Prison correction

Traditional programs aren't working. Should we give churches a chance?

For 22 years, Karl Holsberg, senior chaplain of the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry at the Orange County jail, was a police officer sworn to arrest the sorts of criminals he is now devoted to helping.

That experience makes him intimately familiar with public programs designed to prepare inmates for their return to society. Not surprisingly, he thinks those programs don't work. The exploding prison population -- pushed ever-higher by repeat offenders -- backs him up. "The United States has over 1.6 million people incarcerated today," he says. "The women's population is growing 10.2 percent per year. It's unacceptable. Something's got to be done about it."

What should be done here and in jails across America, he says, is what's being done on a limited basis elsewhere: Hand over inmate reform programs to the churches. It may not guarantee different results, but at least it guarantees a different approach -- and one that, in some cases, appears to work.

Current prison policies are based on the theory that "if you change the way a person behaves, you'll change the way the man is," says Holsberg. "You still don't have a changed heart. They have the same old attitude. We need to see people's hearts change.

"Since nothing else has ever worked in corrections, maybe we too ought to give this a try," he says.

His vision has historical precedent. The first prisons were established by European churches, and the Quakers conceived of penitentiaries in America. Incarceration was considered penance, the successful cases were people who had repented their lawless ways. "That was their goal -- to correct them and return to the community, not to warehouse them," Holsberg says.

And the idea may be experiencing a revival in Texas. Since March of last year, Prison Fellowship Ministry, founded by born-again former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, has been running all programming at the Jester II prison south of Houston, although state corrections officials still manage the housing, food, medical and security. To avoid legal wrestling over the church-state division, admission into the Texas program is voluntary and draws from prisons across the state. It is modeled after two existing prisons in Quito, Ecuador, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Just how such a program would be funded remains unclear, as Holsberg's version of wider reform has yet to catch on. But his ministry, funded through donations, is testing the concept on a small scale here. Male inmates who attend a weekly worship service and six Bible study sessions a week, as well as complete a Bible correspondence course and maintain a "Christian" demeanor, may be placed in "chaplain's dorm" in a low-security facility apart from the general population. And female inmates can volunteer for Holsberg's Life-Learning Dorm, a program that segregates them from the general population while instructing them on financial management, parenting, coping with authority, personal motivation, anger management and life after prison -- all in a religious framework.


Nationally, the FBI says 80 percent of inmates will be returned to jail. But Holsberg says those in Good News' Life-Learning Dorms nationwide wind up back in jail just 14.6 percent of the time. (In Orange County, the comparable rate for female dorm graduates is 20.4 percent.) A dorm program here for men was canceled in 1993 after prison officials decided they wanted the chaplains to work throughout the prison, rather than in special areas. Also, moving the dorm inmates to other programs created logistical problems. But "the program worked well," says former jail director Tom Allison.

Holsberg would like it reinstated. But community-corrections manager Don Bjoring says, "I don't think it's feasible at this point," citing the lack of research proving Holsberg's approach in the face of other studies that support Orange County's existing policy.

Corrections spokesman Allen Moore describes that policy this way: "Let's not coddle them, but let's give them some tools so they don't come back." In fact, he says, about one in 10 county inmates already is enrolled in a religious-based program.

But a more formal church-prison partnership poses problems, says Bjoring. "A jail represents a microcosm of your community," he says. "Can a church represent the needs of your community?"

Moreover, while Quakers did indeed open the first American jail, he says, "It was rapidly turned over to the government." He also doubts whether such a plan would win public support. "Our country is not likely to approve of that," he says.

In the meantime, Holsberg is content, he says, to "break the cycle of crime one life at a time." With programs rooted in religion, he feels that inmates would look to the churches for continued support after their release, providing ready help for those unaccustomed to life outside prison walls.

"The real test is when we step through the two front doors," agrees David Brewer, a chaplain's assistant serving a year in jail as a result of being convicted a fourth time of driving while intoxicated.

As an undercover narcotics detective in suburban Washington, D.C., Holsberg won the nickname "Narc Angel" because he worked nearly as hard helping out those he had put in jail. "No one got so much as a Band-Aid when they encountered me," he says. "I never hurt anyone, I never shot anyone, I never killed anyone. -- I talked a lot. It worked very well."

He earned his seminary degree in 1982 but stayed a cop until 1989; two years later he took a job in that same region as chaplain for the county's jail ministry, which was operated by Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. In Orange County, to which he was transferred in 1996, Holsberg's ministry competes with the Orange County Jail Ministry. There are plenty of potential customers. "It's easy to get incarcerated in Central Florida," he says. "We have very aggressive law enforcement."

But what Central Florida also has, he says, is room for compassion. "Our great community resource is our people -- even those who are incarcerated."

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