It’s one of the best photographs ever taken of Chuck Colson. Chuck is in a prison gymnasium, dressed, as always, in coat and tie, Bible tucked under one arm. And he’s reaching into the bleachers, smiling ear to ear, to grasp the hand of an African-American prisoner clad in prison dungarees.
Go to ChuckColson.org. to see the picture — and to understand the heart of Chuck’s legacy: his identification with those behind bars.
Apart from Watergate, Chuck is best-known for his ministry to prisoners. But to say that Chuck ministered to prisoners is to miss the point almost entirely. The seven months Chuck spent in prison changed the way Chuck saw the world and his role in it. It placed prisoners and their families at the heart of Chuck’s concerns and priorities.
To understand why, you have to understand that, contrary you may have read, Chuck did not experience a “jailhouse conversion.” On the contrary, you could argue that he went to prison as a result of becoming a Christian. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice as part of what he called the “price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new [one].”
That new life began in prison, and in Chuck’s mind, he never really left prison. His “life sentence,” as he called it, began to take shape shortly before leaving prison. Another inmate asked him what he would do for those prisoners he was leaving behind, to which Chuck replied, “I’ll help in some way . . . I’ll never forget you guys or this stinking place.”
While his fellow prisoners were skeptical — after all, they had heard similar promises before — Chuck was true to his word. Today, Prison Fellowship ministers to prisoners and their families in every state and more than 100 countries around the world.
This ministry takes many forms: in-prison Bible studies and mentoring programs; Angel Tree, which reaches out to the children of prisoners; Justice Fellowship, which advocates for biblically based justice reforms to promote a criminal justice system that is more in keeping with biblical standards of justice.
Chuck’s favorite novelist was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, so it should come as no surprise that he wholeheartedly agreed that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Thus, while popular culture was making jokes about prison rape, Chuck and the Prison Fellowship family were working to bring an end to this grotesque violation of human dignity. When a fearful America screamed, “Lock them up and throw away the key,” Chuck warned the American people and their leaders that this response was shortsighted and financially ruinous – warnings that have been vindicated by events.
Like I said, Chuck never really left prison. He spent every Easter Sunday in prison with the one group of people he most considered his brothers. Only the illness that would eventually claim his life brought this streak to an end.
So if you want to see a great picture of the real Chuck Colson, go to PrisonFellowship.org. Of all the comments about his passing, this one sums up Chuck the best: “I have to believe Mr. Colson just heard a Galilean voice say ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’”