The Prison Revolving Door

May 12, 2002

by Tom Barrett,

No, I am not referring to the Palestinian revolving door, through which Arafat brings arrested terrorists, then quietly releases them a few days later. I am talking about something a lot closer to home, something that affects every aspect of American society.

Today we’re going to talk about recidivism. Recidivism is the rate at which ex-convicts become convicts all over again. You thought that all those in-prison rehabilitation programs were working, right? You figured that if you ever had to spend time in prison, you would learn your lesson and make sure you never went back, didn’t you? Well, that’s not the way it happens. U.S. recidivism is estimated to be as high as 76%. The lowest estimates place it at more than 50%.

The American judicial system has failed in its efforts to reduce the recidivism rate among ex-offenders. Government has not been able to devise programs to stop the swelling of our prison population. Currently two million of our citizens are incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons. That’s a 100% increase in the past twenty years.

Compounding the problem of overcrowding in our prisons is the lack of support for those being released. The high recidivism rate is directly attributed to this lack of support. A prisoner who is released with little or no money, without employment or housing - usually with a history of life controlling addictions - has little or no chance of making it in a society that is at best suspicious and at worst hostile towards him or her.

Many people re-offend over and over. Some adults in this country have spent far more time behind bars than on the outside. The costs to society are incalculable. Prison costs are staggering. We can’t build prisons fast enough, so liberal judges release violent offenders before they have served their sentences. During the periods between incarcerations, most released prisoners go back to their old trade - crime. In addition to your tax dollars paying for the social and legal costs of crime, every American statistically stands a very good chance of being a victim of a violent crime sometime during their life.

I have said that government has shown itself incapable of dealing with this problem. Then who or what can? Over thirty years ago government programs dealing with heroin addicts were failing miserably. Most addicts from New York City were sent to a federal rehabilitation program in Kentucky. Over 95% of those who had just graduated from a six-month program bought their first “fix” on the train going home. A faith-based program called Teen Challenge changed the statistics dramatically. Over 80% of their graduates stayed clean.

I call it the pork chop approach. If you see a dog carrying an old, dry bone that he’s been chewing on for a week and try to take it away from him, what will happen? He’ll bite you, because that old bone is all he has. However, if you toss a nice, juicy pork chop on the sidewalk in front of him, he’ll fling the dry bone as far as he can and go for the pork chop.

All the addict has is his or her drug of choice. All the thief knows is stealing. If you just tell them, “Stop doing that,” it’s not going to work, because you’re not giving him or her something better to replace it. That’s why government programs don’t work.

Faith-based programs give their clients something far better than the lifestyle they’re asked to give up. They offer a personal relationship with God. Their counselors are often former offenders or addicts whose lives have been transformed by God’s grace and mercy. They don’t offer theories or pop psychology - they offer real answers, based on the Bible.

One such program, based in Florida, is doubly important because not only does it serve ex-offenders in its own state; it serves as a model for faith-based prison after-care programs nationwide. It is the PACT Center, part of Matthew 25 Ministries. Matthew 25:43 says, in part, “I was in prison, but you didn’t visit me.” This ministry starts there. Staff and volunteers visit prisoners and share the love of God with them. They mentor and disciple them, teaching solid life principles from the Word of God. Only those who show a sincere desire to change their lives are admitted to the program. Recidivism among their male and female graduates has been reduced to about 15%!

This is how the program describes their approach to helping ex-offenders: “Since the majority of the prison population suffers from low self-esteem as well as addictive behaviors, it is important that they are placed in an environment where they can know they are loved. Through group and individual counseling, coupled with a teaching curriculum designed to discover the root cause of a person’s inability to make right decisions, healing is achieved. We also deal with a person’s spiritual being as it pertains to finding out who they are as a child of God. This spiritual component is what makes our programs more effective.”

The PACT Center works with local and state law enforcement agencies, judges and prison administrators. Many officials in these agencies contact them for assistance with the needs of inmates due to be released because of PACT’s excellent reputation. They are widely known for their compassionate but firm program of rehabilitation, which includes job training.

Only twice in the past have I used this editorial to suggest that my readers send donations to a particular ministry. I do this today because, as a Board member of this ministry, I know that every dollar they receive is spent frugally and wisely. I make the request that you consider sharing in this ministry because, as its Treasurer, I know that they desperately need help right now. You all know that I don’t receive any compensation for my work on Conservative Truth. Thanks for allowing me the privilege of sharing the need of a ministry that I know is making a real difference.

Last month, at our annual banquet, I was privileged to hear once again the testimonies of many of the graduates of this program. There were very few dry eyes as we listened to people whose lives had been shattered, who had absolutely no hope, share how the love and persistence of the program’s staff and volunteers had helped them change their lives. Some were recent graduates; others had been living new lives for many years. All had the same message. Were it not for the generosity of the people who have supported this ministry, they would probably be in prison again, or perhaps dead.

Matthew 25 and the PACT Center are facing a real crisis right now. The facilities where they minister to women and men who have been released from prison may be taken from them through no fault of the ministry. It is a long story, but the answer is short. The ministry needs the prayers and financial support of God’s people. If you would like to help, you can send tax-deductible donations to:

PACT Center, Inc.
PO Box 17915
West Palm Beach, FL 33416

You can call (561) 687-0527 for more information, or visit their website at PACT Center.

For more information about prison after-care ministries, visit the websites of these organizations, of which the PACT Center is a member:

Restorative Justice Ministry Network

Coalition of Prison Evangelists


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  Tom Barrett has been an ordained minister for 28 years. He has written for local and national publications for most of his life, and has authored several non-fiction books. He has been interviewed on many TV and radio programs, and speaks at seminars nationwide. Tom is the editor and publisher of Conservative Truth, an email newsletter read by tens of thousands weekly which focuses on moral and political issues from a Biblical viewpoint.

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