Archive for June, 2020

Soulful Leadership in Public Safety, Part I: Prison Fellowship

By Margaret Benefiel and co-author, Michelle Abbott

“Defund the police,” one of the rallying cries of the recent protests after the police killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, has gained traction.  Last week, for example, the Minneapolis city council voted unanimously to defund the police, recommending that the police department be replaced with other forms of public safety.

Tired of two decades of police reform efforts that haven’t reduced the number of police killings of black people, activists call for a more radical approach.  It’s not just a few bad apples in the police force, they argue; it’s the underlying system that’s rotten.  But if police are defunded, others object, won’t society be cast into chaos?

A new approach to public safety relies on many components: restorative justice, domestic violence prevention, school counseling, drug treatment programs, and more.  Advocates argue that their vision for public safety would cost less and prove more effective.

While it’s too soon to tell how this vision might play out in all its manifestations and how effective it could be in various settings, restorative justice is one component that has proven effective over time. International in scope, the restorative justice movement in the U.S. has seen good results in settings as diverse as schools and prisons.

For example, Charles Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, based on his Christian faith and his personal experience, as an ex-offender, of God’s transformative power. The prison fellowship brings classes and other resources to inmates throughout the U.S. to help them change their lives through Christianity and reintegrate into society.  According to a study about federal inmates participating in the Prison Fellowship Ministries program, recidivism rates decreased dramatically for those who were trained for religious leadership in a two-week seminar.

The Prison Fellowship focuses not only on the inmates themselves but also on the well-being of their children and on the ability of prison wardens to create a safer environment more conducive to rehabilitation. Summer camps and sports programs provide the children of inmates an opportunity to thrive and learn new skills even while their loved ones are away.  The Warden Exchange program gives wardens the tools to make changes to better support the rehabilitation of inmates.

It is clear that a lot of work is needed to re-envision the American systems that have been put in place for our collective public safety. From fighting for racial justice, eliminating police brutality, and ensuring police accountability to reducing the need for policing by improving our methods of rehabilitation, we need to deeply reflect on and restructure our responses to public safety.  The changes needed to re-create the structures that have been in place for so long are complex and perhaps daunting. They require new visions. They require strong leadership.  However, there are many voices proposing new solutions and alternative paths to creating an America that can be safer for all its citizens. Let us listen to those voices and together let us discern a way through the challenges we face to create a society where all members can feel safe.