When we entered an administrative section of the Bibb County Correctional Facility, we observed an officer and several inmates packing up computers.
Inmates were placing black monitors and hard drives in what appeared to be the original shipping containers.
Dressed in all white, one inmate used a packing tape dispenser to seal the boxes. Another placed a sealed container atop a stack of computer boxes. A guard monitored and recorded the process – the count.
We did not discuss what we saw. We waited for access to the chapel, built with private funds, where my traveling companion would teach a class, his usual Friday morning commitment.
A week earlier, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Drayton Nabers, had called to invite me to spend time with him talking about faith and prisons.
As we drove that morning some 50 miles southwest of Birmingham to the second largest prison in the state, one that houses 1,973 inmates, Nabers spoke about the influence of Charles Colson’s book “Born Again” (1977) on his life and his involvement with Prison Fellowship.
He shared that for the past four years he had taught a class at the Bibb County Correctional Facility, a “medium custody” facility.
Such facilities house “inmates who have demonstrated less severe behavioral problems” and are considered “to be suitable for participation in formalized institutional treatment programs,” according to the 2012 annual report of Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
Nabers asked me what I thought the recidivism rate was.
I told him the most recent ADOC report said 32.6 percent, meaning that 32.6 percent of released inmates would return to prison within three years.
Having reviewed that report the evening before, I recalled a graph that showed the state’s recidivism trend. In 1987, the rate was 26.1 percent. In 2008, the rate had risen to 34 percent before falling to 32.6 percent in 2009.
The Pew Center on the States study, “The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” has higher numbers. It reported in 2011 that the national recidivism rate was 43.3 percent and that Alabama’s rate (2004-07) was 35.1 percent.
The recidivism rate is evidence of the prison system success. When a third or more of offenders are returning to prison in three years, it is clear prisons are failing to prepare inmates for a constructive re-entry into society.
That failure contributes to crime, social disruption and heartache, wasted human potential, and more money spent on prisons.
This year, ADOC had asked for a $42 million funding increase over the 2014 budget of $389 million. At press time, the state senate proposed budget offered a $5 million increase.
Prisons are costing more and failing society. But they are not the only institutions that are failing society. Too few churches have prioritized a commitment atop Jesus’ moral agenda – prisons.
As we waited for the inmates to arrive in the chapel, the prison chaplain invited me into his office.
A graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Missionary Baptist, he told me that 40 worship services were conducted weekly in the chapel, reflecting the prison’s religious diversity.
Services were held for four different expressions of Islam, Wiccans and Odinism (an expression of Nordic neopaganism) as well as eight services provided by Birmingham’s Church of the Highlands.
He said worship services were different from classes – classes were taught by volunteers who addressed the topics of how to be a Christian, how to live a Christian life, how to be a good father, and what it means to be “an inside and outside dad.”
Volunteers also teach classes in math, reading and science, much needed topics for an inmate population that self-reports an average educational level of the seventh grade.
Clearly, Christians, churches and other faith groups are working in prisons.
Nabers’ commitment is an example of that.
By the time I returned to the chapel, Nabers was already teaching. He spoke about the eternal significance of the inmates sharing their faith, calling them a “band of brothers.” He encouraged them to pray, told stories from church history about the power of prayer and cited biblical texts.
Some 50 inmates were spread across the chapel. Seven appeared to be Hispanic and 21 were African-Americans.
More striking than race and ethnicity was the age of the inmates. Many appeared to be older and some elderly.
Perhaps prison makes inmates look older than they really are. Yet America’s inmate population is aging, which promises even more prison costs in the future.
Waiting for unlocked doors that would allow us to leave the prison, I spoke with an inmate about what the prison was doing to provide job training.
He said no training was being provided. He shared that some computer classes had been available but that for “security reasons” the computers were being packed up, explaining what we had seen.
It’s easy to blame prisons for failing society. It absolves us of personal and institutional faith responsibility. It costs little to chuck rocks at the criminal justice system. That’s a low-sacrifice moral approach, of course.
A high-sacrifice approach for personal accountability and church responsibility calls for faith-based programs, such as the one in Evansville, Ind., where churches “adopt” an offender and mentor that individual.
Or the bus stop ministry in Huntsville, Texas, where offenders released from the Walls Unit are given contact information for churches in their home communities that are willing to help them.
Or the program in Nashville, Tenn., where women released from the Tennessee Prison for Women are welcomed back with programming for successful societal re-entry and reconnection with their children.
Churches can make a constructive commitment on the prison front, but it requires a high-sacrifice ethic.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com’s newest documentary, “Through the Door,” shares stories about the positive impact of faith-based prison ministries. To learn more, click here. To order “Through the Door,” click here.