crime led to double-bunking and more cells, destroying isolation and turning prisons into schools for crime replete with criminal networks and contacts. Opposition from unions and small businesses shut down the market for prison labor, turning prisons into dens of idleness punctuated by sporadic rape and other violence.

Prisons have failed at their missions as penitentiaries or reformatories. They have now become a broken system of warehousing broken men. A fraction of those men are so dangerous that we must confine them indefinitely for our own safety, but many are not, and we made little serious effort to reclaim them or even hold out hope. And the debate over crime became a simplistic divide between a Left that was seen as coddling and excusing criminals and a Right that wanted to lock them up as human refuse and throw away the key.

Conservatives have not always thought this way. As Winston Churchill, who was no softie, put it when he was Home Secretary, “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country . . . . [This civilized attitude includes] unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man . . . .” But this Christian faith and hope of redemption lay dormant or ignored by self-proclaimed Christian politicians.

Enter Chuck Colson. His arrest, conviction, and seven-month imprisonment triggered a jailhouse conversion, opening his eyes to the injustices prisoners suffer and society’s lack of interest in their reform. After his release, he founded Prison Fellowship to minister to prisoners, ex-cons, and their families, and its partner organization Justice Fellowship to push for legislative reform of criminal justice.

Though liberal groups had long litigated for prisoners’ rights, Prison Fellowship was fundamentally different precisely because it was Christian. The roots of crime lie not in economic or racial injustice, it saw, but in sin. Criminals have sinned against their victims, their families, their society, themselves, and God. They must confess their wrongdoing, admit their weakness, and ask God and their fellow men for help and strength to change their souls and their lives. That is the proven formula of twelve-step, faith-based programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and it is the formula Prison Fellowship sought to bring to prison reform.

Criminologists such as Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi have emphasized that at the root of most crime is a lack of self-control and self-discipline. In Christian terms, criminals indulge their desires and passions. Passions for drink, drugs, sex, anger, and money enslave us, and so we submit to do things that we know or should know are wrong. Autonomy, which has become debased to mean doing what we want to do, is not freedom but slavery; true freedom requires theonomy”the submission to God that stands counter to willful autonomy”praying, in the words of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.”

Prison Fellowship got prisons to set aside new wings to create a godly environment, giving inmates the structure, teaching, mentoring, and prayer that they needed to put aside the old man and be clothed with the new (Colossians 3:9-10). They needed to repent, to fundamentally transform their hearts and minds and build not only godly desires but also moral habits, structures, and ways of life. And that is where the second plank of Prison Fellowship came in.

It is not only criminals who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God , but all of us (Romans 3:23). This was publicly understood in the colonial era, when crime was not primarily economic but moral”and not segregated to the lower classes. Citizens shared a sense that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Rather than feeling holier than thou, colonists took the lessons of criminal justice to heart. And they stood ready to welcome back their errant brothers and sisters once they had paid their debts to society and victims.

Now, prison is out of sight and out of mind, a semi-permanent exile for the criminal classes. And the exile persists after incarceration ends, as felons are forbidden to live in many places and work in many professions regardless of whether they threaten public safety.

Colson reminded middle-class Americans of Christ’s teaching to minister to those in prison (Matthew 25:36), who remain our brothers and sisters. Thus, his Justice Fellowship fights to remove collateral consequences of convictions that are not necessary for public safety, such as bars on working as a hairdresser or undertaker. In part through Colson’s efforts, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act, increasing the (still inadequate) funding for prison reentry programs.

Most importantly, organizations such as Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative mobilize volunteers, often from local congregations, to mentor inmates and help to arrange for housing and jobs upon release. They provide the time, talents, and treasure that public reentry programs still lack. Though more study is needed, empirical evidence suggests that participating inmates are much less likely to return to crime. Contact with mentors and congregations, it turns out, are crucial to hold ex-cons accountable and on a law-abiding path.

There are of course serious Establishment Clause problems with giving inmates preferential treatment only if they choose to enroll in a religious program, and the ACLU and others have managed to block some of these faith-based partnerships. But these problems are manageable: Prisons of course must remain open to secular alternative reentry programs, state dollars must not directly fund specifically religious activities, and religious programs should receive no better facilities or perquisites. As long as there is no religious coercion, we should welcome all manner of private assistance to bring inmates home and give them the mentoring, accountability, and community reintegration they need.

One man cannot solve the problem of crime, which is as old and ineradicable as sin itself. Wrongdoers will still relapse with some frequency, and criminal justice can hardly fix the cancers of broken homes, absent fathers, and substance addictions that breed crime. We must resist the chiliastic temptation to believe that a new social program will bring Heaven on earth or win a war on crime. Nevertheless, Colson stands as a shining beacon of hope, leaving a lasting legacy of service. In devoting himself to redeeming others, he redeemed himself.

Stephanos Bibas, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Machinery of Criminal Justice (Oxford 2012) .


Thomas G. Guarino, A Catholic Appreciation of Chuck Colson

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles