`I'D like to see a more spiritual emphasis in the prisons," says Charles Colson, yesterday's winner of the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, "more reaching in to help people from the community, and a greater public awareness of the needs of inmates and their families.... They're almost totally rejected and forgotten."
Yes, he is the same Charles Colson who was President Nixon's Special Counsel in the White House, the one who released to the press a secret and damaging FBI report on antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg. Mr. Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice and spent seven months in a federal prison in 1974. The experience radically affected the second half of his life.
His disclosure, well before his indictment, that he had become a "born again" Christian was greeted with considerable skepticism. Yet much of that early disbelief has now melted away. Colson spent much of his time in prison studying the Bible and praying. About a year and a half after his release, he used the first royalty check (for $75,000) from his best-selling autobiography, "Born Again," to launch the Prison Fellowship, an evangelical ministry that reaches 800 federal and state prisons in the United
States with the help of 49,000 volunteers. The Fellowship's board includes Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and a Methodist.
The US ministry is part of Prison Fellowship International, which operates in 53 other nations, including the former Soviet Union where some 212 prisons are involved.
The Fellowship, which opposes the death penalty, helps inmates through a wide variety of seminars on everything from Bible study, goal-setting, and social re-entry skills to improved communication in marriage.
Criminal justice reform is also part of the Fellowship agenda. One major project aims at persuading legislatures to allow alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, who account for 50 percent of the US prison population. One reason the prisons are filled to overflowing is that the wrong kind of people are being locked up, said Colson in a telephone interview. Those imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, in his view, should be allowed to work off their debt to society and their victims in protected wor k camps or work projects. Just in 1991, says Colson, states passed 22 bills to allow such alternatives to incarceration.
The Fellowship program began modestly, and Colson moved to it reluctantly, he says. Noting that he had several good business offers, he says, "I really wanted a quiet life."
Yet he kept thinking about his experience in prison, where he says he saw the "utter futility" of a system that left prisoners' lives unchanged. "People became angry and bitter," he recalls.
"They sat around at night talking about ... getting out and getting even." He had also witnessed remarkable changes in the lives of prisoners in his own prayer group. "I realized that if there was any hope for the inmates, it was going to be through the redemption and renewal that they would find in Jesus Christ and not in a prison system."
Patricia Ann Hughes, his wife, said she would support him in whatever decision he made. In the end he felt he had no choice but to start the Fellowship. "This was God's call on my life," he says. "I was drafted."
Though clearly pleased to have emerged from what he calls the "shame and disgrace of Watergate," Colson says he has few regrets about the past and considers his past experience vital preparation for his current job. "Without all that preceded in my life," he says, "the knowledge of government, learning about the perils of power and celebrity - I think I would not have been as well equipped," he says.
Also, his image as an "ex-Marine captain known largely as the White House tough guy" and the time he spent in prison both helped him to communicate more effectively with inmates, he says.
Al Quie, former governor of Minnesota and a former US congressman, agrees that Colson's reputation and experience help considerably in getting the message across. "I've gone into prison with him and ... everybody knows him," says Mr. Quie, who got to know Colson during prayer meetings on Capitol Hill in the 1970s. "When he says, `I'm Chuck Colson,' and puts his hand through the bars, they say, `Oh yeah!' " Quie, currently a board member of Prison Fellowship and a past president, says Colson's "life chang e" has been a sharp one. "It's more like the story of Saul who became Paul than just about anybody I know," he says.
Inmates often pick up the Christian message more easily than many churchgoers, Colson says. "People in prison can really understand the historic Jesus who had nothing ... and who came to set prisoners free."
In Denver recently, Colson was walking down the street when a cab pulled up. "Hey, Chuck!" the driver said, "because of you my life was changed in prison - I got my life together." Says Colson: "That makes my day when that kind of thing happens, and I get it a great deal."
The per-capita incarceration rate is higher in the US than in any other nation. Most prisons are crowded beyond capacity. Well over 800,000 Americans are behind bars. Colson cites the usual causes, such as alcohol and drugs. But "Crime is related less to economic or external factors than to moral factors," Colson says. Spiritual renewal and regeneration are the great needs, he says.
"To use Augustine's metaphor," says Colson, "I'd like to see the City of God have greater influence in the city of man, because I don't think a secular society is sustainable.... I think we've lost sight of the fact that religion has historically been at the root of culture.... We're losing that cohesiveness that comes from a common faith."
Colson, who lives in Reston, Va., was nominated for the Templeton prize by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) of Virginia. At a time when too many prisoners have no skills and little incentive to change their behavior, says Congressman Wolf, Colson's life example "motivates others to live radically, wholly for God."
The Templeton prize, the biggest cash award in the world, includes a check for $1 million.