Prisoner Rehabilitation—How Can It Succeed?
CAN prisons serve only as places of punishment, or can they also be successful centers of rehabilitation?
A United States congressional subcommittee that studied this question recently concluded that prisons have failed utterly as a means of rehabilitating offenders. Some experts estimate that as many as four out of five inmates again turn to crime when they leave prison. So it is not surprising that prison officials such as Raymond K. Procunier, chief of the California prison system, say that prisons in their present form should be eliminated. Procunier explained recently:
“Society’s concepts about prisons make no sense at all. We’re charged with conflicting responsibilities—keeping convicted felons away from the ‘good people’ and, at the same time, in the unbelievably unnatural society that prevails in prison, rehabilitating them.” And this simply cannot be done, Procunier emphasizes.
What Is Needed
C. Murray Henderson, Warden of the huge Angola State Penitentiary, is one of those prison officials who believe a more natural climate is vital for the successful rehabilitation of inmates. “I think that prisons have for too long operated in an aura of secrecy,” he explained recently to a representative of Awake! “We have not let the taxpayers know what our real problems and needs are. Of course, we always need money, but I think more than that we need people to work with prisoners, someone they can identify with.”
Therefore, Warden Henderson explained: “We’ve always tried to have as open a prison as possible. We’ve tried to encourage people to come in, because we think that one of the main problems with prisons is that you isolate the man from the very values that you want him to incorporate. We don’t want this to happen. We want to have contact with outside people, particularly people that we feel will have a wholesome, beneficial effect on the prisoners.”
Elayn Hunt, head of the Louisiana State Department of Corrections, expressed similar views. In fact, she noted that from the time her children were infants she took them into the prisons where she worked. And prisoners viewed this, she said, as one of the greatest gifts she could give them because it was an evidence of her trust in them.
Thus, in keeping with this policy of exposing prisoners to wholesome public influences, Angola officials welcomed Jehovah’s witnesses to work with the inmates. The Witnesses are noted for their success in helping persons to reform their lives. In fact, United Methodist minister Dean M. Kelly observed that, while the traditional churches have been ineffectual in doing this, Jehovah’s witnesses are “redeeming criminals and drug addicts in our society.” What has occurred in Angola again demonstrates the success of their work.
How the Program Began
Back in 1973 there were two Angola prisoners, unknown to each other, who were studying the Bible by mail with Jehovah’s witnesses. Coincidentally, each prisoner about the same time wrote the Watchtower Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, asking for someone to visit him in prison. The Watchtower Society, in turn, notified a Witness in the nearby New Roads Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the meantime, these prisoners began talking to other inmates about the Bible truths they were learning. At the same time, other men in the huge prison were beginning to recognize their spiritual need. For example, there was a young inmate whose mother and brothers and sisters in Wichita, Kansas, were Witnesses. He explains:
“My entire life was falling apart, and I was finally caught and sentenced to three years in prison. The third day in prison I was attacked by two men trying to make a homosexual out of me. They beat me so badly I was hospitalized for over a month. I became very depressed because I knew I had done a lot of wrong in my life and it all seemed to be coming back on me. I prayed and finally wrote to my mother for help.
“She came all the way down to visit me. Later she told me that she prayed to Jehovah that she might find a Witness who would come into the prison to help me. While standing at the prison gate her purse was open and The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life book was in it. A man standing nearby looked down and said, ‘Are you a Witness?’ Mom’s prayer had been answered, for the man was a Witness going into the prison to contact prisoners to arrange for Bible study meetings.”
In time, arrangements were made to bring the various interested inmates together at a central place in the prison for regular meetings. This took considerable effort since Angola is a vast 18,000-acre complex composed of a number of different camps. But eventually two regular meetings a week were arranged, and the number of inmates attending kept increasing from an initial half dozen or so to fifty and more.
As the prisoners’ appreciation grew for God’s purpose to usher in His righteous new system of things, many made radical changes in their lives. (2 Pet. 3:13, 14) Not only did this involve a reformation in moral conduct, but the men also devoted themselves to helping fellow prisoners learn about God’s purposes. They would, for instance, conduct Bible studies with them during their recess breaks, rather than take part in recreational activities. Prison officials were impressed by these remarkable changes in life-styles, leading to an unusual development.
One of last summer’s sixty-nine “Divine Purpose” District Assemblies of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States was scheduled for Baton Rouge, about sixty miles from Angola. A highlight of each such assembly is the baptism, where individuals symbolize by water immersion that they have dedicated their lives to serve Jehovah God. Permission was requested for eight of the prisoners to attend the Baton Rouge assembly to be baptized.
After considerable deliberation, prison officials granted permission. A local sheriff kindly agreed to arrange to take the men to the Assembly Center at Louisiana State University, where some 14,000 persons were in attendance. What a heartwarming occasion that proved to be! As the prisoners, with their ankle chains and handcuffs, entered the large auditorium the vast audience rose and applauded. They were simply overjoyed that these men had now conformed their lives to God’s righteous requirements.
As the previous article describes, eight more inmates were baptized at an assembly held right inside Angola Prison this past October 5. And now this spring more inmates, who have also met the Scriptural requirements, are planning to be baptized at an even larger prison assembly!
Prison officials have even granted permission to hold Bible studies with men on death row. And at least one of these men also has progressed to the point where he hopes to be baptized at the next assembly. What is it like to accompany a Witness on one of his regular visits to Angola? Here is the report of some who did:
Death Row at Angola
“We pick up Gary Janney, one of Jehovah’s witnesses, at his home in Baton Rouge at 2:30 p.m., and start the hour-and-a-half drive to Angola. Arriving at the prison guardhouse, we receive clearance from the security guards. We then walk through the gate, and look up at the green block building that houses death row.
“Inside, we are let through the different iron gates. By now there is no question in our minds that we are in prison. Eventually we come to the last hallway and, as a final gate clangs shut behind us, we look down the row of cells—death row. We are taken to a room for visitors.
“The room is large enough to hold twenty to twenty-five people, and it has a few metal chairs. A very heavy metal screen runs through the middle of the room, separating visitors from the prisoners. Now, the men are let in on the other side. Of the thirteen men on death row, eight come in for the Bible study. Several have been studying for nearly a year. So Gary Janney knows them all very well, and introduces us to each one by name.
“The men each have a Bible and the little blue book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Since we are strangers, they are a little quiet at first, apparently wondering what we are like. But in no time, everyone is discussing Bible subjects and very openly enjoying the conversation. We ask them what they think of the Bible study program. They all say they like it, and that they have learned much.
“We ask them: ‘Why do you trust Jehovah’s witnesses to study with you?’ One replies quickly: ‘It’s simple. Everything Jehovah’s witnesses say you can read it in the Bible.’ When asked if they had been religious before coming to prison, all eight say ‘No.’ However, they all add that they had been members of the Catholic or Baptist churches.
“So we ask them why they did not turn to their former religions for help. One answered in a laughing way: ‘Jehovah’s witnesses showed us that there is no burning hell. We’ve got enough hell now. We want to hear something that sounds a little better.’
“Our hour is up and we have to go. As we stand up to leave, they ask us to come again. Then one man turns to Gary Janney and asks a question in a sincere, heartfelt way: ‘Couldn’t you study with us twice a week like you do with the other group in the prison?’ Gary promises to try to arrange it.
More Visits in Prison
“As we return to our car many thoughts flash across our minds, but we have little time to think about them now. We get in the car and, driving through another prison gate, go about two miles to a prison block structure called the Education Building. Here we pass through a guardhouse and are let into a holding room.
“Prisoners mill around here waiting for what is called ‘call out’—to be checked out to attend various educational functions. Most of the men are not saying anything. The inmate Witnesses and their associates, however, are all talking with one another and are very friendly and pleasant. They are waiting for Gary Janney and Ed Journee, who will be in charge of the meetings. The inmates each carry a Bible and study books.
“Since there seems to be a problem with the ‘call out,’ we go and make a return visit on a prisoner who is not yet attending our meetings. He is a writer for a newspaper chain on the outside. He is puzzled by Jehovah’s witnesses because of the way they show concern for one another. He feels the hope of God’s kingdom and the resulting earthly blessings sounds good but a little hard to believe. (Rev. 21:3, 4) He is typical of many men in prison who, because of the world’s injustices and prejudices, have lost hope. After inviting him to the meetings, we leave.
“Because of some mix-up in the ‘call out’ about twenty inmates are not permitted to come to the meetings this evening. So only thirty prisoners are present. The room where we meet is much like a school classroom, with all the men sitting at desks. We are introduced, and the inmates make us feel welcome. The atmosphere, we find, is no different than at our regular meetings at the local Kingdom Hall.
“At about 9 p.m. the meetings are over, and we head for home. We have been going since 2:30 p.m., but our activity has been so spiritually upbuilding that we seem to be more excited than tired. Driving back, we discuss our day. We are simply thrilled that these prisoners have come to know Jehovah’s purposes, and, as a result, have a peace of mind and freedom that many so-called free men do not have.”
Not the Only Prison
In other prisons, too, Jehovah’s witnesses have enjoyed success in rehabilitating inmates. Bible studies, for instance, have been conducted at the Burgaw, North Carolina, State Prison Unit.
In Norfolk Prison, Norfolk, Massachusetts, an in-prison Bible study program has been in operation for years. Prison officials provided a room in a school for the inmates to use for their meetings. An inmate, who has recently been released, explains:
“The local Witnesses from the Franklin, Massachusetts, congregation came in every other Saturday afternoon to conduct meetings in our schoolroom. They would give a Bible talk and fellowship for about two hours. On Saturday mornings we interested inmates would go from unit to unit with Bible literature, talking to fellow inmates and guards alike. When a Bible tract was released we placed nearly 700 of them.”
Regarding the effect of such work, this ex-inmate notes: “One young man had been institutionalized all his life, from orphanages on up to state prison. He had long hair, smoked cigarettes, his wall was filled with pornographic pictures, he used obscene language, and he was deeply involved in occultism.
“We started a Bible study with this man. Within two weeks he had quit smoking and swearing, had taken down the pictures from his wall, had cut his hair and straightened out his language. He is now baptized and is conducting Bible studies with others inside the prison! Just since September 1972, six inmates have been baptized, two of them within the prison itself, and four while on furlough from the prison.”
A Way of Success
Experiences such as these have become more and more common, as certain prison officials will testify. It is true, as United Methodist minister Dean M. Kelly said, Jehovah’s witnesses are “redeeming criminals and drug addicts in our society.” And rather than these persons reverting to crime, they have been instrumental in helping yet other persons to conform their lives to God’s requirements.
It is understood that many prison officials face severe problems; there have been prison riots, taking of hostages and smuggling of contraband in to inmates. Prisoner rehabilitation generally has not been succeeding. But the answer to the problem evidently is not, as California prison head Procunier acknowledged, “keeping convicted felons away from ‘good people.’”
On this very subject Elayn Hunt said of the situation in Angola: “We have not had the major problems that have occurred in other places. And we feel that part of the reason is because we permit our inmates as much contact with people from the public, and positive influences from religious sources.”
Jehovah’s witnesses everywhere are willing to go into prisons and freely give of their time to help prisoners to learn the righteous principles of God’s Word. This has proved a successful way of rehabilitating many. Regarding his experience in working with the Witnesses, Angola Prison Warden Henderson said: “We don’t run into any phonies with Jehovah’s witnesses, at least that has been my experience. They are sincere and desire to work with the prisoners. We just haven’t had any problems.”
If you are a prison official, feel free to contact Jehovah’s witnesses locally for assistance. Or if they should visit you, give careful consideration to their offer to help prisoners to make changes in their lives that will benefit both themselves and society as a whole.