Maria Jose bursts with joy at a gathering for children of prisoners in Colombia.
Maria Jose is nine years old. She is bright and outgoing, and her smile cheers a whole room. But she has a sad secret: four years ago her father Alfredo was sent to prison. He won’t be released until after she graduates high school. She misses him every day—so much she’s developed severe anxiety. Maria Jose looks forward to the few hours she gets to visit him each month. Today is that day.
She wakes up early, selects her best outfit, and pulls on her favorite knit cap to cover the bald spots on her head. Here’s a secret Maria Jose can’t hide: a year ago, she started losing her hair. The doctors call it Alopecia—they say it’s caused by chronic anxiety and severe stress.
The loss of Maria Jose’s father is unbearable. The loss of her hair is embarrassing. And the stares and whispers from children in her neighborhood make her want to disappear. In Colombia, it is especially shameful to be related to a prisoner. Basic things like food and medical care are scarce, because Maria Jose’s mother Consuelo can only work two days a week, as a housekeeper, for very little pay. Maria Jose worries about her mother, too, who has been so ill she was recently hospitalized.
“Taking care of our home and raising my daughter alone are so difficult without Alfredo around,” says Consuelo. “María Jose needs a father figure.”
Weak family relationships and lack of parental support, along with hopelessness and persistent separation anxiety are shared experiences among thousands of children of prisoners around the world. Heartbreakingly, these internalized struggles are also among the leading causes of adolescent suicide.
Thousands more children of prisoners throughout the world are in desperate need. They live in impoverished, unsafe conditions; lack food, clothes, medicine, and the chance to go to school. They need to know they are seen and loved. And through our caring network of supporters and God’s grace, thousands of children of prisoners in eight countries are receiving life-saving care and the opportunity to regain their hope and understand their value in the light of God’s love.
On her way to visit her father in prison, Maria Jose travels through a steep maze of hillside shacks to where Medellín’s mountains touch the valley floor. There stands Bellavista Prison. It’s scary to walk the overcrowded, cell-lined halls that house thousands of Colombia’s worst criminals. There are also thousands of prisoners, like María Jose’s father, who desperately need to hear about the hope and love only Jesus can bring. Our supporters are helping us bring justice and healing in response to crime by sharing the Gospel with prisoners.
After hours of waiting in a small holding room, Maria Jose is taken to the prison’s courtyard to see her father. A huge smile lights her face, as she practically leaps into his outstretched arms.
“It was worth it,” she later tells her caseworker.
Since her father has been in prison, Maria Jose has noticed a change in him. He talks about God now, and says he feels peace.
Alfredo participated in Prison Fellowship International’s in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®, which introduced him to Jesus in a personal way. Alfredo says his time in prison has given him the opportunity to search for God.
“I want to walk with God, so he can help me rebuild my life,” he says.
With our supporters help, we have now reached more than 217,000 prisoners, just like Alfredo, in 30 countries, with the message of the Gospel.
María Jose, Consuelo, and Alfredo are beautiful testimonies of how our supporters’ gifts impact an entire family. The practical help and care they receive is making a true difference for families who have so little, but are now experiencing hope and restoration in a broken and hurting world.
Now, María Jose receives food, medical care to manage her incurable Alopecia, and emotional counseling to help her heal from the trauma of her father’s incarceration. That emotional support is so vital to regaining her confidence.
María Jose also has the comfort of a Christian caseworker, who visits her regularly to ensure she lives in safety and has opportunities to interact with other children of prisoners, get plugged into a local church community, and stay connected with her father in prison. This helps to build her relationships, ease her anxiety, and feel accepted, supported, and loved. Consuelo says it gives her hope to know people are caring for her family.
“I know I am not alone in this.”
We are so grateful for the difference our caring network of supports are making in the lives of families like Maria Jose, Consuelo, and Alberto. Just imagine the eternal impact of that support.
Give Now to Support a Family in Need of Practical Care and God’s Hope
Prison Fellowship International (PFI) announced the commencement of a 40-month study to show the impact of a Bible-based program, The Prisoner’s Journey®, in prisons throughout Colombia, Nigeria, and South Africa.
There are more than 22,000 prisons worldwide, and more than 10 million incarcerated. Over the last 15 years, the worldwide prison population has grown almost 20 percent with the rate of repeat offenders soaring as high as 50 percent. Critics of contemporary criminal justice argue that by focusing exclusively on punitive justice, prisoners are not effectively rehabilitated and demonstrate greater difficulty reintegrating back into society and remaining outside the crime cycle upon release.
Prison Fellowship International developed The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program to address this issue by appealing to the internal transformation of prisoners as a rehabilitative method. First piloted in Nigeria and South Africa in 2014, it has spread to 30 countries, reaching nearly 400,000 prisoners, and is expected to reach 1 million prisoners by 2020.
“During the four years we’ve been running The Prisoner’s Journey® we’ve found when a prisoner is transformed at a heart-level, his or her chances of thriving outside of prison dramatically increase,” says Prison Fellowship International Director of Prison Programming Rae Wood. “We receive regular reports from prison officials that prisoners are calmer and fewer fights breakout among inmates after they go through the program. This study will be a breakthrough for us in empirically demonstrating the program’s long-term impact on the individual, the prison culture, and the local community.”
The study will be led by Dr. Byron Johnson, a prominent expert on the scientific study of religion, faith-based rehabilitation programs, and criminal justice. In February, the research team will begin collecting baseline data to launch a comparative analysis of prisoner behavior and outcomes between prisons that implement The Prisoner’s Journey® programs and those that do not. The study will also provide a prison cost-savings analysis of the program from reduced prison incidents, lower recidivism rates, and the prosocial benefits from family (re)engagement and improved employment for ex-prisoners. Johnson will publish his findings in relevant academic and peer-reviewed journals over the next three years.
About Dr. Byron Johnson:
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. He is recognized as a leading authority on the scientific study of religion, the efficacy of faith-based organizations, offender treatment, and recidivism reduction. His recent book, The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation, uses survey analysis along with life-history interviews of inmates and staff to examine the impact of faith and the implications of religious programs for American correctional systems.
When a group of ex-prisoners walked into Stephen James’s prison and began sharing their stories of change, healing and forgiveness, Stephen didn’t think he’d ever be one of them.
“I went up to the guy who was running the ministry and said, ‘You don’t know how bad I’ve been.’ I started to list every bad thing I’d done in my life when he stopped me. He told me, ‘I don’t want to know about what you’ve done. We love you, and Christ loves you.’”
That day was a turning point for Stephen, who at 25 years old, was serving a four-year sentence in HMP Prison in Shrewsbury, England, for drug possession.
Stephen grew up in Leek, England as the youngest of five children. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother withered under his father’s physical and psychological abuse.
“There wasn’t any love,” said Stephen. “No encouragement, no investment in the children. We grew up in fear.”
Stephen often questioned the bad things that happened in his life. His school performance suffered, and at 15 years old, he began to follow in his father’s footsteps, working construction by day and drinking his nights away.
“I lived my life in the bars, pubs and clubs,” said Stephen. “And that progressed to drugs.”
It started with cannabis, and quickly spiraled into speed, ecstasy and LSD.
“Then, I was introduced to methadone, which is a substitute for heroin addicts. But to get it, you have to show up to the doctor with heroin in your system, so you can claim you were an addict.”
But it wasn’t just a claim.
“I started dealing. The low point of my life was using intravenously—injecting five to six times a day. I was suicidal and remember thinking I couldn’t carry on like this.”
In 1995, Stephen was caught and convicted for possession of heroin. He was sentenced to four years in prison and served two. At that point, he was convinced he would go back to drugs when he was released. But transformation was already taking shape, as Stephen began asking the God question.
“If you’d have asked me if there is a God, I would have said yes. But I didn’t know him personally.”
Near the end of Stephen’s sentence, men from Victory Outreach visited his prison. They brought ex-offenders with them, who shared their stories of brokenness, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. This got Stephen’s attention.
“I identified with them,” he said. “I’ll never forget when I was in prison. I was abandoned. My family didn’t want to know me. Nobody visited me. I didn’t think my life could change. But they all said that Jesus changed their life. And that was the moment for me.”
Stephen cracked open a Bible and began his exploration of who Jesus is, why He came and what He called Stephen to do. He found the answers to his questions about life, purpose and identity. Stephen committed his life to Christ.
When Stephen was released from prison in August, 1997, he was determined to not go back. He moved to South Wales, where Victory Outreach supported his reintegration for two years as he rebuilt his life. He worked construction while he went back to school, eventually earning a college degree in sociology and social studies. He met his wife, got married and started a family.
Then, in 2008, prison loomed on the horizon once again when a group from Christianity Explored Ministries approached Stephen to develop a course, based on the Gospel of Mark, to be taught in prisons.
“I didn’t want to go back to prison,” said Stephen. “But I felt a calling to go back. It was clear that God wanted me to be involved in prison ministry.”
Stephen spent the next eight years developing and teaching what would become the basis for Prison Fellowship International’s groundbreaking in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®.
“The challenge was to write the course to fit the needs of the prison context, to make it adaptive.”
Stephen sat in on many courses, and eventually drew up a model that merged the course materials with several other proven in-prison courses, including Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project®: Justice and Peace victim-offender reconciliation program.
“We trialed the program for about a year, always asking for feedback from the prisoners.”
To keep the prisoners’ interests and accommodate varying academic levels, the course is mostly oral and the exercises are kept short and visual with questions and drawings on flip charts, and lots of repetition.
“We talk about where we’ve been in the course and where we’re going. We work step-by-step through a theme each week and look at a couple of verses. We keep the guys moving around a lot.”
In 2014, Stephen helped adapt the course for Prison Fellowship International’s The Prisoner’s Journey program. It has since reached more than 1.5 million prisoners with an invitation to learn about Jesus.
Stephen regularly watches men and women come into the course saying the same things he used to say — “I can’t change. You don’t know where I’ve been.” — and seeing them, step-by-step, begin to understand and live the message and hope of Christ.
“One of the most rewarding things I’ve heard a prisoner says is, ‘I’m more free in prison than I would be outside, now that I have Christ in my life.’”
As Stephen travels the globe to train Prison Fellowship affiliate leaders to teach the course, he’s confronted by many challenges as an ex-convict. Yet, he says his life is constantly shaped and authenticated by the Gospel, and he wouldn’t trade prison ministry for anything else.
“Obviously, I’ve got criminal convictions. . . . It’s like I’m constantly vetted as a person each time I enter a new country. But I wouldn’t be doing this work if it wasn’t for the Gospel. It is about loving the prisoner. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. And sometimes that’s tough. Because we’re good at loving people who are good towards us, who are nice people, but it really is about loving the prisoner. And I haven’t been refused in any country yet. That’s an amazing testimony, isn’t it?”
Stephen facilitating a course session of The Prisoner’s Journey in Nairobi, Kenya
Help other prisoners around the world hear the invitation to know Christ as their savior through The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program.
I Forgive Those Who Massacred My Family
My name is Ornella, and I am a volunteer for The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program in a Rwamagana prison in Rwanda.
My parents were refugees and my other family members were massacred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I couldn’t bear to go to prison and meet some of the perpetrators of the genocide, who killed my relatives. But being trained by Prison Fellowship Rwanda on different topics regarding Bible studies and forgiveness, I decided to forgive them and now I’m able to minister to them.
I participated in the graduation event of Rwamagana prison.
I was especially touched by the testimony given by one graduate who declared the teachings of The Prisoner’s Journey® changed his life.
He used to steal materials that belonged to other inmates. He said, “Since I have started following the course, I’ve stopped sins and repented from all sins I committed against God and the community.”
Help others experience healing through Christ so they may also share God’s message of grace to prisoners around the world.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
I Want to Be a Part of This
Mr. Saihemba is an officer in a Chondwe prison in Zambia. As he observed the inmates participating in The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program, and the heart changes that occurred within them.
“This is the ministry of the century, and I want to be a part of it,” he says.
Help us continue to reach out to prisoners, their families, and even prison officials with the love of Christ.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
I’m No Longer Forsaken
My name is Nik, I’m 38-years-old, and sentenced to 21 years in prison in Rrogozhin, Albania. I love the Lord and I live to be loved by Him. I know He has a plan for me in this prison, and this became clearer to me while participating in The Prisoner’s Journey® eight-week course.
During the program, I listened to the story of when everyone abandoned [Jesus], but in that moment He was found by God. His story is very much like my story. When everything falls apart around me, I know He is there, and I am not alone, and can be with Him every moment.
God bless you all for making this possible.
Help other prisoners around the world hear the invitation to know Christ as their savior through The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey® program
My Reluctance Turned to Joy
My name is Marlene. I didn’t want to participate in The Prisoner’s Journey®, because I thought it wouldn’t bring anything good to me.
But after the first session, I was delighted with the program and testimonies. Through the course, I was reproached by God.
Now, I always recommend the program to the other. I believe their lives will be changed, too.
Help others share God’s message of grace to prisoners around the world.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
The Sunday I’ll Never Forget
My name is Jeff, and I’m a volunteer with The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program in a prison in New South Wales, Australia.
Each Sunday afternoon, I head to the prison in the hope of doing a church service. On this particular Sunday, we had 25 inmates in attendance. The best part was 15 of them had just spent three weeks attending The Prisoner’s Journey®. Although they all completed the course, none had come to church before. I was excited to see how God was speaking to them on their journey.
I preached a message about Gideon, and how the greatest battle we fight is with ourselves. This seemed to resonate with the inmates; I could see on their faces the message touched them. At the end of the message, I took them through the plan of salvation. I said “If anyone would like to place their faith and trust in Christ, then raise your hand so I can meet with you and pray with you.”
Eleven men from The Prisoner’s Journey® raised their hands.
I’m embarrassed to say I was shocked. Although I had asked God to do a great work, I wasn’t expecting Him to actually answer.
I said “Wait, I want to make sure you all understand.” I took them through it again, and again 11 inmates raised their hands to accept Christ as their Savior.
What started off as a normal Sunday afternoon became one I won’t forget.
Help other volunteers share God’s message of grace to prisoners around the world.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
God Looked for Me
Enoc is a former prisoner who attended The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program.
During Enoc’s time in prison, he felt accused, stereotyped, abandoned, and harmful. But he said God looked for him, and He was always there. God reminded Enoc that He still has not changed the purpose for him.
Enoc says regardless of the difficult time, God makes miracles in prisons, and that he is one of those miracles.
Today, as a free man, Enoc serves as a volunteer through Prison Fellowship Colombia and a facilitator for The Prisoner’s Journey®.
Help other prisoners around the world hear about God’s salvation.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
I Now Understand Jesus is Loving
My name is Edivaldo, and I am serving a prison sentence in Itaúna, Brazil. I have studied theology for over four years, but it was The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program that helped me understand more about this wonderful and loving Jesus.
I am grateful, because although I’m behind bars, Jesus has come to meet me.
Today as a facilitator for The Prisoner’s Journey, I encourage my brothers to come with me on this journey, assuring them their lives will never be the same.
Of the millions of prisoners around the world, many will serve their sentence without receiving an invitation to hear God’s message of grace and love, unless we do something.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey