The Tennessean ran a major story on the state’s overflowing prisons while’s media producer, Cliff Vaughn, and I were in Virginia conducting interviews for our forthcoming documentary on the role of faith in prisons.
As we interviewed Bon Air Baptist Church Pastor Travis Collins about the gritty nature of prison ministry, Tennesseans read a headline – “TN Prisons Spill Over Again.”

Here were two contrasting cultural narratives. One was the social and financial crisis of incarceration. The other was the redemptive role of religion.

For some 35 years, the Richmond-area church has had a prison ministry. Church members are actively involved with prisoners. Prayer cards from prisoners are read in the sanctuary. The church budgets for educational material to be distributed to inmates. Returning citizens – the formerly incarcerated – attend services at the church.

In fact, Bon Air may have the largest church-based prison ministry on the East Coast.

One of its partner ministries is NorthStar Community – a recovery church that offers 12-step, Christ-centered services to the incarcerated and holds a celebration worship service on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.

NorthStar’s pastor, Teresa McBean, told us that 85 percent of those in prison have addiction issues and that she has yet to meet the other 15 percent.

It’s a myth that many of the incarcerated are not Christians, she said, noting how many of those in prison are people of faith. But they have issues of addiction, and those addictions require programs of recovery.

From McBean’s perspective, addiction is the driving dynamic behind who is in prison.

The Tennessean news story, on the other hand, focused more on the fact that the state’s prisons are full than on the many reasons they are full. The lack of space – beds – in the state’s prisons necessitated housing some 5,000 felons in county jails.

“The Tennessee Department of Correction ran $20 million over budget last year, and Gov. Bill Haslam has kicked in an additional $48 million in the upcoming year to pay for the large number of state inmates left in county jails,” read the news story. “All the while, state lawmakers continue to file bills designed to put even more people in prison for longer and longer stays.”

Tennessee Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said, “We know incarceration is the most expensive sentencing method and Tennessee, like most states, realizes we cannot continue to build our way out of the population growth in prisons and jails.”

A review of the Department of Corrections’ 2011-12 annual report shows that the correction budget was $741,292,700.

That’s right – Tennessee spent a lot of money on prisons, enough money that one could rightly call the prison system an industry.

But it wasn’t enough money, according to the Tennessean, to cover the expenses of a prison population of 20,079.

The picture gets muddier. What did the state get for its financial investment?

A multi-year study by the Tennessee Department of Corrections found that the state’s recidivism rate from 2001-07 averaged 46 percent (when only prisons are calculated the rate is 40 percent).

That is, 46 percent of those released from incarceration in both state prisons and jails were behind bars again within three years.

Would it be a stretch to say that, when prison spending is busting state budgets and the recidivism rate is sky-high, the system is broken?

What is true in Tennessee is true across the country.

A January 2012 Pew study reported that state expenditures on corrections “have quadrupled over the past two decades” with the current estimated cost average of $31,307 per inmate.

One cultural narrative suggests that the social and financial crisis of incarceration is bleak.

Another narrative – the one we are encountering in our documentary interviews – is that the faith community can play a redemptive role for the incarcerated.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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