Study: 1 in 100 Americans are in prison

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--More than one in every 100 American adults are in jail or prison, according to a recent study by the Pew Center for the States, which also found that about half of released inmates return to jail or prison within three years.

Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told Baptist Press the Pew report signals a significant social and moral crisis in the country that should be addressed in part by Christians heeding a parable found in Matthew 25.

"Jesus said, 'If you visit a prisoner, you visit Me,'" Earley said. "So we have a mandate from our Lord to care for, to visit and to seek the transformation of those who are in prison."

John Robson, assistant professor of Christian ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's extension center at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, said the prison problem can be attributed to an amoral, postmodern society, and he said the solution lies in granting inmates access to a faith-based education.

The Pew study, released Feb. 28, noted that at the start of 2008, more than 2.3 million adults were behind bars, and in 2007 alone, the prison population rose by more than 25,000. Also last year, states spent more than $49 billion on corrections, compared to $11 billion 20 years ago, the study said. Meanwhile, national recidivism rates remain unchanged and many inmates are low-level offenders who have violated the terms of their probation or parole.

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison, and while men are roughly 13 times more likely to be incarcerated, the fastest-growing subpopulation in America's prisons is women, Pew found.

Bill Glass, a former NFL player and founder of the Champions for Life prison ministry, told BP he believes the nation's crime problem is directly related to the breakdown of the American family.

"There's very little childhood fatherly discipline or love or being involved. As a result the child tends to feel disenfranchised, disjointed, without a father to give him direction. That generally is the cause of crime," Glass said.

"When the father doesn't take his rightful place in the home and make the child feel blessed, it makes him angry," said Glass, coauthor of "Crime: Our Second Vietnam."

During a recent visit to Mississippi's death row, Glass went from cell to cell and asked each of the 44 men there the same question: "How do you and your dad get along?"

"Forty-four out of 44 hate their fathers," Glass said. "That's typical among violent criminals."

This tragedy, Earley said, provides an open door for the church to go into prisons, show Christ-like love to the inmates, share the news of salvation with them and "help those who come out of prison who have been transformed by Christ to really be welcomed into the community and welcomed into churches."

Prison Fellowship, the ministry founded by Charles Colson in 1976, is the world's largest Christian ministry to prisoners and their families. Earley said the reason the national recidivism rate has remained unchanged is because there are no programs on a large scale to help people change their lives.

"The programs that we do show a dramatic reduction in recidivism," Earley said. "One was studied by the University of Pennsylvania and showed that after two years of being out of the program, only 8 percent were returned to prison....

"The fact of the matter is, nationally what [the government is] doing is merely warehousing people and not giving them the opportunity to change their lives, and so they're coming out really more antisocial than when they went in," he added.

Earley said at least one-third of those in prison are nonviolent offenders, and they are being housed at an incredible cost to taxpayers. The Pew study said the number of people behind bars doesn't necessarily correspond to an increase in crime but can be attributed to a trend in policy choices that send more lawbreakers to prison through "three strikes" measures and other sentencing laws.

"I think that's where, from a policy standpoint, this problem [of overcrowded prisons] can be attacked most successfully," Earley said.

"We've talked for many years about being tough on crime, and that's important," Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia, said. "But I think it's just as important to be smart on crime. Part of being tough on crime and smart on crime means that we don't put people in prison for long periods of time that we're angry at -- we put people in prison for long periods of time who are a threat to society."

Robson, director of the Angola training program, said the results of postmodernism's toll on America are seen in the burgeoning prison population.

"There are no more absolutes compared to maybe 50 years ago when the absolutes were in place," Robson told Baptist Press. "Postmodern thought and philosophy permeates. There's no anchor in our society, therefore the drug culture can take over anytime it wishes."

The answer, he said, is faith-based education in America's prisons. Two hundred inmates, he said, have graduated from the seminary's program at Angola with bachelor's degrees in Christian ministry.

"You want to change the streets of this country? You put ministers of the Gospel at the entry level into a prison system and change these men from the inside out with faith-based education," Robson said. "And you will discover that cynicism will begin to melt away into nothing. The streets of our nation will change.

"It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with social status. It has nothing to do with anything but spiritual issues inside of a man's heart. We know because we've seen this happen at Angola first and now at nine other prisons in Louisiana," he said.

Angola once was called the bloodiest prison in America, but Robson was sitting in front of 95 inmates for a hermeneutics class at Angola when he spoke with BP. Those men, he said, were learning to interpret the Bible because the answer to their problems is found in God's Word.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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