Actual positive results from faith-based prison program

Since I reported that faith-based prison ministries tended to encourage more hypocrisy than genuine improvements, let me also draw your attention to a CNN report that says one such program is producing positive results–at least while the inmates are still in prison:

Evidence that they reduce recidivism is inconclusive, and skeptics question whether the prevailing evangelical tone of the units discriminates against inmates who don’t share their conservative Christian outlook.

However, evidence is strong that violence and trouble-making drop sharply in these programs, and they often are the only vibrant rehabilitation option at a time when taxpayer-funded alternatives have been cut back.

Why is this program working when others are not? In a word, volunteers.

[The Carol Vance Unit] and eight other InnerChange programs in Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa operate on the strength of Prison Fellowship’s private financial resources and legions of volunteers.

This poses an interesting dilemma. Pretty clearly, it’s the volunteers, and not the Gospel, that are making the difference. After all, the Gospel is preached in other faith-based programs that have few volunteers (or none at all), and this approach generally produces only superficial responses. Volunteers make the difference. But this begs the question: would the volunteers show up if it were not for the Gospel? I’m guessing they might not, and I’ll tell you why below the fold.

No, it’s not because believers are just nicer people, or because some Holy Ghost was filling their hearts with love. They’re there for a perfectly compelling (and selfish) reason: to validate their own faith by spreading it to others. Don’t believe me? Change the terms of the program, and tell them they can still show up and encourage the prisoners to rehabilitate themselves, but they’re not allowed to try and persuade anyone to become Christian. Think Chuck Colson’s group will still be able to muster “legions” of volunteers?

It’s not too surprising that prisoners would respond to large numbers of people taking time to interact respectfully and encouragingly with them. It’s a huge amount of work, and takes the kind of commitment and dedication you don’t get by just paying people a salary. The Carol Vance program is a recipe for success, not only due to the concentrated attention it’s getting from Colson’s group, but also due to a certain selectivity in the types of minimum security prisoners who are allowed to participate. As CNN casually mentions, in passing, “Sex offenders and inmates with bad disciplinary records are excluded.”

So, limit your pool to only those who are already reasonably well-behaved, put big bucks and countless hours of positive, personalized attention into a program designed to make them better people, and the result is fewer incidents of violence within the program. Not the elimination of violence, mind you, but at least a reduction. Will the inmates be able to keep up their improved behavior once they’re out of prison, and thus no longer the focus of this intensive personal attention? We’ll see. I’d guess that a good, practical education would be more help in that regards than a few memorized Bible verses.

Back to the dilemma, though. What drives people to put in the long hours of hard work that this kind of volunteer-run program requires? As I said before, it’s largely selfishness. These volunteers believe in a God who loves them enough to die for them, yet real life experience shows them a God who is either unwilling or unable to show up in real life to spend any time with them. This inconsistency produces a tremendous need for some other kind of experience to validate their faith in God. Church is enough for some people, but a significant number need something more, and they find it in witnessing. Converting someone to believe in your religion is a great way to get the feeling that your faith is valid. It’s a vote of confidence, after all, and the more you get, the more you want.

So if religion were to go out of style, and there were fewer believers who felt the drive to validate their beliefs somehow, would that mean that prison ministries (for instance) would suffer? I think, in fact, that it would. Some other alternatives should be explored. There aren’t enough believers in any case, and besides, if it only works for the well-behaved prisoners, that’s just a bandaid on top of the real problem with crime and criminals.

Meanwhile, it would be worth paying closer attention to the Carol Vance program to figure out just exactly what it is that they’re doing right. Those prisoners are responding to something, and if it’s not God, it would be worthwhile to figure out what it is, so that the technique(s) could be given more widespread application.

One Response to “Actual positive results from faith-based prison program”

  1. Prison Fellowship blows cover « Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] Paul Harvey calls “the rest of the story,” including a revelation that substantiates my earlier remarks about prison ministries: if they work, it’s because of the people, not because of […]

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