In 1976, ministering to prisoners was “an unfashionable, underrated, underfunded, Christian activity with no national or international leadership,” observes a Chuck Colson biographer. Notorious as President Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson had a religious conversion shortly before entering prison for obstruction of justice, and after serving his time he founded Prison Fellowship to battle the reality that two thirds of all prisoners released back into society returned to committing crimes. His group, which combined a message of repentance and reconciliation under God with strong advocacy for prisoners’ interests, grew tremendously.
Colson himself donated $77,000 of the first-year budget of $85,000, and $240,000 of the second year’s $440,000. For the rest of his life he continued to donate all the speaking fees and book royalties he earned, plus his $1 million honorarium upon being awarded the Templeton Prize. Almost from the beginning Prison Fellowship also received significant funding from Art DeMoss, the evangelistic founder of the Liberty Life Insurance Company (who posted bail for ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver after his conversion). Other significant donors have included Phil and Nancy Anschutz, Richard and Helen DeVos, and Thomas and Sandra Usher.
Prison Fellowship’s ministry now attracts 50,000 volunteers, and has expanded to include helping the families of prisoners, improving prison conditions, aiding crime victims in new ways, training volunteers to work in prisons, and reconciling victims and victimizers. One area of special effectiveness is efforts to help prisoners when they re-enter society and are most vulnerable. The ministry has been replicated in many other countries. Sociologists like Byron Johnson have documented the group’s effects in lowering recidivism, and in preventing crime by heading the children of criminals away from illegal activity.
- Jonathan Aitken, Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (WaterBrook Press, 2005)
- Resources from Prison Fellowship, prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources