From James Bratt
Charles Colson’s death last month prompted a chorus of praise from his evangelical supporters. Praise for his enduring conversion to Christianity. Praise for the change of character it wrought in him. Praise for the compassion that galvanized him to build his Prison Fellowship into the largest prison ministry in the world. Praise, sometimes followed by sad sighs that the mainstream media had too much remembered the Watergate felon and not the prison reformer.
Problem is, in the big picture the secular critics might have been right. For the impressive statistics of Prison Fellowship are engulfed by a far larger—and appalling—reality that lies all around them. Yes, Prison Fellowship ministers to some 200,000 inmates in nearly 1400 facilities. Yes, it advocates for better rehabilitation for ex-cons. Yes, it tries to keep family relationships active while inmates are serving their time. But, no, in its policy advocacy and programming, in Colson and Co.’s daily radio programs, in the resources compiled by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, there is little attention to the simple and haunting question that lies dead-center in this domain of his professed expertise: why is it that the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 25% of its prisoners? Why does it lock up a greater proportion of its population than any other nation in the world? Forty percent more than the nearest competitor? More than the USSR did under the police state of Joseph Stalin? More tragically (or is it pathetically?): how is it that this zeal for jail rose most dramatically—five-fold—exactly in the three decades after Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976?
American incarceration rates might themselves amount to a crime. They are certainly an outrage and more certainly a folly. They are also deeply racist.