Our prison system is an unmitigated disaster. Very few Christians know the real problems in the system and even less really care. This is positively wrong. We need to become advocates for justice and mercy in the very best sense of both words.

Our system is moving towards a serious collapse and few know the answers. An obvious problem can be seen in the simple, observable fact that those who have money generally avoid prison and those who are poor do not. But even worse is how we treat those who are incarcerated.

California has the largest penal system. This is no surprise since it is our most populous state. It is also one of the worst systems in America. The state has been building new prisons, since 1970, at a rate that is almost beyond belief. The entire system is so overcrowded and inhumane that a federal court recently ordered the state to reduce the prison population by one-third. The system is overcome by internal violence and the prisons are not correctional facilities in any meaningful sense of the word. They are, in reality, breeding grounds for worse behavior once prisoners are released. California even farms out over 20,000 inmates to other states!

But this is not simply a California problem. It is a national nightmare. 2.2 million people are in prison in the United States today and 13.5 million will pass through the prison system in some form this year! The cost to us is in excess of $60 billion. Lest you think this is a problem worldwide you need to know that we have more people in prison than any other Western nation, having passed even Russia in the past few years.

Some of you will think that this is all caused by our illegal immigration problem. Not so. Illegals are deported, at least in most cases. The reasons we have a huge problem range from drug use to tougher sentencing and parole laws, as well as the utterly shameful idea of "three strikes and you are out." (Minor criminals have been sentenced to life in prison under such laws and few people seem to realize it! Or a relatively petty "third" crime puts a person away for life.) This "three strikes" law is the result of harsh, unjust, over-reaction to the rising crime rate!

The Christian tradition has always labored to create humane conditions for prisoners. It has also rightly emphasized that imprisonment should work for rehabilitation in every possible case. Once a just sentence is served people should be given a new opportunity. And visiting and caring for those in prison has always been understood as a work of mercy by ethically minded Christians (cf. Matthew 25:36).

While prisons are clearly needed in every society a system that is cruel and unjust must be reformed. Warehousing inmates is not justice. It violates all sense of decency and mercy. The largest percentage of those who enter our system are not violent criminals, at least not initially. These nonviolent offenders must be corrected and helped. By the system we now have in place they are often raped, brutally mistreated and infected with all kinds of diseases. It has been estimated that 350,000 of our inmates suffer from "serious mental illness." (Only the simplest argue against the idea of mental illness.)

The bottom line here is a broad based lack of respect for human dignity. Christians rightly protest the "culture of death" that is associated with abortion. I wonder why so few of those same Christians do not protest the direct assault upon human dignity that is brought about by our horrible penal system. When man is inhumane to man the results impact us all. This is a "culture of life" issue.

Cell Block
The lack of regard for those who are warehoused in our prison system has a much greater impact on our total well-being than we know. It corrupts us all in ways we have never really thought about. We cannot afford to be ignorant about this any longer. We ought to make our voices heard in the corridors of power.

We need to begin by reforming sentencing guidelines, by developing better programs for helping prisoners re-enter society on the outside, and by providing a decent health care system inside prisons. We also need to make a serious effort to keep prisoners and families engaged with each other. More judges, cells and guards is not the answer! Building more prisons will not make us safer either.

I have studied revivals for almost forty years. In every experience of revival that I know about prisons have been directly impacted. I pray that God will touch your heart and mine to make us more aware of this problem and personally ready to respond as the Lord leads us within our own context. Having preached in prisons, and worked in prison ministry, I can tell you that the need is greater than ever and we are not solving it. Our record is so bad as a nation that we ought to be clamoring for change. And the church ought to care much more about this life issue than it does. What is your church doing about this problem? What are you doing?

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  1. Dave Moorhead February 27, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Yesterday I had to drive up to Hanford, CA, a trip of 63 miles, along California State Highway 43. Through those 63 miles I drove past seven (7!) state prisons. I drove in stunned silence as my friends enlightened me on the California Penal System. Thanks for your comments.

  2. P. Andrew Sandlin February 27, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    John, a Biblical approach would be gradual abolition of the prison system to be replaced by what the Bible actually envisions — restitution.

  3. Chris Criminger February 27, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Hi John,
    I have been working with several other ministers in our local jail for seven years. We have seen the mighty wind of God’s Spirit blow through this jail that even the 700 Club came out last year with an interview. We baptized over 100 inmates a year (I know of no church in our local area that does even that).
    We also have been having some Christian unity services of late and I have witnessed some of the most outstanding miracles I have ever witnessed as a Pastor.
    God is showing me a greater dimension to when brothers and sisters dwell in Christian unity together.

  4. ColtsFan February 27, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    P. Andrew Sandlin is exactly right in his above comment.
    For all non-violent offenses, the Biblical approach should be restitution, and not prison incarceration.

  5. Steve Scott February 27, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    “I wonder why so few of those same Christians do not protest the direct assault upon human dignity that is brought about by our horrible penal system.”
    John, the answer is simple and is right in our bibles: “Criminals belong behind bars.” Hezekiah 3:16
    You’ve only touched on the overall problem. Andrew got it right. Christians just assume that retribution equals justice. In biblical law, a thief paid back his victim. That’s the end of the story. Restitution is made, forgiveness is offered. But in America, a criminal record sticks with a person his entire life. This affects the ability to live and support a family.
    Also, incarcerated people are forcibly separated from family, raising children, ability to make housing payments, etc. If a thief has to pay something back, he should have a job to earn the payback. Instead, they are forced recipients of anal rape, and we conservatives joke about dropping of soap in the shower, etc. In a certain sense, “tough on crime” conservatives resemble more closely what went on in Sodom (forced rape) than do “those gays” in San Francisco. I live here and no gays have ever attempted to rape me, yet if I swiped something from the store…

  6. Annette February 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Sometimes you read things at the right moment. I became involved in the fight to reform the 3-strikes law a little over a year ago after working at San Quentin Prison. Just a few hours earlier I learned that something we were working on fell through so it had me really discouraged. Sometimes I feel that there is only a small handful of people that agree with what we are fighting for, but reading this gives me some inspiration. Thank you!

  7. Nick Morgan March 5, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    John, this is a very insightful post. As I was reading it I reflected on the 3 month period I worked as a Corrections Officer in a State Prison. I believe what you have written here “hit’s the nail on the head”. It makes me want to consider my own responsibility as a Christian to seek greater social justice for those incarcerated. Thanks and God bless!

  8. Catherine Lytle April 11, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Hi John! Thank you for doing this article! I live in California, and my husband was sentenced to 25yrs to life under the 3 strikes law. His 3rd strike was forgery- normally a misdameanor crime. He has been in prison for 12 yrs. Our daughter has grown up without her father in her life- she knows him through letters and monthly visits. This sentence has been horrible! It tested our marriage, faith and everything else! We have really pulled together during this time and overcome all the obstacles. Our marriage is now so strong and our faith is unbreakable! We stand on the rock of Jesus! He is our Saviour, hope, strength. We believe God will one day open the prison doors! March 7th, 2009 marked the 15th anniversary of the 3 strikes law. I am part of the group “Families to Amend California’s Three Strike’s Law” (www.facts1.com). We had a rally and candle light vigil in LA. We are constantly fighting to get this horrible law changed! It has ruined so many lives. I am attaching a link with this message with some photos from the rally. Again- thank you for what you do! God Bless you!
    see photos at:

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