Recidivism Cure: Change Inmates’ Hearts, Inside Out
by Bill Glass
Founder, Champions for Life
Best known in the sports world as a former four-time All-Pro football player with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, Bill Glass has continued to gain worldwide recognition over the decades as Founder and leader of the Champions for Life prison ministry. He is author of 11 books, including “Crime: Our Second Vietnam.” Today, Bill Glass is a highly sought-after speaker and motivator, with a packed schedule around the nation and overseas. The-Slammer is honored to have him as a guest commentator.
That’s right, “We’re losing.” I think that every time I walk into a prison. I’ve probably been in more prisons than anyone, about 400 per year. We’re losing. That thought haunts me. It’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 39 years of my life leading the Weekend of Champions. It’s why I’ve led our team into more than 3,000 prison units, often going back to the same prison where I’ve talked to thousands of inmates, officers and prison officials. What I see in all their faces is this: despair. What I hear in their voices is this: exhaustion.
What I know in my heart is this: we’re losing. Yes, this country is losing the war on crime. The police know it. The prison officials know it. The inmates know it. And recently, with the widespread problems of prison overcrowding and broken budgets, even the politicians know it. It doesn’t matter how many jails are built. It doesn’t matter how many criminals are put behind bars. It doesn’t matter how much money is spent on state-run rehabilitation, re-entry and other social service programs.
What does matter to inmates is this: someone that cares about them.
Fathers Not Doing the Job They Must
We conducted a Weekend of Champions in a juvenile prison in San Saba, Texas, for offenders ages 10 to 15. I asked the warden, “How many of these kids had visits from their fathers in the past year?” “One,” he said. I knew it would be bad, but one? Only one in a year? “For fifteen minutes,” the warden said. “One visit.” I said, “You’ve got three hundred kids in here.” “One visit,” he repeated. The truth is, the father got in an argument with his son and stomped out mad after fifteen minutes. Lots of mothers, grandmothers, and aunts came, but only one father, for only fifteen minutes.
I was at Mississippi’s Parchman Prison, which housed 44 men on death row. I walked up and down, from cell-to-cell. I asked all 44 men about their fathers. Some just shrugged, refusing to talk about it. Others raged. It was like taking a needle to a boil. Of the 44 men on death row, not one had a good thing to say about his father. Some were interested in hearing about the Lord, some were not. Some were white, some black. Most came from poor families, but not all of them.
As a group, they had little in common other than crimes. And, yes, their hatred of their fathers. They all said they loved their mothers and/or their grandmothers. You could even press them about it, and they might admit their mothers were prostitutes or did drugs. But they forgave their mothers. Why? Because their mothers made them feel loved. The mothers blessed them; their fathers should have.
80 percent of the children of inmates will go to prison also. The curse is passed down. Guess what happens? No one comes, not the family, not the friends, not the gang. Very few prisoners receive visits, and that’s probably part of the reason they’re in jail in the first place. No one cared about them.
Being Disowned Is a Recipe for Disaster
One prisoner told me, “You should have been here last week. I had this great visit.” I asked him about it, and he talked about his wife bringing along their kids. They had a picnic lunch. The sun was bright and warm, but not hot. The sky was blue. The ham sandwiches were great. The ice tea hit the right spot. The kids were happy, and they all played together. Frankly, all the detail was more than I wanted to hear.
But his friend asked me, “Was he telling you about the visit from his wife?” I said he was. “He hasn’t had a visit in ten years,” said the fellow inmate. I was stunned, because the story was told to me in such vivid detail. “Why would he lie to me like that?” I asked. “Well, to him, it’s real,” said the inmate. “When he doesn’t have a visit, he just goes to that fantasy and lives there for awhile.”
This is so common, being basically disowned by loved ones, for men and women sitting in jail, knowing that they have no one waiting for them when they are released. When they are released, if they don’t have a family or friend waiting to take them home, the system hands them $50, or whatever is in their account, and a bus ticket to their home town or the place of their arrest. Not far from some of those prisons are the worst bars. The guys take that $50 (some states a little more), head straight for the bar, and drink it up. It’s a recipe for disaster.
They either get in a fight, or end up committing a robbery for more money. It’s all too common for a guy to be released on a Friday, and end up right back in the same prison by Monday. That’s why these guys need some sort of family structure. But research has shown only ten percent of all inmates receive regular visits. Most inmates are lucky to receive one visit a year.
Criminals think differently than we do. If we don’t understand this, then we have no chance of ever helping them. This is not to excuse their behavior. It’s just a fact. Most of us grew up with a sense of order. Dad had a job. Mom may have worked too, but she also took care of the kids. There was Little League, music lessons and soccer. There was church on Sundays. There was a family. Most of these guys have no families, at least not families as we know them. “Fear seemed to walk with me every day of my life,” said Ron. He was a black inmate who grew up in the inner city. You’ve heard the story before. No father was around. Mother had a drug problem. Grandmother was too old to cope with the young kids. “In my neighborhood, your only hope was to join a gang,” Ron said. “Outside the gang, you just weren’t gonna live.“
With Commitment, Lives Can Be Changed, One Person at a Time
The history of Christianity is filled with people who’ve committed the most heinous crimes. Chapter 11 of Hebrews is sort of a roll call of saints, a spiritual hall of fame! If you read closely, four women are mentioned. Three were prostitutes. One had an incestuous relationship. Check out your Bible. Moses was a murderer. Paul was a multi-murderer, killing Christians in cold blood. David had an adulterous affair, and arranged for the murder of his mistress’s husband. Almost any crime ever committed was committed by one of the people we now consider saints. This is not to say that sin is good, or that we must condone it. It’s to point out the redeeming power of Jesus Christ. The early church reached out to the pagan world in places such as Corinth. God wants us to do the same. He orders us to go into this very, very corrupt society and change it, even if it means doing it one person at a time in the prisons.
I remember a Weekend of Champions we had at Angola Prison in Louisiana. It was 105 degrees. I went into lockdown, and I saw our Teammates (volunteer counselors) squatting like baseball catchers in front of the cells. They were talking to the inmates through the holes that were used to pass the trays of food into the cells from the hallway. That was the only way to see the inmate from the outside. A big steel door covered the rest of the cell.
There were two hundred men in that lockdown unit. It wasn’t just hot, it was sweltering. Your shirt stuck to your back. Sweat rolled down into your eyes. The heat and humidity just sucked your energy, turning you into a human dishrag. Our Teammates witnessed to every one of those two hundred inmates. In another lockdown unit, the only way to see the prisoners, eye-to-eye, was to lie on your belly and talk to them under the door. When I first saw our Teammates doing this, I thought they had lost their minds. But this was the only way for them to make eye contact, the only way to truly hear the prisoners. You had prisoners on their bellies on one side of the door, our Teammates on the other. One officer walked in and screamed, “You can’t lie on the floor in my unit.” “But officer, I’ve been doing it all morning, and it works really well,” our counselor explained. “Well, you just can’t do it,” the officer said. “But it’s the only way we can see and hear each other,” the counselor said. “Is it breaking a rule to lie on the floor?” “Well…not really,” admitted the officer. And our men were allowed to continue to witness while flat on their bellies.
Our Christian Motorcyclists Association biker Teamates look like tough guys. They ride big, noisy, smoke-belching bikes right into the prison yards. Yet, they are sincere about their mission, caring enough to give up their weekends to go to prison and talk to inmates. That makes a far bigger impression on these men than some guy in a suit-and-tie with a huge Bible sitting in the chapel.
Some of our biker guys rode their bikes all the way to Alaska for a Weekend of Champions. A year later, I was back in Alaska and some of the inmates were still talking about the bikers who rode all the way from Alabama to Alaska, a 9,000-mile round trip. That was commitment, and their red, raw, wind-burned faces proved it. Don’t ever think that the inmates weren’t impressed, and many of them had been changed from within.
When Hearts Are Changed, Lives Will Change
We are all infected with the attitudes of our environment. Many problems are systemic, and the whole system is polluted. It’s not just the criminal justice system; it is a problem of the entire culture, starting from earliest childhood. In 1972, when we started, and even more so today, prisoners and our entire culture need a whole new way of life. The prison sickness is only slightly more extreme than the virus in the “outside” world. It’s like an iceberg showing an ugly tip with the huge hidden problems of the total society being even more dangerous. Crime grows out of the total society.
In order to have the most effective impact, one must seek to change the hearts of criminals. This can best be accomplished in prison. It is the only place you can meet with them in large groups. Once they are released, they scatter all over the world. While incarcerated, they are hurting, open, and prone to hear, respond and grow spiritually. Eighty percent of all crime is committed by ex-cons. If they find a new way of life while in prison, and continue to grow spiritually when they get out, they don’t become repeat offenders. I doubt I can convince everyone of the reliability of my solutions to crime, but there is a value in discussing solutions. There is an even greater value in taking action, and that’s why we conduct Weekends of Champions! Instead of the national average recidivism rate of 70%, our experience indicates that under 10% is common among those inmates that incorporate our message into their lives.
The Weekend of Champions is designed to turn the evil of prison to the good, and to the redirection of thousands of lives. Our approach is dramatic. Bring in ten to twenty professional athletes, ex-cons, and other entertainers to appear on the platform or stage, along with two hundred to a thousand Teammates visiting all prisons within a fifty-mile radius. Each prison will have from fifty to seventy-five Teammates with free run of the “joint.”
A lot of people ask why we go to all the trouble and expense of putting on such a spectacular program for a “bunch of losers.” Simple, first we want a crowd. The inmates don’t have to come; it’s not compulsory. An athletic field or gym is usually better than the chapel because the majority avoid the prison church, much like many people do in the outside world. Second, this dramatic approach can change a prison’s entire social structure. A con’s lifestyle is always characterized by daily repetition of sleep, meals, yard, and counts. It’s Interrupted only by work (not usually available), school (not usually available), chapel (only about five to ten percent usually attend), visits (less than ten percent get visits), mail (few inmates get much), commissary (money is scarce), and medicine calls (they usually have to go line up).
Their normal dull schedule is changed for this one weekend. Routine work and recreation programs, even “The Count” and meal times are often altered. Our Teammates are allowed to eat with the cons, and visit them in their cells. In short, the sameness of their daily life is altered. Thirdly, I sincerely don’t believe they are losers. I know that many of them, who think they are losers, can be changed. As long as there is life, there is hope. Rebirth is still a possibility. Losing isn’t necessarily a permanent condition.
It Takes a Special Approach for Kids
An important new part of our ministry, which we call Ring of Champions, is a program where teens who are first-time offenders come to an all-day event led by our platform guests, usually great sports stars. The secret to its success is its mentoring program. All of us, at one time or another, have had a little help from someone that helped us be a better man, woman, husband, wife, father, mother or employee. Someone, who by his or her gift of time or insight, helped mold us into a better person. Someone who saw the potential in us at a time when we might not have been fully aware of it.
For the past several years, Ring of Champions has been providing such mentors to Youth at Risk Juveniles. The national average for juveniles returning to the system after their first arrest is 70%. Of the kids that Ring of Champions has mentored and lead to Faith in Christ, fewer than 8% have returned to the system. This dramatic impact on non-returning youth has saved taxpayers millions of dollars to date. I believe that the proven formula for Ring of Champions’ success with juveniles can even be tailored to fit into the adult prison system, with a similar positive impact on recidivism. Perhaps not too far in the future it will happen.
For more information about Champions for Life, go to: http://www.billglasscfl.org