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Charles Colson and the Cancer of Incarceration

By May 1, 2012 No Comments

by 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 1,400 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 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 25 percent 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. This is the harsh conclusion of Michelle Alexander’s much discussed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It is also the contention of Glenn C. Loury’s Race, Incarceration, and American Values (MIT Press, 2008), a volume that marked Loury’s own departure from the ranks of conservatives, who had previously prized him as their own African-American intellectual. No more. Not with African Americans going to jail at six times the national average. Not with black kids composing 60 percent of juveniles locked up compared to their 13 percent of the population. Not with one-third of all African-American males likely to spend time in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.

Why such gross distortions? Class certainly plays a part in that poorer people are arrested at far higher rates than those better off. But the system especially targets black males. Consuming and dealing drugs at little higher rates than other Americans, African Americans, says Human Rights Watch, with 13 percent of the American population, constitute 35 percent of those arrested for possession, 55 percent of those convicted for the same, and 74 percent of those thereby sentenced to prison.

The culprit here is the “War on Drugs” which took off simultaneously with Colson’s prison ministry, and which threw people in jail a hundred times faster than his work could even dream of rehabilitating them. Surely the wiser policy would have been to remand non-violent offenders, convicted of possession only—the majority of those swept up—to rehab units, halfway houses, alternative sentences, anything but the big house. For the haunting legacy of imprisonment, even for those who do not find there a school for truly serious criminality, is to stamp one permanently with a stigma that makes good employment, housing, civic participation, marriage, and family responsibilities a dim prospect.

It is notable that alternative sentencing options cost less, sometimes far less, than imprisonment. It is clear that the War on Drugs and the prison mania it has generated is one Big Government program that has failed, and in the failing has driven deleterious consequences deep into the heart of American inner cities. Yet it is remarkable that this is one Big Government program that a majority of Americans, Colson’s supporters not least among them, love and reward with big budgetary checks.

What if Charles Colson had stood up boldly against this folly? What if his promotion of a Christian worldview had traced this sore in the American body politic to the Manichaean vengefulness that is one of the nation’s besetting sins, right alongside the racism which became the prime rationale for and remains the lasting consequence of slavery, our original sin? What if Charles Colson had advocated for radical surgery and radical reparative therapy for the cancer of incarceration, rather than distributing bandages, kindly as he might, for surface sores? It would have made for a remarkable witness. It would have made it harder for secular cynics to scoff at the faith. It would have prompted white evangelicals to some apt soulsearching. It would have converted hearts, white and black, personal and communal. That this did not happen is less the fault of Charles Colson than of the religious culture in which Richard Nixon’s hatchet man experienced a real change of heart but too little change of mind.

James Bratt teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a former editor of Perspectives. This column originally appeared on May 11, 2012, in Perspectives’ blog, “The Twelve: Reformed. Done Daily”.
James Bratt

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. He is the author of several books including Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, widely considered the definitive Kuyper biography.