IFI bringing love of Christ to inmates
By Allen Palmeri
January 24, 2006
JEFFERSON CITY —A new prison program backed by Gov. Matt Blunt and Department of Corrections Director Larry Crawford is indicative of a new vision within state government that is turning to the church for help in rehabilitating prisoners.
InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), which is affiliated with Prison Fellowship, the ministry founded by Southern Baptist lay leader Charles Colson, is preparing for an April 1 launch at the Algoa Correctional Center and the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. Spence Jackson, the governor’s chief spokesman, spoke unashamedly of why the governor has signed off on this.
“He sees it as an integral part in reaching people who, in many cases, society has given up on,” said Spence Jackson, the governor’s chief spokesman. “Prison ministry has had great success in reaching out to prisoners, telling them about the glory of Jesus Christ, helping them turn their lives around.”
Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley was the keynote speaker at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast Jan. 5 at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City. A decision like that does not go unnoticed by state Capitol observers like Kerry Messer, lobbyist, Christian Life Commission, Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). Messer sees Blunt, who attends Second Baptist Church, Springfield, and Crawford, who attends Friendship Baptist Church, California, as government leaders who are able to increase their effectiveness by knowing their limitations.
“From a biblical perspective, we know that the state is in power, but the state’s empowerment is to punish those who do wrong and to support and encourage those who do right,” Messer said. “In all reality, the ministry of reformation is not a ministry of the state at all. It is a ministry of the church.”
Crawford said hundreds of inmates at Algoa and Vandalia will benefit from IFI as it branches off the Missouri Re-Entry Process (MRP), an existing prison reform plan funded by grant money and monitored by the federal government. Missouri’s MRP already ranks with Michigan’s as the best in the nation, he said, and IFI’s “intensive therapy” will certainly be a plus as the Department of Corrections continues to pursue excellence in reform.
“We engage partners, and the governor recently did an Executive Order putting emphasis on MRP,” Crawford said. “That draws in the Department of Revenue, Economic Development, Wage & Labor, Social Services and Mental Health.
“All our inmates need aftercare when they get out, and that’s going to depend on a lot of volunteers. Churches are typically the caring type of people who are going to be willing to donate their time and do this. Other organizations could do this but quite frankly, there aren’t that many.”
IFI is in the process of raising its $650,000 annual budget. No taxpayer money will go directly toward the program, but Crawford said his employees will be involved in the training and security oversight of IFI personnel. The director said the prospect of inmates volunteering for the program and having their spiritual needs met is exciting.
“There will be peer interaction between them and the people of IFI,” Crawford said. “They will live a structured life. They will be able to openly express their feelings. I think it’s sort of a nurturing and a growing, probably, of what God intended for people to be.”
Mike Murphy, the former Algoa superintendent who has been working since the late 1990s to get IFI into Missouri, is thrilled that the program has been approved. Murphy, immediate past chairman of the deacons at Concord Baptist Church of Jefferson City, is now associate warden of programs at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, Rawlins, Wyo.
“Inmates who have been successful in staying out of prison are those who practice a personal faith,” Murphy said. “Therefore, while it is not up to us as a government entity to support any particular faith, we can certainly provide the opportunities for an inmate to find and practice a faith.
“We know from research that inmates who practice a faith are less likely to come back to prison. We also know from research that those inmates who have been involved in IFI are far less likely to come back to prison. It is our hope that they will get out and stay out, for good.”
The failed public policy of the past—“liberal hand holding,” as Murphy put it—will not cut it in the prisons of the 21st century, Messer said.
“We can never truly reform criminals until we get to the true spiritual needs,” Messer said. “The way the state has operated in the past is a good stab, but it’s only a stab at it. Now we’re seeing a true, godly interest among state leaders.”
Jackson said that the interest on the governor’s part is sincere, based on his personal reading of the Holy Scriptures and the mandate he has earned from the voters of Missouri who have placed him in power to minister to those who are poor and weak—people such as prisoners. In that regard, the governor is delighted to link arms with fellow Southern Baptist Colson in order to minister kindness through the tested method of IFI.
“We know that they’ve (Prison Fellowship) been very active in our institutions and that they’ve helped a lot of inmates find Jesus Christ and from that point, help them get in and value society and want to be positive contributors to our society,” Jackson said.
That is precisely why elected officials like the governor ought to be supporting a program like IFI, Messer said. As Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, said, IFI is showing “tremendous results in reducing recidivism.” Through the cleansing power of the blood of the Lamb, lives soiled by crime can be truly redeemed both inside and outside the prison walls, Messer said. The idea is for prisoners to eventually obtain jobs and become a blessing, not a curse, to Missouri’s economy.
“Too many people in state government have bought into this line that we should have this solid wall of separation between the two institutions, so therefore the church can’t come in there and the state’s going to attempt reformation on their own,” Messer said. “Well, there’s no such thing as reformation apart from Jesus Christ.”