Restless Hearts

THE CHURCH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE

President Clinton recently signed a directive that he hopes will lead to a crackdown on drug use by prison inmates.

I’m thrilled the president wants to provide drug treatment for prisoners. It’s an important first step. But if the president really wants to get results, I hope he’ll heed the advice of his own drug czar and let the church, not the government, take the lead.

I recently joined former Carter administration cabinet secretary Joseph Califano and Clinton’s drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, at a press conference. There we announced the results of a massive study that documented substance abuse as the chief contributing cause of crime. The study found that 1.4 of the 1.7 million people behind bars are there, at least in part, because of substance abuse.

In response to these findings, President Clinton signed a directive that will force states to measure and report the extent of prison drug use. He proposed that America spend $200 million more to battle drug use behind bars, and he called on the states and Congress to stiffen penalties for peddling drugs in prison. “Otherwise,” the president warned, “we will continue to see people go right back on the streets with the drug habits that got them in trouble in the first place.”

 

PEOPLE ABUSE DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
TO FILL A SPIRITUAL VOID.

 

Well, the president is right on the mark. Dealing with prisoners’ drug problems is essential to reducing crime. But what many politicians may not realize is that there’s no practical way to keep prisons drug-free. When I was in prison, I never went to sleep without smelling marijuana wafting through the dorm. Moonshiners even operated a still in the prison attic.

The real key to the drug and alcohol crisis is reducing demand. And, as the president’s drug czar warned last Thursday, “the federal government won’t be the solution to that problem.”

General McCaffrey is right. If we’re going to break the cycle of drug use among offenders, the church must take the lead. That’s because the church understands why people use drugs and what—or better, Who—can fill the void.

Augustine put it best when he wrote in his Confessions, “We are made for thee and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Lacking a relationship with God, people are bored and lonely. They lack purpose and direction in their lives. They abuse drugs and alcohol to fill the spiritual void.

If we want to break the cycle of substance abuse and the resulting crime, we have to introduce offenders to the source of living water, who can assure that they never thirst again.

That’s the mission of Prison Fellowship—and it works. For example, our TOP program in Detroit works with recently released inmates, 98 percent of whom have a history of substance abuse. The program uses volunteer mentors to nurture Christian prisoners and hold them accountable after their release.

The result? TOP has a recidivism rate of just 9 percent, compared to national rates of 60 to 75 percent. That’s the effectiveness of the Gospel.

Both Califano and McCaffrey have publicly stated that the faith community plays an important role in solving the drug problem. But is the church up to the challenge? Are we willing to share the Gospel with people we normally avoid? Will we teach our own kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol?

We’d better be able to rise to the challenge. It’s the only way we’ll reduce not only the drug problem but our crime problem as well—and set prisoners free in Christ.


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