How would you feel if everyone knew you by the worst thing you ever did? What if, like a bearer of the scarlet letter, you were marked for scorn and distrusted by the majority of people around you? This is the life of a modern incarcerated individual. As the bearer of that metaphoric letter, incarcerated individuals are both guilty of the crimes they committed and judged by a jury of one each time they meet someone new. According to a prominent 2010 study, almost 20 million people in America have been convicted of a felony and a third of them have served time in prison. Thus, with such a large number of Americans that have been through the prison system, it is puzzling that there is not more discussion within the church about how to help support those affected by crime and incarceration.
To be sure, people convicted of crimes are responsible for their actions, and those actions have consequences. However, prison is not meant to be simply a punishment. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) argues that prison is for rehabilitation, not just punishment, and has attempted to change the culture surrounding this discussion, explaining“By focusing on evidence-based rehabilitation strategies, these reforms touch virtually every aspect of the federal prison system, from an inmate’s initial intake to his or her return to the community.” Clearly, the DOJ desires to see the reunification of these people with society at large. Couple that with Jesus’ command to forgive and live with sinners, one has to recognize that post-incarcerated individuals deserve consideration for a second chance. Thus, I want to discuss one policy reform and one practical solution in which we can affect positive prison reform.
The blight of crime is not pretty. Uglier still is crime’s magnetic nature that lures many men and women into an inescapable lifestyle. The most difficult task of the BOP is to reorient prisoners to see an achievable path to escape the criminal lifestyle. Recidivism, or “the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend,” is a costly and life-draining obstacle for many incarcerated individuals. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) works in exactly that area. PIECP, a program established in 1979, enables private industry to establish joint ventures with federal, state, local, and tribal corrections agencies to produce goods by providing jobs to those in prison. While there are many prison work programs, PIECP is unique in that prisoners are placed in realistic work environments and are paid the prevailing local wage. According to the DOJ, one of the effective measures that reduces recidivism rates is encouraging inmates to develop marketable job skills while in prison. In a 2013 Journal of Business & Economics Research article, the author states, “The results… consistently indicate a significant reduction in the odds of recidivism for PIECP participants.” He also finds that the program offsets incarceration costs, compensates crime victims and supports inmate families. However, for all the apparent success of the program, the National Institute of Justice expressed disappointment that, “PIECP is an underutilized rehabilitation option”, and that, “additional efforts to increase the number of PIECP jobs could have an important impact on the nation’s prison and jail populations.”
With notable organizations such as these expressing faith in the program, I advocate for the expansion of the jurisdictional capacity of PIECP. As a program guideline, only 50 jurisdictions around the country may be certified for PIECP. According to the 2018 Bureau of Justice Assistance program brief, there are currently 44 jurisdictions participating in the program. There is no described reason why the limit is capped at 50 jurisdictions, and given its empirical effectiveness, we ought to urge the expansion and promotion of this program across more prison jurisdictions. As Christians who desire flourishing for all people, there are many prison ministry organizations that could be informed of this important action step. Groups like Prison Fellowship exist to minister and educate incarcerated people within their confines, but they also help promote beneficial criminal justice policies. For the sake of those who desire rehabilitation and who will one day return to their communities with or without valuable skills, the PIECP program should be promoted and expanded across the US.
While a shift in policy is needed in prison reform, individual members of society are also able to help independent of government involvement. In recent years, there has been an explosion of private businesses that actively hire formerly incarcerated men and women and reserve roles to provide them with a job. As consumers, we can support businesses that give these people a second chance. In Wheaton, Illinois, where I attend college, there is a company called Second Chance Coffee Co. that was established for the express purpose of hiring those formerly incarcerated. The founder, Pete Leonard, sees his company as a ministry opportunity to help those who are often left on the margins of society. In addition, his coffee brand, I Have a Bean, is a successful product. It is now sold at 11 Whole Foods in the Chicagoland area and is the top selling coffee out of 90 different brands in four of the stores.
Another Christian entrepreneur named Pete Ochs uses the PIECP program to support, minister, and employ prisoners in a maximum-security prison. He rents prison space and hires prisoners to work for one of his companies, Seat King, making seats for cars and tractors. His goal is to empower men within the prison system through job creation. Both of these companies are successful, sustainable organizations while also integrating compassion and support for the currently or formerly incarcerated. For those who genuinely care about the redemption and restoration of all people, including those once convicted of crime, we should seek to support and promote companies such as Second Chance Coffee Co. and Seat King.
As Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson once said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” When we look at human nature from the humility afforded in Jesus, it is easier to see formerly incarcerated men and women in a loving light. In order to see full reintegration into society, it is our responsibility as Christians to care for and love the formerly incarcerated individuals in our communities.