For most Americans, prisons, prisoners, and the criminal justice system are “out of sight, out of mind.” They only think about them when a sensational story captures their attention, like the escape of two prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.
Thankfully, other people don’t need life to imitate the movies in order to pay attention to these very important issues.
One of these people is a dear friend of ours, Pat Nolan. Pat, the former head of our sister ministry, Justice Fellowship, was the subject of a very positive profile in a recent issue of the New Yorker.
In the early 1990s, Nolan was the minority leader in the California State Assembly. Then he got caught up in a corruption scandal and pled guilty to one count of racketeering and then served twenty-five months in federal prison.
As the story, written by the former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, tells readers, “if a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has served time.” While Pat is just as conservative as ever, his experience in prison radically changed his views on the criminal justice system.
For instance, he went into prison assuming that the system did all it could to help prepare people to return to society and to make a better life.” But instead, he found “they were just warehousing them.” According to Nolan, “The implication [was]: you’re worthless, you come from nothing, you are nothing, you’ll never be anything.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. Nolan’s story shares many features with Chuck Colson’s. For both men, their time in prison made them see how empty and counterproductive their previous “tough on crime” rhetoric really was.
Thus, it come as no surprise that when Nolan left prison in 1996, he went to work for Chuck as the head of Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship, where he served until 2012.
The goal of Justice Fellowship is to implement the principles of Restorative Justice, which seeks to heal the wounds created by crime, bringing restoration to people and communities impacted by crime and incarceration.
And these wounds include those inflicted on the prisoner by the criminal justice system. Thus one of Nolan’s and Colson’s greatest victories was the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which took a human rights violation that was the subject of jokes and made its elimination a measure of decency in our society.
Along the way, Justice Fellowship found that they had some unexpected allies: political conservatives. Operatives like Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, Richard Viguerie and former Attorney General Edwin Meese had become supporters of criminal justice reform. As Newt Gingrich told Keller, “It’s just stunningly stupid to have a system that keeps returning people to jail.”
Christian organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have also partnered with Justice Fellowship based on the shared belief in the God-given value and dignity of every human being.
As a result, Justice Fellowship has become a national leader in values-based criminal justice reform.
In an age of political polarization, it’s remarkable that both liberals and conservatives are working together to ease the plight of offenders. “The lion and the lamb shall lie down together,” Nolan said, quoting Isaiah 11.
Chuck Colson spoke of the need of this coming together nearly forty years ago. It’s happening today and is, as we like to say at Prison Fellowship, “just like God.” It’s a witness to the power of the Gospel against which there is no argument.
Come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary. We’ll link you to Justice Fellowship—and tell you how you can sign up to become a volunteer advocate for justice.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: July 13, 2015