One cannot help but feel apprehension as you drive down the dead-end street known as No More Victims Road and begin the climb up the hill to the foreboding facility known as the Algoa Correctional Facility. Back home we’d call it the State Pen. Barbed wire fences and towers with armed guards greet you in a place where drug dealers and killers reside.
It is intimidating, yet as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I counted it a privilege to be the guest of one of the most wonderful ministries I have ever encountered. Prison Fellowship and its InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is a proven prisoner reformation program that, through the power of the Gospel, is changing the lives of men and women whom much of society has given up on and even despise. It was a blessing for me to have the opportunity to share a message from the Word of God to about 35 inmates at an Aug. 25 worship service like I have never seen.
Men who have lived hard lives, apart from God, stood and sang praises to their Savior, Jesus Christ. Most wore tattoos, some had long pony tails, teeth missing and obviously lacked communication skills. Yet there they were, expressing their love for Jesus in a dingy meeting room with Bible verses and words of encouragement taped to the walls. Many had opened Bibles as I led them through Romans 5:18-20, assuring them that where sin increased, God’s grace abounded all the more. Afterwards, all of them approached me, shook my hand and thanked me for visiting and sharing the encouraging Word. It was a remarkable experience.
All of the inmates who attended are enrolled in IFI. Established by Prison Fellowship, IFI is an intense values-based program taught from a Biblical perspective and focused on Jesus Christ as the model and source of real, lifelong change. IFI has two parts: Voluntary participants receive 18 months of pre-release programming in a prison dormitory separated from the general prison population. After release from prison, they receive 12 months of re-entry programming and mentoring to help them get settled in a job, in the community, and in a supportive church.
It is not an easy program. It starts early in the morning and ends late at night. Nearly all of their waking hours are spent in a combination of academic and life-skills classes, small-group discussions, leadership training, prison jobs and personal study (televisions are not permitted).
IFI’s state director is Eric Vinson, a member of Hickory Hills Baptist Church just south of Jefferson City. His office is at Algoa, one of two state prisons in Missouri offering IFI. The other is the women’s prison at Vandalia. The goal is to get IFI in every Missouri prison. We should pray to that end. Why?
Not only are inmates coming to Christ for salvation, but by modeling Christ they learn how to cope once they are released into the community. But there is more: Prison Fellowship, through IFI, helps bring crime statistics down, restores shattered lives and families, reduces the staggering cost of crime to society and makes communities safer.
More than two million people are serving time in America’s prisons. Some 700,000 are released back into society every year. Studies show that 67 percent of released inmates will be re-arrested within three years and more than half of them will be sent back to prison.
Here’s some good news:
• Participation by prisoners in Prison Fellowship Bible studies reduced their recidivism by a whopping 66 percent, according to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ Justice Quarterly.
• Of the inmates who completed the IFI program, only 17 percent returned to prison after two years, compared to a 35 percent return rate for inmates who did not participate, according to a study published in 2003 by the Texas Criminal Policy Council.
• A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study found that graduates of IFI in Texas were 50 percent less likely to be re-arrested and 60 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated, compared to the matched comparison group.
Before I departed Algoa, Vinson told me each night the IFI inmates are allowed out of their cell blocks. What ensues is surely a sight to behold. Many pull chairs out into the hallway – with Bibles in hand – and hold group Bible studies. He said their prayers and voices raised in song can often be heard, the hymns and choruses echoing until it’s time for “lights out.”
Prison Fellowship and IFI are in need of volunteers, sponsoring churches and financial aid. Prison Fellowship, founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson (another Southern Baptist), offers programs in more than 1,400 correctional facilities in all 50 states. Let me encourage you to pray for these ministries. Perhaps you should ask God if He would have you serve as a volunteer, lead your church to mentor an IFI graduate or donate much-needed money toward this unique mission field. Eric Vinson may be reached by calling 573-634-2647.