Charles Colson’s Prison Legacy: Experts Differ on Impact


Charles W. Colson, Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” who died last week, founded in 1976 what became Prison Fellowship, the world's largest Christian outreach to prisoners. Historians of penology remembered Colson as someone who, in a small way, pointed American prisons back toward their roots, writes Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.

A spokesman for Prison Fellowship pointed to studies by New York Theological Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, finding that prison ministry turns inmates away from crime. Not all scholars are convinced. “Criminologists have convincingly shown that inmates involved in religious programming have fewer infractions while inside,” said Jennifer Graber, who wrote a book on religion in prisons. “The data outside is much more difficult to interpret.” Winnifred Sullivan, a professor at the University of Buffalo and the author of “Prison Religion,” said, “Nobody knows if this stuff works. Because prisoners must request to be part of Colson's programs, they may be a more motivated population, Sullivan said, making it hard to determine the source of any eventual success.

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