JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Florida prison system is the third largest in the United States and takes $2.3 billion a year to operate.
The recidivism rate in Florida is a dismal record. In America, about 650,000 people are released from prison every year. Two out of four of them are re-arrested within three years from their release.
So, after years of isolation, how does someone return to our streets and be a successful member of society?
A University of North Florida professor and the founder of the first faith-based prison program in Florida did some research. They titled their project "When Faith Works" and it was recently published in an international journal.
The project looked at the prayer lives and faith practices of 25 successful ex-offenders who say professing Christianity is what kept them on the right path after release; success meaning no arrests and free from substance use for at least two years.
Through life history interviews, the study found beyond marriage and employment, the former offenders said religion is what helped them get their lives back together, and kept them successful.
"One night I got really drunk and really high, got in an argument with one of my other roommates, and I ended up stabbing him," said John Dancey.
John Dancey spent 27 years in prison, convicted of murder. He's now on parole.
Gregory Seymour spent 35 years of his life behind bars, convicted of first-degree murder.
"I was released Jan. 15 of last year. I was 55," said Seymour.
These men are among the many out on parole living among us in Jacksonville and trying to find their way outside of prison walls.
Upon release, a person is given a blue bag, $50 and the clothes they walk out wearing. Released with, often, nowhere to go but onto a Greyhound bus. Destination: anywhere. All relationships burned by actions years ago and on to do everything, after decades of isolation.
"There's just so much out there in the free world and they want to do it all right now, and it's so easy to fall back into bad habits," said Mark Krancer, who is out on parole.
"The first thing to know about American corrections is that most of the time we fail; 68 percent of the time, within three years after release, state prisoners are re-arrested. So the real interesting thing is what about that 30 percent or so who succeed," said Michael Hallett, UNF professor of criminology and criminal justice.
These men are part of that 30 percent: convicted criminals turned Christians. They're the ones who found religion and their faith while incarcerated, now enrolled in the Prisoners of Christ Ministry: a local faith-based program offering re-entry services designed to help men coming out of prison through the transition back to civilian life.
"I've watched the transformation of people from inside to outside of prison for all the years I've been in ministry. There are things in life that people deal with, and in my opinion, only faith is going to make the difference," said Steve McCoy, executive director of Prisoners of Christ.
That opinion is now supported by fact, concluded by research done by McCoy, who implemented Florida's first faith-based dormitory at Lawtey Correctional Institution, and Dr. Hallett.
"What I find most compelling about faith is that it really does take men beyond their immediate resources; that men with no social support and no money find that getting into the Bible empowers them in ways beyond their immediate resources. In other words, they've got no money and no support and yet they're ready to made a change," said Hallett.
The study looked at 25 successful ex-offenders who did time for things like murder, attempted murder, sex crimes. They all professed faith as the reason for their success after release, and unanimously said the first time they ever even considered the Bible or religion was in prison.
"The process of transformation didn't happen until I met Christ in prison," said Seymour.
Through programs in prison like the one Pastor McCoy founded at Lawtey, the ex-cons said they saw the light.
"As a kid you're free, you're joyous and I hadn't felt that in a long time. And when I accepted Jesus, and all that come back to me, I knew that that was it. That's what I had been seeking. That joy, that freedom and that peace," said Dancey.
It's a message and findings the pastor and professor want to bring awareness to in prisons around the country.
"Our incarceration rate is so high that there's no money left over for programs, so the first message is to have any hope of success in American corrections, we've got to work with men. The second reason it's important I think is it documents the ways in which faith really does work in the lives of men if they get the help they need if they get the contact and resources necessary to help them develop their faith," said Hallett.
Hallett said they're looking to incorporate this research into a book, looking at the role faith plays in the lives of offenders both in and outside of prison. He's studying now how a Christian seminary program at the Louisiana state penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the U.S., has dramatically brought down violence in the prison.
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