The Vital Role of Faith-based Organizations in Criminal Justice Reform [Part 2 of 2]

These articles are meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

  Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship

Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship

Criminal justice isn’t just a political issue. When over 2.7 million U.S. children have parents in prison, it’s also a family issue. When those single-parent families struggle to help their children succeed in school, it’s an education issue. When incarceration presents mental-health challenges, it’s a medical issue, and when returning citizens struggle to re-integrate into society, it’s a community issue. Finally, when the conditions in the criminal justice system lead to a sense of deep loss and despair, it’s a faith issue.

The criminal justice system’s impact reaches every corner of society. Because of this, government reforms or individual relationships are not enough; complex problems require comprehensive solutions involving a range of societal actors, from individuals, governments and schools to churches and nonprofits.

Prison Fellowship is a participant of Sacred Sector and a faith-based nonprofit that recognizes the intricate, overlapping challenges facing the criminal justice system today. This article is the second in a two-part series featuring Prison Fellowship on the impact of faith-based organizations in criminal justice reform.  

In a recent article, Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship, notes that “For many years, the Church has sought to improve prison culture by impacting a small part of the prison population through weekly Bible studies or single day evangelism events. However, our call to seek justice that restores does not end with these types of programs.”

In addition to Bible study programs, Prison Fellowship offers educational programs for prisoners, their families and prison wardens. They also advocate for justice reforms on the federal and state levels, and partner with other organizations to raise awareness of inequalities in the criminal justice system. All of their efforts aim to support the restoration of those affected by incarceration.

Prison Fellowship exhibits how faith-based organizations can make essential contributions to criminal justice reform. Central to Prison Fellowship’s success is its ability to consistently apply its sacred mission in its public policy engagement, organizational practices and public communications.

Adapting Faith-Based Nonprofit Best Practices and Programs

Prison Fellowship’s public faith identity begins with its internal practices. The organization takes faith beliefs and behaviors into account when making employment decisions and continues to support staff’s spiritual growth after hiring.

Sacred Sector offers resources on subject-matter areas that are key to navigating the faith-based nonprofit sector. One resource, the Religious Staffing Organizational Practices Toolbox, says:

Faith-shaped hiring processes must be complemented by the existence of a faith-shaped organizational ethos for employees already onboard. Reflecting your religious beliefs and practices in your organizational culture is an important sign to the public of your faith-based mission. From a mission standpoint, your organization should strive to incorporate its foundational beliefs into its organizational culture, operations and services.

Prison Fellowship shows what it looks like to reflect sacred beliefs throughout organizational culture. Charles DeLeon, Director of Contracts and Services at Prison Fellowship, said that Prison Fellowship creates a sense of shared mission by building intentional relationships among the staff: “We take the time to get together on almost a weekly basis, engage in common learning and hear presentations and stories about our mission and impact. I believe that we all feel like we are part of a large family because we have a set of shared beliefs.”

The staff also has an internal website which allows them to share prayer requests and be reminded of how initiative developments support their mission.

Prison Fellowship is deliberate about the internal application of its faith-based mission because it believes restoration beings with faith: “Even though we teach practical skills in our programming, we believe that true transformation can only happen through Jesus,” said Mosteller. “We believe that our staff needs to have a strong faith and a strong basis in the word and what Jesus said because we are trying to help everyone we work with achieve that goal of spiritual transformation. We believe all the best practices we teach reflect the word of God.”

Prison Fellowship draws a clear connection between its internal identity and external practices, reflecting its faith throughout its life and culture. By doing so, it unmistakably roots its successes in its faith-based mission and highlights the valuable contributions of faith-based organizations.

To learn more about consistently applying one’s faith identity through organizational best practices, see the Religious Staffing Organizational Practices Toolbox.

Public Positioning

The way Prison Fellowship communicates its mission to its service recipients, stakeholders and the public exhibits the positive motivations for and outcomes of its faith-based mission. According to the Religious Staffing Public Positioning Toolbox, organizations should:

Tell compelling stories involving your clients (protection their identities, as appropriate), staff and board members that illustrate your organization’s appropriate commitments and functions. Be sure that these stories also express how your organization’s distinct religious character motivates all you do.

Prison Fellowship is a clear example of an organization that uses stories to show the personal contributions of its faith-based work.

“The thing that motivates me the most is the stories that we hear,” said Mosteller. “We get to hear about someone’s life that has been transformed. We see that tangible change that most people don’t get to see in their work.”

Mosteller explained that part of Prison Fellowship’s public positioning efforts includes collecting spiritual transformation data based on personal stories and “trying to show donors that we are really measurable on the practical aspect and on the spiritual aspect.” In addition, Prison Fellowship is committed to publicly communicating that their criminal justice reform efforts are grounded not only in research and evidence, but also in scripture. By reaffirming the connection between its impact and its sacred mission, Prison Fellowship effectively lives out its faith identity in its public positioning practices.

To learn more about how faith-based organizations can effectively communicate with the public, see the Religious Staffing Public Positioning Toolbox.

Conclusion

While prevailing understandings of criminal justice reform over-emphasize government or individual solutions, Prison Fellowship reframes the conversation by indicating the important work of faith-based organizations. Prison Fellowship’s holistic approach to reform involves direct advocacy for restorative policies, partnerships with organizations across the political spectrum and initiatives that raise awareness of challenges facing returning citizens. Internally, Prison Fellowship has an organizational culture that incorporates faith not only in its hiring practices, but also in its interactions with existing employees. Finally, Prison Fellowship publicly conveys that its accomplishments are rooted in its faith identity. Its efforts in all three areas — public policy, organizational practices and public positioning — demonstrate that faith-based organizations have an integral role to play in addressing the complex challenges facing the criminal justice system today.

If you are not a Sacred Sector participant and would like access to resources on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning for faith-based organizations, sign up to become a Sacred Sector participant here.

Kathryn Mae Post is an intern with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). She contributes to two different initiatives at CPJ: Sacred Sector and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). She is graduating from Calvin College in May of 2018 with a BA in both political science and English.