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Evangelicals reach out to prison population

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2000

Rocco Morelli knows what it's like to get caught up in crime and go to prison - and how God can turn your life around. Now he's trying to help others find that same "change of heart."

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Mr. Morelli is sharing his story with Michigan inmates this week as part of an ambitious, nationwide prison-outreach program launched by a coalition of evangelical Christian ministries.

With the US incarceration rate the highest in the world (1 in every 150 residents), and the re-arrest rate for released prisoners also high, the coalition has created its own crime-reduction effort - Operation Starting Line - to encourage inmates to find faith and an ability to restart their lives successfully outside prison walls. They aim to reach "every prisoner in every prison in America over the next five years."

The initiative - spearheaded by groups such as Prison Fellowship, a Bible-study and counseling program led by Chuck Colson, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, led by Franklin Graham - comes at a time of growing recognition that the emphasis on punishment in US prison systems is not turning out ex-offenders ready to adjust to society. Justice Department statistics show that 62 percent of ex-offenders will be charged with new crimes and more than 40 percent return to prison within three years.

It also comes as faith-based programs are being touted as more effective in many social areas, although evidence to support those claims often remains thin.

Morelli and his colleagues, however, believe they have an answer. They say social scientists have found one of the few predictors of reduced future criminal behavior is "a change of heart." Morelli himself had always wanted to be a cop. But growing up in a Pennsylvania community known as "Little Chicago," where the Mafia controlled everything, he slipped into the corruption and began selling drugs. When his partner became a snitch, the mob offered to make Rocco a full Mafia member and crime boss if he would "take him out."

"That same night I was about to kill Tony," he says in an interview, "I got saved." He ended up at a gospel meeting his mother urged him to attend and heard the testimony of a man who had been freed from the criminal life.

While Morelli shortly went to jail for crimes already committed, he studied the Bible via a correspondence course and earned credits for seminary training. For five years, he's had a prison ministry.

Now he's working full time with Operation Starting Line, a combination evangelical crusade and two-year discipleship program for inmates who "make the decision for Christ." The program began in Delaware prisons on Easter Sunday. It hits 21 Michigan institutions this week, and will move to New York, Missouri, Virginia, and Florida later this year. All 50 states are on the five-year schedule.

Inmates' first encounter with the program is a high-energy entertainment session involving Christian musicians, athletes, comedians, and ex-offenders.

"Some 80 percent of those in prison don't go to chapel," Morelli says, "so we do our program in the big yards where the guys are lifting weights or playing sports. We do it more as a concert event ... with of course a message of sharing Christ with them."