Ripples of hope in a wave of crime

PrisonSocial issues - Crime

Footsteps 104 - Prisons

Footsteps 104 features practical tips for getting involved in prison ministry and caring for ex-offenders.

Ripples of hope in a wave of crime

by Lindsey A. Frederick  

With more than 22,000 prisons worldwide, containing more than 10 million people, crime is a social problem that devastates individuals, families and communities. And prison populations continue to grow.  

Is prison just a punishment to be endured, or a place where positive transformation can occur? Photo: Andrew Philip
Is prison just a punishment to be endured, or a place where positive transformation can occur? Photo: Andrew Philip

Much research has been carried out into the question of why people turn to crime. Reasons vary across cultures and social contexts, but research suggests there is no single factor that influences criminal behaviour. Rather, it is the combination of multiple risk factors. These include growing up with abuse or violence in the home, untreated mental illnesses, and lower levels of income and education. In many low-income countries, poverty and unemployment push young people towards crime, particularly in poor districts of large cities. 

Stephen, an ex-prisoner from the UK, says his father’s alcoholism and physical violence contributed to his choices that eventually led to crime. ‘I was brought up in an environment where there was not any love, and no investment in the children to perform academically,’ says Stephen. ‘We grew up in fear. Eventually, I started behaving like my father. I started drinking, which eventually led to drugs. I was 25 when I was caught with a substantial amount of heroin.’ 

The problem of punishment

Problems in prison and in our systems of punishment add to the issue of the growing prison population. These problems include poor living conditions in prisons, where malnutrition, disease and violence are common. In most countries, the rate of reoffending is as high as 50 per cent. Many legal systems are heavily over-burdened, as millions of prisoners are held in crowded, unhealthy conditions simply awaiting trial. In some cases, the length of the time spent in prison awaiting trial is longer than the potential maximum sentence for the crime. Without legal advice or money, many are imprisoned for civil matters, such as not repaying a debt, rather than for criminal offences. 

Critics of today’s criminal justice systems argue that not enough is being done to meet the needs of both prisoners and crime victims. Justice systems tend to focus exclusively on the offenders’ lawbreaking, and the culture in prisons is often based on the threat of violence. Prisoners find that prison is a place to either endure or dominate until their release, rather than an environment where they can learn personal responsibility for their behaviour. 

After living within this structure, prisoners often have great difficulty rejoining society when they are released. They may have few skills and little work experience, and their criminal convictions follow them around. When ex-offenders are left without acceptable, productive ways to live outside of prison, the cycle of crime and punishment repeats itself. 

Prisoners’ families

Added to these issues is the psychological impact on prisoners and their families. Prisoners’ families may feel ashamed, and reject them to escape stigma. Wilson, a prisoner in Cartagena, Colombia, says things got so bad he wanted to end his life: ‘My family had abandoned me, and I felt worthless and hopeless.’ 

In many low-income countries, the impact of a father going to prison can be devastating to the family’s economic well-being. More than 14 million children worldwide have a parent in prison. These children are exposed to dangers such as poverty, violence and human trafficking. Many children of prisoners are malnourished, cannot afford educational fees for uniforms and books, or must drop out of school to help support their family. 

Other children are abandoned altogether. Sometimes their remaining parent remarries and the children are not welcome in the new relationship. In other cases the remaining parent simply cannot handle the burden of caring for their children alone. 

The shame and stigma attached to imprisonment drive families from their homes and communities. Isolated and with few options for earning an income, they fall into greater social and economic difficulties. 

Ripples of hope

Despite the many problems listed above, there is hope for prisoners and their families. Many prison ministry groups are offering solutions, including restorative justice reforms (see What is restorative justice?), legal aid, health care and educational services. These help prisoners and their families to find emotional healing, grow in physical resilience and develop vocational skills. We are now seeing the growing effects of these services. 

Vocational training and support can help prisoners’ families to improve their income. Credit: Prison Fellowship Cambodia
Vocational training and support can help prisoners’ families to improve their income. Credit: Prison Fellowship Cambodia

Over the past 40 years, the revolutionary concept of restorative justice has emerged. This is a criminal justice reform movement that draws on biblical principles of justice. It is helping to shift the prison culture from power and violence to personal responsibility. Restorative justice helps prisoners come to terms with their wrongdoing, take responsibility, learn conflict resolution skills and have the opportunity to begin their own journeys of faith. It also helps victims of crime to find healing and move forward. 

Stephen, the ex-prisoner from the UK, met a group of ex-offenders from a local Christian prison support group. Their influence eventually led Stephen to a transformation of faith that turned his life around. He now travels the globe with Prison Fellowship International, the world’s largest prison ministry, training prison volunteers to facilitate a prison evangelism and discipleship programme called The Prisoner’s Journey® (see page 18). Wilson, the prisoner in Colombia quoted above, attended this programme during the time when he wanted to end his life. He had a life-changing encounter with God during one of the sessions. He is still in prison, but now he is devoted to sharing with other prisoners the story of what God has done for him. 

As for families of prisoners, thousands are receiving support from their local prison ministries, which partner with government officials, local churches, NGOs, schools and health centres. These organisations help the families to access vocational training, health care, counselling services and support groups. 

Several organisations are sharing stories of families reaching out to other poor community members once their own lives have become more stable. 

What you can do

While it can be tempting to leave solutions to the government, in reality crime touches all of our communities, and prisoners are our neighbours. As Christians, God calls us to ‘look after the orphans and widows in their distress’ (James 1:27), to feed and clothe the poor, to tend to the sick, and to visit prisoners (Matthew 25:36). There are many ways we as individuals, churches and communities can do this. 

  • Act: Many prison outreach organisations rely on volunteers to help facilitate their programmes and deliver services. Churches in particular can play a powerful role in filling this need by starting their own ministries or partnering with an existing one. 
  • Appeal: Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can consistently care for prisoners and their families. Consider hosting a day or a week of prayer in your church, Bible study or family prayer time for prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families, victims of crime, prison and government officials and prison ministries. 
  • Advocate: You can support restorative justice reforms in prison systems, schools and workplaces. You can help raise awareness about unjust prison conditions and the problems families of prisoners face. And you can support organisations actively working in the field of criminal justice. 

By caring for the hearts of all those affected by crime and imprisonment, we demonstrate Jesus’ love and compassion in a broken and hurting world. 

Lindsey A. Frederick is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Prison Fellowship International. For more information, or to learn how to get involved with your local Prison Fellowship ministry, visit www.pfi.org or email info@pfi.org