The Difference It Makes

Prisons are not very pleasant places. After 15 years in prison ministry, you might think I'd get used to it. But I haven't. And prisons in Third World countries are indescribably worse. Primitive, crowded--a shock to North American eyes. One of them, however, is different. It's Humaita Prison, in Brazil. When I visited Humaita, I was struck by the clean courtyard with its whitewashed patios and crisp blue trim. Inside, the rooms are orderly, the beds neatly made. A sign on the wall says, It's not enough to stop doing evil; you must also do good. Another reads, All honest work is blessed by God. Maybe you can guess what makes Humaita different: It's run by Christians. For the past 18 years, Humaita has been operated by a group of Christian volunteers. They have now joined the Brazilian chapter of Prison Fellowship. After the volunteers took over Humaita, the number of inmates returning to prison dropped to a mere 4 percent. The average world-wide rate is 75 percent--an astounding difference. What's the secret to Humaita's success? Higher walls? More guards? Just the opposite. Humaita has no guards. When an inmate enters Humaita, his handcuffs are taken off and he is told, "In this prison, your heart is handcuffed by love, and you are watched over by Christ." Humaita has developed an innovative system that allows inmates to earn their freedom in stages. At each stage, they are given greater access to the outside world. In the final stage, they live at home, work at outside jobs, and only report daily to prison. But the heart of Humaita's program is that it introduces inmates to Christ. During my visit there, I attended a chapel service where several inmates told how they had converted to Christ. Many had made restitution for their crimes. After the chapel service, my guide, an inmate, asked what I thought was an odd question: He asked me if I would like to see the punishment cell. It was a dark, narrow cell once used to subdue unruly prisoners, he explained. At times in the past, so many were crowded in that they suffocated. But now, I was told, the cell held only one prisoner. We walked over to the prison's high security area and stopped in front of a heavy steel door. I braced myself for the worst. But when the door swung opened, what hit me was not the stench of sweating bodies but the aroma of fresh flowers. An altar graced one end of the room. Above it hung a carving of Jesus on the cross, with a banner that read "We are together." The prisoner in the cell was Jesus. The secret to Humaita's success is in that dark, narrow cell. There, criminals learn of a Savior who, like them, was branded a criminal--who can truly say to them: We are together. I bore the punishment for your sins; I served your sentence. There's no question that I'm asked more often than, Does Prison Fellowship's ministry really work? Are prison conversions real? Do they last? Well, the next time I'm asked that question, I'm going to suggest that the person buy a ticket to Brazil to see first hand the difference it makes when criminals understand that Christ is there with them--that He was a prisoner too, that He went to the cross in our place. That's a lesson we can all learn from a scruffy bunch of convicts in Brazil.


Chuck Colson



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