The Individualizing Paternalism of Big Christian Prison Ministry™️
First published at Christians For Abolition
“Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.”
From the book of Hebrews, this reminder to remember has been largely forgotten by Christians — as have those in prison themselves. In fact, far from advocating for those in prison, American Christians have historically been vocal supporters of imprisonment, and even the death penalty.
There are certainly exceptions to the rule of Christian ambivalence toward those in prison. Prison chaplains have worked in prisons for centuries, acting as spiritual advisors, counselors, and listening ears. More recently, however, another group of Christians has taken an interest in those behind bars, comprising a growing cohort of evangelical Christians entering prisons through large not-for-profit prison ministry organizations.
Several of these organizations have achieved significant prominence, and none more than Prison Fellowship. As the largest prison ministry organization in the United States, Prison Fellowship works in hundreds of prisons across the country, offering various programs behind bars with a focus on Christian conversion. When those in my Christian communities learn that I’m engaged in work around prisons and criminalization, they nearly always send me an article about Prison Fellowship. “Isn’t this so great?!” they ask. Surely, I would be thrilled about two of my worlds — my faith and my work — coming together.
I’ve never responded with the enthusiasm they expected. Something has always rubbed me the wrong way about evangelical prison ministry. But it wasn’t until a recent trip to Prison Fellowship’s website, and the more extensive digging into Prison Fellowship’s history that this visit prompted, that I am able to identify the fundamental flaws in Prison Fellowship and similar organizations.
Backed by massive budgets and armed with a very specific theological understanding of criminality, these organizations have come to represent Big Prison Ministry: the network of evangelical prison ministries that view those in prison as both uniquely sinful and wholly responsible for their imprisonment, and capitalize on incarcerated people’s captivity to advance individual conversions at the cost of communal freedom.
Chuck Colson and the Founding of Prison Fellowship
Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, also known as President Nixon’s ‘dirty tricks’ man. Before his seven-month stint in prison for obstruction of justice in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Colson worked as a top aide to Richard Nixon, impressing the President with his political ruthlessness and win-by-any-means attitude — exemplified by Colson’s famous declaration that he’d “walk over [his] own mother” to ensure Nixon’s reelection.
But after years of acting as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” and several months before he would land in prison, Colson had a come-to-Jesus moment. A friend lent him C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, prompting a conversion that led Colson to plead guilty to, rather than contest, his criminal charges when Watergate broke. Colson was “born again” — a phrase that would become the title of his best-selling autobiography upon his release from prison.
Colson’s conversion experience turned him into a missionary, and his prison experience would provide him a mission field. As the story goes, one day as Colson was writing a letter in prison, another incarcerated man named Archie approached and asked, “What are you going to do for guys like us when you get out?” Colson promised Archie that he would never forget the men; he would fulfill that promise upon his release by founding Prison Fellowship.
Colson’s theological and political convictions regarding the nature of crime would significantly shape Prison Fellowship’s mission and programming. For Colson, the actions that landed him in prison were the result of his personal lack of faith and his untransformed heart — and by extension, his internal moral deficit.
As Colson explained in a 2010 interview, “crime is not caused by environment or poverty or deprivation. It is caused by individuals making wrong moral choices.” Citing the work of James Q. Wilson, a political scientist who advocated deploying battalions of police officers into poor Black neighborhoods, Colson concluded that crime is “caused by a lack of moral training during the morally formative years…it’s a character issue and it’s a family issue.”
He continued, doubling down: “Crime is caused by people making wrong moral choices. The answer to crime therefore is the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle.” Redemption for those in prison could come only through Christian conversion, or leaving “a wrongful style of life behind and [realizing], if you want to follow Christ, you have to live a different way…That’s the answer to the crime problem.”
For Colson, crime is caused by a moral failing which requires moral fixing. And to be fair, he was probably right about this insofar as his own actions were concerned. But Colson didn’t limit this conclusion to his own behavior. Instead, he extended his analysis to everyone behind bars, concluding that people go to prison because they are bad, and that bad people can become good people by converting to Christianity. Through moral transformation and religious conversion, people could leave prison and go on to live a “crime free lifestyle.”
Many Christians reading this might be nodding their head right now. Many of us, and especially white and wealthy Christians, grew up with the messaging that people are in prison because they’re bad, and that it is only through personal moral transformation that people can no longer be “criminals.”
Plainly stated, this is a view that Christians must leave behind — not only because sequestering people in cages runs directly against Christian notions of forgiveness and grace, but also because it’s simply incorrect.
Indeed, the elephant in the room here is that Colson’s post-prison success had very little to do with personal transformation during his time in prison. As a politically-connected and wealthy white man, Colson came out of prison and back to a world of resources and power. Within a year of his release from prison, Colson published his autobiography, which sold millions of copies. Resources, connections, and power — these are the things that facilitate reentry, and in general are the things that keep people from going to prison or being arrested in the first place.
Colson didn’t succeed post-prison because he converted to Christianity. He succeeded because his access to power gave him little choice but to succeed.
For most who cycle through America’s punishment system, the story is drastically different. As is increasingly well-known, the U.S. punishment system warehouses 2.2 million people, most of whom are poor and/or Black, and controls many millions more through probation and parole. It is a system that pervades the lives of the poor, while remaining an abstract depository of bad people for the rich, whose closest encounter with prison is Law and Order: SVU.
Countless historians have unearthed the histories of how the anti-Black logics of slavery morphed and took new form in the criminal justice system. Black people are vastly overrepresented in the criminal legal system, and along with poor white people bear the brunt of policing and police violence in the United States. In the U.S, those who are born poor and Black are essentially born into pipelines toward the criminal justice system — a reality that runs in direct contrast to Colson’s crime-as-moral-failing theory.
Indeed, as a rule, people enter prison poor and leave poorer. In 2014, those who entered prison had an annual income that was 41 percent lower than non-incarcerated people of the same age — and upon their release from prison, formerly incarcerated people face an unemployment rate that is five times higher than the rate for the general population, due to a combination of policies and public attitudes that bar formerly incarcerated individuals from work. Similarly, those leaving prison are nearly ten times more likely to be homeless than the general public, with rates of homelessness especially high for Black women.
White, Ivy-league educated, and a familiar face in the halls of power, Colson faced none of these barriers. And yet, Colson managed to boil down his societal upper hand to personal redemption. While winning a game rigged in his favor, Colson proclaimed that the game’s losers were losers because of their inner failings, rather than the many external barriers to their success.
This is the philosophy that guides Big Prison Ministry.
Prison Fellowship’s Work
In her book God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Tanya Erzen writes, “Faith-based prison ministries are often concerned with salvaging individual souls, rather than asking why they are there in the first place.”
Nearly every element of Prison Fellowship’s work proves Erzen’s argument. The organization’s signature program, the Prison Fellowship Academy, seeks to “build good citizens and brighter futures behind bars”: by “using biblically based materials, the Academy specifically targets criminal thinking and behavior, life skills, addictions, victim impact, and prosocial culture change.”
In other words, the Academy proceeds from a deficit model of those in prison: people are in prison because they think and behave criminally, because they lack life skills, and because they are addicted. Prison Fellowship wants to build good citizens — because, we’re meant to gather, those who go to prison are bad citizens.
Here, we see Colson’s convictions translated into Prison Fellowship’s work. Rather than considering the systemic drivers of incarceration, imprisonment becomes a matter of bad citizenship — despite the reality that 70 percent of the U.S. population has committed a jailable offense, and yet are not considered bad citizens. Indeed, just step foot on an Ivy League campus, where you’ll see students openly using drugs, protected by a college campus rather than made vulnerable in a heavily-policed neighborhood. We don’t look on these law-breakers as bad citizens — in fact, we elect them to office and promote them to the heads of Fortune 500 companies.
Instead of recognizing this, Prison Fellowship treats those in prison as uniquely-flawed bad citizens, placing the weight of our system’s failures squarely on the shoulders of individuals. Rather than people who lost a game they were never meant to win, those in prison become pariahs whose only hope is individual salvation, not societal transformation.
Prison Fellowship is not the only organization to prioritize inner change of hearts and minds over broader change of the systems that keep people down. Kairos hopes to “impact the hearts and minds of incarcerated [people]…to become loving and productive citizens of their communities.” Crossroads Prison Ministries aims to “connect prisoners with mentors in Christ-centered relationships so that lives, prisons, and churches are restored through the Gospel.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with offering Christian resources and teaching to those in prison who are interested in exploring Christianity, and there’s nothing wrong with being motivated by one’s faith to offer various services in prison. But as those such as Erzen have documented, Big Prison Ministry has — quite literally — a captive audience, and knows it. For prison ministries like Prison Fellowship, the “services” and incentives to participate in programming, such as separate prison wings with better conditions and more activities, are bundled with the evangelization.
When prison ministries enter prisons offering various services and opportunities, why should displaying an interest in faith be a prerequisite for accessing improved conditions? Why condition one’s deservingness of a less violent time in prison on their willingness to adopt the Christian faith?
Just as importantly, what if, instead of only ministering to those who are captive, these organizations also challenged the dehumanizing basis of captivity itself?
To its credit, Big Prison Ministry has become more politically active in recent years. In particular, Prison Fellowship has pursued political advocacy around incarceration, as well as undertaken efforts to aid those who are released from prison. But to its detriment, these efforts are generally milquetoast, exhibiting the same individualizing flaws of Prison Fellowship’s Academy. For example, Prison Fellowship was a vocal supporter of the First Step Act, which has been hailed by many as significant criminal justice reform. However, as many critics have pointed out, the First Step Act is ultimately a step in the wrong direction, benefitting very few while doubling down on punishment for many more. Likewise, Prison Fellowship’s “Second Chance Month,” in collaboration with President Trump, is an effort that once more places the burden on individuals, offering second chances “for those who have worked to overcome bad decisions earlier in life” and for those “who are willing to work hard to turn their lives around.”
To understand why Prison Fellowship’s advocacy doesn’t seem to benefit the bulk of those in prison, we might look to the overwhelmingly white team doing the advocating, pictured below. How can we trust Prison Fellowship to work toward transformation when so little of its staff looks like the people they claim they are trying to help?
What sustains staff members like these? No discussion of Big Prison Ministry is complete without considering the money flowing through organizations such as Prison Fellowship. In 2018, Prison Fellowship raked in nearly $50 million in donations. The organization’s president, James Ackerman, made over $400,000; the next highest-paid employees made over $200,000 each.
Everyone deserves enough money to live well. But when so much money flows through an organization — and when those at the top benefit significantly from it — it’s worth asking the question: does Prison Fellowship hope to see fewer people behind bars, or simply to keep making Christians out of the many people who languish there?
Just as importantly, how else might $50 million be used to improve the lives of those in prison, and stop people from going to prison in the first place? Three thousand people participated in the Prison Fellowship Academy last year; what would redistributing that money to them and their families look like?
At the very least, Prison Fellowship’s dollars would be better spent pursuing a just system than participating in the manufactured immorality of the people it claims to serve. Instead of using its resources to tell people that they’re in cages because they’re bad, Prison Fellowship might consider deploying its millions toward unlocking the cages that hold people.
Fulfilling the Promise
In 1974, Chuck Colson promised Archie that he wouldn’t forget his incarcerated companions. And upon his release, he fulfilled that promise. But what matters in this story is not so much that Colson fulfilled his promise, but rather how he fulfilled it. Colson remembered those in prison by substituting his experience — that of a rich and powerful man whose imprisonment was the anomaly — for the much more common experiences of the millions who cycle through the punishment system every year.
Have Prison Fellowship and the organizations that make up Big Prison Ministry improved the lives of some incarcerated people? Undoubtedly. But questioning whether these organizations have improved some lives misses how the same resources devoted to different ends might have improved significantly more lives, and stopped people from becoming incarcerated in the first place.
Too often, the bar for whether a reform is good is whether the reform does anything. Many Christians seem to praise Prison Fellowship’s work simply because it exists under the banner of Christianity, without asking why it exists or what exactly it does.
How else might Colson have fulfilled his promise to Archie? He could have studied deeply, learning about the roots of incarceration and reform’s failure to “fix” it. He could have taken seriously Jesus’ message of liberation for the poor and oppressed, and his admonition against the accumulation of wealth. He could have questioned the very premise of incarceration, of locking people away instead of addressing the roots of harm and centering forgiveness and healing.
At the very least, he could have taken a closer look at his own savior, Jesus — a prisoner who was ultimately executed by the state against which he spoke out. Perhaps this would have led him to oppose, rather than continue to be a vocal supporter of, the death penalty.
As Christians, we need to ask some basic questions. Is it good to put people in cages? And in a world full of cages, would Jesus have focused on telling people in cages that they needed to be better people, or on tearing down the cages themselves?