Fyodor Dostoevsky once purportedly wrote that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. As many in the mainstream media have reminded us since his April 21 death at age 80, Charles W. Colson first did so in 1973, as President Nixon’s “hatchet man” sent to prison for seven months after his role in exposing Daniel Ellsberg. His subsequent contributions to improving the lives of prisoners—and to setting in motion entirely new prison paradigms—will endure for decades to come.
Given the broad tumult and unrest of Watergate-era American politics, we should not be surprised at how many scoffed at Colson’s claim, upon his release from the Alabama Maxwell prison, that he had undergone a profound religious conversion. Skeptics reserved judgment, even after Colson published in 1975 his highly transparent autobiography, Born Again, forthrightly describing White House life, his memorable willingness “to walk over my own grandmother if necessary” to Nixon’s cause—and, most importantly to Colson, the redemption he experienced in prison.
The first significant takeaway from his initial prison experience was that of grace. As he recounted, Colson deeply believed his transformation was not self-renewal but a truly divine gift, through personal forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Colson dedicated the remainder of his life to proclaiming this message, to his “fellow prisoners” and beyond.
Even most skeptics now acknowledge societal contributions that have resulted. The 1976 ministry Colson launched, Prison Fellowship, is today present in over 100 countries, and it has engaged millions of men and women in mentoring relationships, Christian discipleship, and vocational support. Angel Tree ministry, begun in 1982, now provides holiday gifts and a gospel message to the families of over 400,000 prisoners each year.
While these supportive ministries focused primarily on prisoners as individuals, Colson eventually developed an institutional component, forming a 1997 partnership with the Texas criminal justice system to administer a prison unit called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), requiring voluntary enrollment by inmates, Bible study, mandatory mentoring and community service.
First started in Houston, the IFI program today runs prison facilities in five states—with results that have caused criminologists and many others to take notice. As Baylor University sociologist Byron Johnson recounts in his new book More God, Less Crime, two years after their release IFI program graduates were considerably less likely to be re-arrested (15 percent of those completing the program versus a 36.2 percent national average) or re-incarcerated (5 percent versus 24.3 percent).
For anyone who has visited an IFI program, these otherwise stunning statistics are not entirely surprising. In 2004, I had the opportunity to spend two days at the Carol Vance unit in Houston, which Colson first established and Prof. Johnson studied. I was flabbergasted: Instead of the underlying malaise or overt dissension typical in numerous prisons nationwide, the entire group of 193 men participating in IFI’s program were proactively engaged. The contrast was palpable: These men sat attentively in a gymnasium, intently listening to a speaker in a full-group Bible study. Hard work was expected, and like a military unit, these inmates kept the facility looking sharp. Inmates were each paired with a congregation-based mentor, and all IFI participants volunteered in the local community during their highly structured 15-hour days.
In a $27 million ex-prisoner reentry program being tested that year by the federal government and two private foundations, the IFI prison was by far the clearest example of innovation I witnessed—and it existed solely because of Colson’s own second chance, and his commitment to improving the lives of those we incarcerate. If Dostoevsky was right, Colson indirectly civilized society writ large.
A final, related observation is that, even in his later years, Colson maintained an intellectual curiosity that kept him learning. In a foreword to Ambassador Gregory Slayton’s forthcoming new fatherhood book, Colson wrote with characteristic humility about the link between father-absence and crime:
In my visits to 800 prisons, I have seen what happens to kids who have no dads: Looking for male role models, which all boys need, they turn to the gangs. At first I thought that turning these young men around would be a simple matter, such as building discipleship groups. But what I soon discovered was that we were building prisons faster than Prison Fellowship or anyone else could get to them…
Colson describes reading several contemporary criminologists, compares their findings with his own knowledge of prison inmates, and then warns us—prophetically—against “treating family formation and structure as something malleable that can be shaped to suit our own predilections.”
Even in this last regard, Colson practiced what he preached. The day he was admitted to the hospital with a blood clot alongside his brain that eventually led to his death, he had spent 10 hours working with other cultural leaders on a Manhattan Declaration project focusing on present and future challenges to the American family.
In short, after emerging from prison Charles Colson lived out his convictions and fought for them to the very end. The congruence of word and deed in his life produced enormous influence in the public square: His radio commentary, heard on 1,300 media outlets nationwide, reached over 8 million listeners every week. By following through on his early commitments, Colson improved the lives of literally millions, and both our prisons and society at large are the better for him.
Josh Good is a senior consultant who works with faith-based organizations and several public policy think tanks in Washington, D.C.