How Faith-Based Organizations Are Transforming Our Nation's Incarceration System

By Steven W. Hawkins 

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump declared that the nation's fate depends on the opportunities available to society's most vulnerable: "America will succeed so long as our most vulnerable citizens—and we have some that are so vulnerable—have a path to success."

Although the president did not single out any group, incarcerated citizens and their families undoubtedly rank among the most vulnerable in our nation. The oft-repeated statistics were confirmed (once again) in a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative: The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We are home to only 5 percent of the world's population, but nearly 25 percent of the world's prison population—some 2.3 million imprisoned individuals.

Recidivism rates are equally grim: The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that of a group of over 25,000 federal offenders released in 2005, nearly half (49.3 percent) were re-arrested, and just under a quarter (24.6 percent) were re-incarcerated. These rates are profoundly damaging to minority groups in general, and the black community in particular: Blacks are incarcerated in state prison at 5 times the rate of white incarceration. Disparities are particularly severe for drug crimes, despite data showing that both groups use drugs at roughly the same rate.

These staggering numbers are disheartening. How can those trapped in the cycle of our country's broken incarceration system find freedom? The answer, at least in part, lies in President Trump's next words: "America will thrive, as long as we continue to have faith in each other and in God."

This same belief in the power of faith drives some of the country's most remarkable rehabilitation programs. Faith affirms the dignity and significance inherent in all human life, but especially to lives that society marginalizes. Prison Fellowship reports that, in multiple instances, participation in their Bible studies reduced recidivism by 66 percent. Similarly, a 2003 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that re-arrest was far less common after prisoners completed an Inner-Change Freedom Initiative program, a faith-based re-entry program spanning incarceration and release.

The most famous and extensive example of faith-based prison reform is the seminary housed in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. A 2013 New York Times article discussed in great detail the remarkable program that was turning people convicted of murder into ministers. Established in 1995, the course includes theology, Greek and Hebrew and is open to prisoners of all faiths. Many of the program's graduates go on to pastor their fellow inmates and spread the gospel of faith and redemption.

As the seminary has grown, violence in Angola has diminished. From 1990 to 2012, prisoner-on-prisoner violence decreased 71 percent and prisoner-on-staff violence decreased 80 percent. Last summer, we had the opportunity to visit Angola and document some of the amazing progress that has taken place.

Faith-based programs like these change lives—and even more are being developed. Our organization was founded in 2015 to help bring together the largest, most diverse coalition of advocates working to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost-effective. This has not only meant bridging different political perspectives. It has also meant rooting the spirit of reform in diverse traditions of faith. This past December, we hosted the Faith Leaders Summit on Criminal Justice Reform to discuss how the American faith community could take leadership in shaping the conversation about justice reform, and support incarcerated people and returning citizens in their path toward healing and redemption.

It is my belief, and the belief of my organization, that these ideas can only be realized through partnerships that cross the political aisle. We've seen the fruits of this on the state level, and we're looking forward to talking further with President Trump's administration about the ways we can accomplish reform on the federal level.

Fortunately, President Trump has an excellent resource in his vice president — a man of deep faith who has shown himself to be open to efforts to reform our justice system. As Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence favored banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a congressman, he co-sponsored the Second Chance Act, which increased re-entry assistance for ex-offenders.

President Trump acknowledged Pence's salutary influence in his speech. "Every time I was in a little trouble with something where they were questioning me, they'd say, 'But he picked Mike Pence,'" Trump joked, "'So he has to know what he's doing.'"

We hope that President Trump will continue to listen, not only to the testimony of Pence or to us at the Coalition, but to the testimony of the book on which he took his oath of office—a book whose authors and whose deity found in prison a path to redemption.

Steve Hawkins is the president of the Coalition for Public Safety.