Carlos’s guilt weighed on him. The shame he felt over his crime held him back. In prison, he was invited to participate in Prison Fellowship Chile’s Sycamore Tree Program®, which helps offenders understand the harm caused by crime and pave a way to healing and redemption. But Carlos believed he was irreparably broken and was afraid to join the program.
Many prisoners believe they are beyond redemption. And many justice systems perpetuate this belief by punishing prisoners for their wrongdoings, rather than creating rehabilitative environments where prisoners can learn personal responsibility for their behavior. Prison Fellowship International believes no one is beyond redemption and is creating programs that prove it.
Current data reports 10.9 million prisoners worldwide. And our network has access to 1.58 million prisoners. That’s 14.5% of the prison population. This is significant because experts have discovered it only takes 20% of a population to embrace an idea for widespread change to take place. In other words, if 20% of prisoners respond to the gospel, they have the power to change an entire prison system—for better. Which is exactly what was happening inside Carlos’s prison through the Sycamore Tree Project.
“As time passed, I saw how my peers who participated in the course were changing. They began to live more joyfully and that caught my attention,” says Carlos. One day, Carlos asked a fellow inmate what they talked about in class. The answer surprised him.
“What happens in class stays in class,” the inmate said.
“That was exactly what I needed to hear,” says Carlos. “I needed to know that no one else—outside those in the course—would know about my problems. . . . I could trust [them] when talking about my crime.”
Carlos decided to join the eight-week course where he learned about personal responsibility for his crime, how to make amends with those he hurt, and how to forgive himself and heal. Carlos began to transform from the inside out.
“The Sycamore Tree Project changed my life and spirit!” says Carlos. “This course has helped heal my heart by removing a great weight that I carried inside. That’s the most beautiful thing of all.”
Change doesn’t stop in prisons. Prisoners can be a powerful force for good. Today, nearly 19,000 prisoners and victims are repairing the harm caused by crime through the Sycamore Tree Project. As their hearts are transformed through Jesus’s love, they rebuild connections with their families, communities, and God. They spread radical love, acceptance, and transformation throughout some of the darkest, most broken corners of the world, healing some of the most wounded and broken people.
People just like Carlos.
Samuel in Colombia is no stranger to difficulty. At five years old, he faces physical challenges and developmental delays due to complications at birth that affected his brain. He is prone to frequent convulsions, has difficulty walking, and must still wear a diaper.
But that’s not all.
Samuel is also growing up without a father because his father is in prison. When the breadwinner of the family goes to prison, families are often left in dire situations and the mother or grandparents are left to work and care for her children alone. Children are often scarred emotionally from their parental separation and from the stigma and isolation they experience among their peers and communities because it is shameful to be associated with a prisoner. Despite their innumerable challenges, Samuel’s mother lovingly cares for him. Still, she struggles to give him everything he needs.
Samuel recently joined Prison Fellowship Colombia’s children of prisoner sponsorship program, which has provided additional support to help lift their burdens. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia, health was an important part of PF Colombia’s children’s program, providing food, training caregivers on health and safety issues, and monitoring the mental and emotional health of children and caregivers. And PF Colombia provides specific training and support for children with special health needs, like Samuel.
Samuel’s mother says she is comforted by the spiritual and emotional support and strengthened by the material assistance. With it, she is able to provide Samuel the dignified life he deserves, and Samuel will grow up knowing he is loved by many.
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Cristihian Melo is a graduate of The Prisoner’s Journey program offered by Prison Fellowship Uruguay. He shares his story:
“I was incarcerated in the Durazno Prison for 11 months. I agreed to attend the course when I was invited because I told myself that it would just be listening, watching some videos, and filling out a book. I thought it will be good to read a little—and that was the only thing that mattered to me.
But something happened while I participated in the sessions. I became interested in the Gospel of Mark workbook. Then, I was shocked by the videos. I looked forward to the sessions and knew my head had changed.
Today, I am free. I have changed my way of thinking. I am with my family again. I have a house and I am working. I no longer want to do wrong. I have a different way of seeing things. This course changed my thinking and God changed my life.”
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Brazil is one of the most violent nations in the world.
According to the World Health Organization, 63,895 Brazilians were murdered in 2017. That marks the nation’s homicide rate as one of the highest in the world. On top of that, many in Brazil support violent policing methods, which have taken root in a popular motto Bandido bom é bandido morto (“The only good criminal is a dead criminal”).
But the support is not all-encompassing.
According to a study published in 2017 by the Centre for Studies on Public Safety and Citizenship at the University Candido Mendes, 73.4% of daily churchgoers, mostly evangelical Christians, reject the idea that “the only good criminal is a dead criminal.” The study also points out that evangelicals were the most likely to support the idea that a criminal can become a good citizen.
That belief is what has allowed the Association for the Protection and Assistance of the Condemned (APAC) to help so many people in Brazil.
Dr. Mario Ottoboni founded APAC in São José de Campos, Brazil, in 1972. Since then, Prison Fellowship Brazil has spread the program to over 50 prisons throughout the country. Dr. Ottoboni developed the APAC methodology centred around love. In a recent interview, David Van Patten, COO of Prison Fellowship International, spoke about how APAC works by counteracting Brazilians’ preconceptions about crime.
“The main, driving force is they’re saturated with a different view of who they are,” Van Patten explained. He went on to detail how APAC helps prisoners reconsider “who they can be in relationship to the people they’ve harmed, their families, and other people in the community.”
And there is a clear need for the APAC program within Brazilian prisons.
“What we’ve learned,” Van Patten said, “is that about a third of the prisoners in any prison want to change and can change. But without help, won’t change.”
And as prisoners have changed, so have the prisons. Within the APAC methodology, prisons don’t have guards or any other paid staff. They are run by volunteers, as well as the prisoners themselves. Unlike traditional prisons, which often focus on punishment, APAC prisons are institutions focused on love, forgiveness, and transformation.
While Brazil may be the birthplace of the APAC program, it is not the only place where it is helping to change lives. Prison Fellowships in Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile have all seen APAC programs work in their prisons. And Prison Fellowship national ministries around the world have noticed the success in Latin America, and are starting to experiment with similar models. Ministries in Europe, Asia, and North America are all beginning to experiment with programs based on the APAC model.
“The opportunity is bigger than our ability to fund it,” says Van Patten. “More governments and prison directors are asking for Prison Fellowship [International] to come in and do work in their countries than we can support. The bottom line is funding.”
You can support APAC programs around the world by making a donation to grow restorative justice programs today.
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