JEFFERSON CITY – Since July 2020, Hannibal-LaGrange University’s Freedom on the Inside has taught and ministered to incarcerated men in the Jefferson City Correctional Center, offering college credit classes to help inmates develop a biblical worldview and represent Christ. God is using Freedom on the Inside’s unique approach to change inmates’ lives.
Freedom on the Inside is much more than a self-help program. “The goal is to reduce recidivism with the life-changing power of the gospel,” says Rodrick Sweet, Freedom on the Inside director. “We believe strongly in moral rehabilitation.” ‘Recidivism’ describes how likely a criminal is to return to lawless behavior. Freedom on the Inside targets men with sentences of 20 years to life, with low likelihoods of parole. For these men, crime is a way of life. How can a small college course expect to change that?
“We think of crime as a political or economic problem, but I think of it as a theological problem,” Sweet says. “Their anthropology all comes from evolution.” They see a person as a means to an end instead of viewing everyone as God’s image-bearers. “The first thing they’re learning is, ‘I’m an image bearer, and I’m sinful,’” Sweet says. “They are starting to recognize God brought them to prison for this moment. Prison saved their lives, and it’s giving them purpose. Because of this program, they’re going to be able to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Sweet shared the story of one student who put his training to work. The student, Robert Langford, wanted to distribute tracts in the prison. Due to budget constraints, Freedom on the Inside couldn’t afford them. “You write the Bible tract, and I can put it on the copier,” Sweet told Langford. So Langford got to work. Sweet says, “He’s probably passed out 700-800 tracts since November; he’s got 10 prayer groups going in three living areas; and he started a discipleship program with a four-part process.”
Sweet says Freedom on the Inside is facing some significant needs. He teaches biblical and theological classes but needs college-level instructors to teach general education classes like math and science. Even a master’s, doctoral, or Ph.D. student can teach in person or through Zoom.
Freedom on the Inside also needs cooperation from Missouri churches. “If they are near a prison, churches should be partnering with the chaplain to bring even more ministry to that prison,” Sweet says. “They need to start thinking about re-entry life skill classes for men and women who are being released. 96 percent of incarcerated men and women will come home, and they’re coming home to our churches.”
Missouri’s prison population in 2020 was 38,749, according to the most recent National Institute of Corrections data. Freedom on the Inside’s 38 total students are insignificant by the numbers. But these men have a remarkable impact. After finishing the program, students leave Jefferson City Corrections and return to their original prison. Sweet says they witness for Jesus, start prayer groups, and work in the “Jump-Start” mentoring program. Since its beginning, Freedom on the Inside has seen two churches started by inmates in Jefferson City Correctional Center, and wardens noted a 15% reduction in violence where Freedom on the Inside alumni are located.
The best part, though? “Since we started Freedom on the Inside, there’s been 20 baptisms,” Sweet says. “And that’s not students being baptized; that’s students baptizing inmates.”
Serving inmates with Freedom on the Inside has touched Sweet personally, too. “I was sitting at work in a classroom…and my wife calls me to tell me that my mom had passed,” he recalls. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of inmates who are on fire for Jesus. And they pray for me.” A week later, Sweet traveled to Houston for the funeral. “When I was preaching my mom’s eulogy, I opened my Bible and found a note from our students who say, ‘We’re here with you.’ I don’t even know when they put that note in my Bible.”
The Pathway received a letter from one of Sweet’s current students at Jefferson City Correctional Center. The author’s hand-written enthusiasm practically leaps off the page.
“I have news for you! God is on the move here!” he writes. “This camp is on the verge of revival unlike anything ever seen in the state of Missouri.”
He compares the prison to the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, just waiting for God to raise up an army. He closes the letter with a call to prayer: for softened hearts, for darkness to be dispelled, and for revival, restoration, and redemption.
“Let the world know,” he writes, “that God is alive and the answer to anything is always Jesus Christ!”
Signed, Brother Robert Langford.
For more information about Freedom on the Inside, visit https://www.hlg.edu/academics/academic-departments/christian-studies/freedom-on-the-inside/.