True Casualties

When Joe’s dad went to prison, Joe went to prison too—a prison of shame and anger. Responding to his father’s incarceration, Joe fought, drank, and smoked dope. And while Joe’s prison was figurative, he was on a path leading to a real prison with bars and barbed wire. Joe is not a unique case. As a recent article in the National Journal claimed, “The next generation of prisoners is going to come from the current generation of prisoners.” Sadly, society stands idly by as the children of prisoners become the unintentional casualties of the “war on crime.” With more than 2.3 million individuals currently behind bars in America, our incarceration rate quadruples that of previous decades. And the children of these prisoners are five to seven times more likely than the average child to end up in prison one day. Even more shocking, the American Correctional Association concluded that 52 percent of female juvenile offenders had an incarcerated parent. Tragically, intergenerational punishment extends even beyond the United States. On a recent trip to Bolivia, I had the opportunity to visit San Pedro prison in La Paz. As I watched throngs of prisoners shove each other out of the way for their daily bowl of gruel, I noticed a little girl with matted hair and grubby face lift up her own bowl among the ranks of hardened criminals. Although innocent of any crime, she had no other choice but to join her parents behind bars. She doesn’t deserve prison. And neither do the 2 million American children with an incarcerated parent. But that’s exactly where we will send them one day if we do not begin to reform the criminal justice system. We must reevaluate who we lock up, why we lock them up, and how we lock them up. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, not mad at. In other words, prisons are for dangerous offenders who pose a threat to society. We need to challenge “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws and mandatory minimum sentencing, responsible for filling 60 percent of our federal prisons with drug offenders, many of whom have no prior criminal record for a violent offense and many of whom are not drug dealers. On top of that, we need to consider the ramifications of separating families by incarcerating prisoners far from their homes. But we can do more than influence public policy. Jesus said in Matthew 18:5 that “whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me.” The Church has always heeded the call to care for at-risk children—forgotten children. And these children are the most at-risk and forgotten children in America. God has a bias toward those who do not have advocates. As His followers, we should too. Thanks to a caring Prison Fellowship mentor and a local church, Joe has embraced Christ and now spends his free time participating in mission trips and playing football with friends from the church youth group. Through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, we have watched thousands of children of prisoners like Joe escape the vicious cycle of crime and come to Christ.


Chuck Colson


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