First Step Act Gives Prisoners a Second Chance at New Life

Federal prison reform legislation unlocks ministry

Not far off Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston is what is arguably Texas’ toughest prison, the Coffield Unit, a maximum-security facility populated by some 4,000 inmates, most of whom are repeat offenders serving sentences for some of the worst crimes. 

But on a Wednesday night in June, inside the prison chapel, the irony of the Gospel that frees souls was on full display to the dozens who witnessed it.

Five inmates from solitary confinement, shackled by feet and hands for their hardened and incorrigible ways, waited in line with rival gang members to enter the baptismal waters and give evidence of a newfound freedom through saving faith in Jesus Christ.

As the men left that evening following the weekly worship service of Gateway Church’s Coffield Campus—a church planted inside a prison—the realization that they were publicly repudiating their former lives added gravity to the situation in a place where criminal records are often touted infamously among inmates as badges of honor.

But such concerns aren’t inhibiting the spiritual movement occurring at Coffield. During a July worship service, Gateway pastors baptized 15 more inmates from solitary confinement and 22 more from the general prison population.

Led by Robert Morris, founding lead senior pastor, the Dallas-area multisite church is no stranger to innovation, but Morris’ all-in commitment to prison ministry was evident when this year the church added a full-time prison ministry pastor, Stephen Wilson. 

Gateway’s Coffield Campus was launched late last year, with the blessing of the warden, and each Wednesday, Gateway members from Dallas-Fort Worth ride a 15-passenger van to Coffield to do church with about 375 brothers in chains. 

Not only are inmates hearing the Gospel, but they are also learning to be disciples and taking it upon themselves to help lead. The inmates have a praise team, a greeter team, an audio-video team and altar teams. 

“If guys have a real heart change they will live this way their entire lives,” says Wilson, who himself came to faith in Christ during an 11-month prison stay in 2004.

Furthermore, Wilson adds, “When you do prison ministry, you’re changing the culture in the prison and in society.”

And that’s especially significant when you consider that a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 83% of state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were re-arrested at least once by 2014.

With the transformation Gateway has seen at its Coffield Campus and plans to add congregations in six other state prisons, Wilson now has another sector of the U.S. prison population on his heart that until recently had been locked off to churches and parachurch ministries: the federal prison system.

Since President Trump’s signing of the First Step Act last December on the eve of a federal government shutdown, the narrative for federal inmates could include more stories of redemption as well.

“The First Step Act says that when someone is incarcerated, we should be working to transform them away from behavior that got them there in the first place,” says Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy with Prison Fellowship. “For too long, we tolerated an environment that was filled with fear, hate, theft, assault and even sexual violence. Why are we spending $80 billion a year incarcerating human beings and tolerating that they come out more likely to commit a crime?”

Under the newly enacted federal prison reform legislation, inmates must go through a risk and needs assessment designed to identify and address any mental health, anger management or family history issues that likely contributed to their criminal acts.

And for the first time, churches and other faith-based groups like Prison Fellowship can now take their life skills and vocational training programs rooted in Scripture to the federal prisons.

Prison Fellowship has been helping transform state prisons since its founder, the late Chuck Colson, launched the ministry 40 years ago after serving a seven-month federal prison sentence for his part in the Nixon Watergate scandal.

Today, in more than 90 prisons across 27 states, more than 3,000 prisoners participate in the 12-month Prison Fellowship Academy (PFA), where a Biblical worldview is unlocking hope and new life in Christ for inmates.

Recidivism rates, or re-arrests, of inmates who complete PFA are demonstrably lower than inmates who don’t go through the program, DeRoche says.

Since 2016, Darryl Brooks has served as director of PFA at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, where he was once incarcerated.

Today, the entire 340-inmate population goes through the 12-month program to experience how Biblical values of integrity, responsibility and accountability can set people free from harmful, life-controlling issues.

Brooks spent about nine years behind bars for drug offenses before being transferred to the Vance Unit, where he served from 2000 to 2002. 

“It’s an environment that’s just so different from any prison that I’ve done time in,” Brooks says. “It’s just so conducive for change because we live in a community together and everybody’s encouraging each other. Any other prison you go into, you don’t see men hugging each other, greeting each other. The Academy just exposed me, actually, to the love of God.”

The Department of Justice’s most recent reporting in 2017 counts the average annual cost of incarceration for a federal inmate at $36,299.25. 

Under the First Step Act, some federal inmates can become eligible for reduced sentences upon meeting good conduct standards including the completion of faith-based rehabilitative programs, previously not allowed in the federal prison system.

More important than reducing the financial costs of incarceration through criminal justice reform, DeRoche says, is elevating the value of human life for those incarcerated as well as the communities in which 95% of them will eventually return.

“Justice issues are more about our values as Americans than about the dollars and cents that are at stake,” DeRoche says. “The human costs outweigh the financial costs if our government gets this right or wrong. … Even if someone is incarcerated, that doesn’t mean they lose their value in the sight of God.”

According to the Bureau of Justice, more than 2 million people are in jail or prison in the U.S., representing the highest incarceration rate in the world. Another 4.5 million are on probation or parole. And one in three Americans have a criminal record.

Bureau of Justice Statistics show approximately 650,000 inmates are released each year, and two-thirds of former inmates will be re-arrested within three years of their release.

Matthew Charles, who was introduced as President Trump’s guest during his State of the Union address in February, is the first federal inmate released under the First Step Act’s implementation of restructured sentencing guidelines.

Charles accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1996 at age 29, the same year he was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for selling crack cocaine and possession of a firearm.

After more than two decades in federal prison, during which he completed more than 30 Bible correspondence courses and became a law clerk, Charles was released in 2016. Two years later, a federal judge reinstated the balance of Charles’ sentence on a technicality, even though he had lived a crime-free life since his release and was anticipating a job promotion.

“My faith in man was shattered a little bit,” Charles recounts. “But not my faith in God, because God had proven Himself over and over again to be faithful to me throughout my 21 years that I was incarcerated.”

These days, Charles travels the country advocating for rehabilitative criminal justice reform as a speaker for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“The Bible is a book of second chances,” Charles says. “God created Adam. Adam messed up. God created a second Adam in Jesus Christ to redeem us all. See, it’s all about giving us second chances, so the First Step Act actually does that. It gives a second chance to people, so that they can come out differently than they went in.”

U.S. Congressman Doug Collins (R-Georgia), a former pastor, U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain and lawyer who co-sponsored the bipartisan First Step Act, says his faith compelled him to help lead the charge for federal prison reform.

“This is something that can actually take people and give them another chance at a life that through mistakes or through addiction or through everything in their life that was on a path of destruction, can now become a path of life,” he says.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), a former youth minister, said Christians have an unprecedented opportunity to follow Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25 to minister to prisoners.

Lankford added a final amendment to the First Step Act legislation allowing faith-based groups access to federal prisons without federal funding requirements.

“We’re providing the door that’s open to say that people of faith, if they want to come in and provide this service to those that are incarcerated and to give them some hope in that moment, they can and I believe should,” Lankford says.

According to Gateway’s Wilson, never before have church groups had access to the federal system. 

“We hope that what we are doing could be an example and model for what could happen in federal facilities nationwide,” he says.

Photos: Courtesy of Gateway Church's Coffield Campus