How Can Violent Criminals Reform?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nigeria
“OUR prisons . . . are now training grounds for criminals,” stated a writer in Nigeria’s Daily Sketch. This is only an echo of similar expressions made in many parts of the world. And there is much truth to this statement, for there is little evidence that prison life really reforms prisoners. Some even argue that violent punishment increases a criminal’s hostility, making his reformation more difficult. Indeed, many criminals admit that while in prison they learn more about committing crime. New prisoners learn from hardened ones.
What are governments to do? Many feel that a stiff prison sentence can reform some criminals. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, know a better way. Documented examples from all over the world illustrate that the Bible’s message can often reform criminal personalities where other methods have failed. Let us look at a few examples from West Africa.
Can an Armed Robber Reform?
Right from school days James terrorized schoolmates and teachers. Describing his course of life, he says: “I became noted as the village wrestler. Fighting and marijuana were my food. And when I was 16 years of age, the outbreak of war in my country afforded me a greater opportunity to indulge in my love for violence. I enlisted in the rebel army and was trained as a guerrilla and commando fighter. I took delight in the large-scale killing of opposing soldiers during daredevil attacks of my squad against them.
“Then war came to an end. It was hard for men like me to start life over again. Our homes had been destroyed. We were hungry, poorly clothed and unemployed. So I joined an armed gang, and we launched a campaign of robbery against hospitals, schools, banks and offices. People lived in fear of us.
“Although we consulted spirit mediums and used charms for supernatural protection, the police eventually caught up with us. Several of our gang, including myself, were imprisoned. But right in prison we ganged together and organized a revolt. When our plans failed, however, our gang was broken up, and we were assigned to different prisons. Then our main gang leader—the most notorious and feared criminal of that time—was executed. This frightened me, and I prayed to God, promising to serve him if he delivered me from this trouble.”
But could such a hardened criminal really reform? Sadly, when he was released a few months later, James forgot the promise he had made in prayer. He explains: “I returned home and resumed my old way of life. One day, however, I saw a member of our gang and asked him about his ‘activities.’ He told me that he was now studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses and had given up crime! ‘Who are they?’ I asked him, and he started to preach to me. This led to my joining in his Bible study meetings with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, I found, were teaching about serving the God whom I had vowed to worship.
“I soon realized that I would have to transform my life, but it seemed impossible for me to change. I saw, for one thing, that the Witnesses did not smoke, whereas I was addicted to tobacco and marijuana. What would I do if they told me to stop smoking? However, my study of the Bible continued to influence me for good, strengthening my desire to reform. As I learned more about Jehovah and his goodness, I felt urged to purify my life to serve him and honor his name. I kept praying to him for help.
“Gradually my life changed. I stopped smoking and abandoned my violent criminal habits. But my new Christian personality brought opposition. The people did not like to see me ‘going about preaching with Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ They were displeased because I no longer represented the village in wrestling matches. So they started to ridicule and threaten me, until an old man intervened on my behalf. He called the village elders and advised them to stop trying to harm me. He said: ‘If all the people were Jehovah’s Witnesses, there would be no trouble in this village. If you insist on troubling this man and any problems arise, I shall not come out to answer on your behalf.’”
James dedicated his life to Jehovah and was baptized in 1973 at the age of 23. He is now a completely reformed and rehabilitated man—a minister helping others to bring their lives into harmony with God’s will.—Ephesians 4:17-28; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Pardoned for Good Conduct
Here is another case: Oruaefe was sentenced to a 21-year jail term for supplying arms to robbers. During the first two years of his imprisonment, he used to act very harshly toward the prison officers, often attacking the warders. Then he joined some other prisoners in Bible study classes that were being conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses who made weekly visits to the prison. This marked the beginning of a change in the pattern of his life. A transformation in his personality took place as he applied in his daily conduct the things he was learning from the Bible. This is how he describes what followed:
“The prison officers noticed how much I had reformed and began to give me responsibilities of trust. They put me in charge of the prison pharmacy, because the drugs were stolen by those caring for them. They also gave important responsibilities to other prisoners who became Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
One of these other reformed prisoners was Godwin, a former leader of a gang of armed robbers. He was arrested in 1968 and sentenced to 22 1⁄2 years of imprisonment. Describing the influences that led to the change in his life, he says:
“In prison I met some of my trainees who had become Jehovah’s Witnesses. They no longer smoked Indian hemp or stole or engaged in violence or immorality. They had become meek, humble men. I could not understand how they could have changed so much. Then one day I heard a visiting minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses explaining the Bible to them, and I joined their Bible study class. Now, I had always considered myself to be a Christian. I was a member of the Church Missionary Society (Anglican). But the things I began to learn from the Bible in these classes gradually transformed me into a true Christian.”
Because of their outstandingly good conduct, these two men were given a state pardon in 1981 and were released from prison. They have continued to make progress in cultivating the Christian personality and in helping others to do so. They have become rehabilitated in their community and are fully integrated into the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Successfully Adjusting to Life Outside Prison
The problem of reintegration into the life of their community has hindered many so-called reformed criminals. An article in the Nigerian Daily Times newspaper observed that many prisoners “lose confidence in themselves and . . . cannot meet the demands of the world outside their prison cells. They feel . . . incapable of facing the challenges of what they believe to be a hostile society.” Many ex-convicts therefore return to their criminal ways.
However, the aforementioned individuals were not only successfully reformed but also rehabilitated into useful and exemplary life in their community. How did they survive such a difficult adjustment? They used their time and Bible knowledge to help others to become better persons. There is yet another experience that illustrates this.
In The Gambia, a Nigerian missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses received permission from prison authorities to conduct Bible studies with prisoners. The weekly studies were attended by as many as 20 prisoners, including a Muslim named Sangoné, who was serving a three-year sentence. Prison was not new to this man, who was now 26 years of age. He received his first sentence when he was eight years old and was confined to a reformatory school. Other prison sentences followed and he became increasingly hardened as a criminal.
Now, though, as he progressed in learning the righteous conduct that is required of true servants of God, he abandoned his criminal inclinations and worked hard at practicing the good things he was learning. As the end of his prison term approached, he told the missionary that he loved the truth he was learning from the Bible and desired to take his stand as a Christian witness of Jehovah. However, he said that there was one problem that he wanted to clear up first. He had previously been sentenced to prison in another country but had escaped from jail while he still had 17 months to serve. Now he wanted to return and serve his remaining term.
When he returned to this country and presented himself to the authorities, they were unable to find any record of his imprisonment or of his jailbreak four years previously. One court official advised him to “just disappear again,” for after another year no one would have the right to arrest him. Sangoné refused this, saying that he wanted to serve the remaining term and clear his conscience. He explained: “I have been studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I now want to straighten out my way so that I can dedicate my life to do Jehovah’s will in a clean way.”
Sangoné completed his term and was released in April 1980. He made use of this period in prison to learn a trade. This helped him to provide for himself materially until he obtained other employment. In his free time he engaged in the door-to-door preaching activity. And in November 1980 he was baptized as a dedicated witness of Jehovah. He began serving as an “auxiliary pioneer,” devoting 60 hours of his time each month to sharing his faith with others. One year later he married one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today Sangoné and his wife have a small child. But they still enjoy helping others to be transformed by making their minds over, so as to conform to God’s will.—Romans 12:2.
Although just four former prisoners have been highlighted, many others have been influenced in the same way by the power of God’s Word.
The Power to Reform
Yes, “the word of God is alive and exerts power.” It is “beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness.” (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Its practical counsel, coupled with the excellent motivation that it gives toward doing good, succeeds in transforming even criminal personalities.
For those who are trained by it, God’s Word also protects people from ever becoming involved in criminal conduct. The writer of Psalm 119 says that youths can remain pure by behaving as God’s Word prescribes. (Ps 119 Verse 9, The Jerusalem Bible) Yes, the Bible provides counsel and instruction that teaches practical wisdom and righteousness—“the entire course of what is good.”—Proverbs 2:1-9.
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A break can be made from a life of crime
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Criminals can change to Christian ministers