A Prisoner for Christ

The letter was addressed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles—and its contents left the board flabbergasted. It was from an inmate asking for permission to turn down his parole—and stay in prison. The story behind that letter is a remarkable tale of one man's radical obedience to Christ. James Peterson was locked up two years ago, convicted of embezzlement. James knew he needed to turn his life around, and last July he signed up for a Prison Fellowship program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. It's a new program at the Jester II Prison in Sugar Land, Texas, and its goal is nothing less than the transformation of inmates' hearts. Some 80 volunteer inmates—thieves, murderers, and drug dealers—get up at 5:30 a.m. each day for devotions. They spend the day working and attending classes to develop their life skills and spiritual maturity. Evenings are devoted to discipleship seminars that run until 10 p.m. Later in the program, inmates must perform community service, and they're encouraged to apologize and make restitution to their victims. Each inmate is matched with a church volunteer who mentors him during his remaining time in prison and during the final stage of the program—his first six months after release. James was scheduled to complete the in-prison portion of InnerChange in January of 1999. But then the parole board recommended that he be allowed to leave prison in April of this year. What an opportunity! Like any inmate, James desperately wanted to go home. But he also knew that if he left before completing the InnerChange program, he would likely fall right back into the patterns of behavior that had led to his incarceration. And leaving could jeopardize our program, because we need the full two years to work with these men and prove that it makes a difference to recidivism rates. James spent weeks praying about the matter. InnerChange had been featured on ABC, CBS, and in the New York Times. James knew that the whole world was watching and that our witness was in the balance. Then James made his decision: to spend an additional 10 months in prison to finish the work that God had begun in him. As James put it, "There is nothing I want more than to be back in the outside world with my daughter Lucy." But, he said, "I realized that this was an opportunity to… become a living [witness] to Jesus Christ for my brothers and to the [watching] world. Every day after April that I wake up here at Jester II, inside the razor wire fences, I will be crucifying my selfish wants and desires. I will be able to say to my brothers that I am here because InnerChange and my brothers here are important to me. "I consider it an honor," James wrote, "to stay here with them until I complete [my] commitment." What a tremendous act of obedience. I know what it's like to be in prison. Every day is agony. But here is a man who was given his parole and turned it down because he has learned what obedience to Christ is. Criminologists say it will be years before we know if the InnerChange program makes any difference—if it lowers the recidivism rate among participants. Well, as far as I'm concerned, one result is already in. James Peterson has given us a glorious witness to the power of the risen Christ, who sets the captives free—even behind bars.  


Chuck Colson


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