Prisoners for Christ

Speaking as a convicted felon, I can tell you it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to prison. But recently I went back eagerly—to Humaita Prison in Brazil. Of the 600 prisons I have visited around the world, the Humaita Prison is far and away the most remarkable. Owned and operated by Prison Fellowship, Humaita is a model for criminal justice systems everywhere—and maybe for our whole society. During my visit I didn't see a single inmate who wasn't smiling. When I asked them if they knew Christ, every single one beamed and said, "Yes, of course. He is my Lord." In fact, Humaita seems more like a spiritual retreat center than a prison. Motivational messages and Scripture verses are painted on the bright blue walls of the hallway. As each inmate arrives, his chains are removed by a fellow prisoner, who tells him, "In this place you are chained not by steel but by the love of Christ." That spiritual chain has proved more powerful than the strongest manacles. To begin with, just two staff members oversee 750 inmates. The rest of the security is provided by the prisoners themselves. Moreover, hundreds of prisoners have participated in work-release programs in the community over the last 21 years, and only six have failed to return. Most astonishing, Humaita's recidivism rate—the number of ex-convicts who are rearrested—is an incredible 4 percent. That compares to America's 67 percent and Brazil's 75 percent. Unlike American prisons, where inmates often spend the day listlessly watching television, Humaita is a beehive of activity. They can take classes in the arts, music, literacy, religion, and technical skills. Inmates perform practical work such as keeping the prison clean and cutting other inmates' hair. Those who have proven their reliability are allowed to help with administrative work and to escort other inmates outside the prison to medical appointments and judicial hearings. Each prisoner is also teamed with a volunteer family that invites him home for lunch every Sunday. But the heart of Humaita is the chapel. This concrete room was once the dreaded punishment cell, used for torturing men. Today this room is filled with flowers. A cross with Jesus hangs on the wall, reminding the men that our Lord is serving time on their behalf. Walking into Humaita, where Jesus is proclaimed and genuine love is shared, is like walking out of the darkness into the light. Just think of the difference we could make if we could instill some of Humaita's basic principles into the American system. Yet I asked the head of the ACLU Prison Project, whom I saw during a TV interview, if he'd object to a Humaita-style prison in the U.S. "Of course," he said: "I'd sue you." Yes, the ACLU would sue us. But what a shame they and others can't see what a difference it makes to bring Christian principles not just into prisons but into all of life. Humaita provides a lesson for all of us. Anything good enough to make former prisoners want to return to prison again and again is something that just might heal our own sick society.


Chuck Colson


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