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In 1974 the Watergate scandal sent Chuck Colson, White House special counsel and self-described “hatchet man,” to federal prison. After experiencing a conversion to evangelical Christianity – a metamorphosis so improbable he later joked that it “kept the political cartoonists of America clothed and fed for a solid month” – Colson voluntarily pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg case. He entered Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges.
What had started as a career full of political scheming and scandal took a surprising turn during the seven months he spent behind bars. As Colson witnessed the corrosive influence prison had on his fellow inmates, he began to believe that locking more people up would never cure society’s ills. Instead he made a vow to never forget those who remained locked up when he was released. For the rest of his life, he made it his mission to aid prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.
Critics were skeptical of Colson’s reformation, but he held onto his vision and founded Prison Fellowship in 1976. With the support of the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, the early days of the ministry entailed transporting dozens of Christian prisoners out of prison for intensive training, after which they would go back to prison to share what they had learned with other inmates.
But in 1977, a warden from Wisconsin refused to release his inmate for training. He said, “If your program is so good, why don’t you bring it inside the prison?” Colson and his team were up to the challenge. Three weeks later, 93 inmates attended Prison Fellowship’s first ever in-prison seminar in Oxford, Wisc. That seminar paved the way for hundreds of thousands of prisoners across the country to receive biblically based teaching through in-prison seminars and Bible studies.
Colson continued his mission to grow Prison Fellowship. Its reach went international in 1979. In 1982, a former bank robber helped Prison Fellowship start Angel Tree, the largest national outreach to prisoners’ children, and the following year, Justice Fellowship was instituted to gather grassroots support for reforms to the criminal justice system. Prison Fellowship International, an affiliated nonprofit, carries out similar work in more than 120 countries.
Prison Fellowship relies on a network of thousands of trained volunteers who are active in the majority of American correctional institutions. More than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars every year. The Angel Tree program supplies Christmas gifts to hundreds of thousands of children each year, helping the family bond to survive even through incarceration. Studies suggest that participation in Prison Fellowship programs help lower an inmate’s chance of reoffending and ending up in prison again.
Colson died on April 21, 2012, at the age of 80, from complications following a brain hemorrhage. During his long career as a prison evangelist and reformer, he learned firsthand that the challenges of a prison sentence don’t stop after release. After his own spectacular fall from grace, he dedicated his life to helping other inmates find a new direction for their lives by openly sharing his own experience of transformation.
If you’d like to submit a message to the ministry or discuss how Chuck Colson has touched your life, Prison Fellowship has set up a dedicated website at www.ChuckColson.org for you to comment.