Faith in the Big House‚ Offers Viewers Rare Inside Look at the Prison-Religion Industry: Can Jesus Really Change Lives?

New Public TV Documentary Examines Religious Conversion behind Bars, Features Watergate Charles Colson and Famed Jewel Thief Murph the Surf.

Cambridge, Massachusetts  Faith in the Big House a new documentary film airing on public TV stations across the country, offers an extraordinary and unprecedented look at the lives of a group of hardcore Louisiana inmates and the dramatic efforts to reform their lives through an intensive evangelical prison ministry program.

The film poses the question: Can faith-based ministries effectively replace traditional inmate rehabilitation programs and reduce recidivism?

Produced by Cambridge, award-winning Interlock Media, with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, this timely film takes viewers deep inside Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum security prison farm near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There we meet five felons, including a notorious gang-leader, a self-styled theologian, a narcissistic rocker, a twitchy jock and a former standout football player. These misfits were drafted into a weekend-long Encounter with Christ, an immersive, carefully-scripted religious retreat run behind bars by an outside prison ministry.

Director Jonathan Schwartz, whose own immersion while making the film included living in a double-wide trailer in the prison's parking lot, says faith programs have become popular by offering a break from the ongoing monotony of incarceration.

The groups come to the prison with a lot of fanfare, Schwartz says. Some, like the one seen at Elayn Hunt, entice prisoners with free-world, food, a chance to hear jokes, act in skits and bond in encounter groups. Others bring celebrities or sports figures or famous ex-convicts to entertain the prisoners while they also recite Bible stories and pray together in the name of Jesus. Despite the popularity of prison revivals, at least as a diversion for inmates, the filmmakers question their long-term impact. More than 2.25 million Americans or one in 140 - are currently behind bars. In Louisiana (the state with the highest incarceration rate), three out of four released inmates return to prison within three years. With such grim odds, is religious faith effective in keeping convicts from an almost inevitable return to lock-up 

The timely question comes as faith-based programs, which are often provided by religious groups to prisons without charge, have become widely popular with correctional departments particularly as traditional treatment and service programs are being de-funded.

Proponents of prison ministry programs who appear in the film, like the late Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate co-conspirator who served seven months in a federal correctional facility before starting the non-profit Prison Fellowships, says faith is the missing piece in prison reform and insists revivals and bible studies do radically reduce the number of inmates who are reincarcerated. "I just like to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in prisons because seen how that changes people's lives," says Colson. If you have a virtuous society, you have 250 million policemen. If you don't have a virtuous society- if you have a society that mocks virtue, and mocks religious faith, you can't hire enough policemen or build enough prisons."

Meanwhile critics, like Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, challenge the effectiveness of faith-based prison programs when compared with the more secular, and admittedly costly, inmate counseling and training programs. "A group comes in and says, "We'll help you."says Rev. Lynn in the documentary."We'll bring people in for nothing. You won't even have to pay them . . . You don't have to provide better libraries, or job counseling, or anything. You just have to cure the sin. Tear it out . . . That I think is very detrimental to the good programs that have existed in many states for years . . . It's a lot easier to get somebody into the prison to say, "We're gonna pray these guys into goodness forever."

The film also features prison evangelist Jack Murphy, better known as "Murph the Surf," a notorious thief and murderer who carried out the largest jewel heist in history, involving J.P. Morgan's gems from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sentenced to life, Murphy was "born-again" in a Florida prison, and today is an evangelical prison minister. Narrator Nick Chinlund also has ties to the issue; his father was a Presbyterian minister and prison reformer.

The film is being distributed for broadcast by the National Educational Telecommunications Association to its public television member stations across the country.

About Interlock Media: Interlock Media is a 35 year-old award-winning independent producer of public television and radio, along with web content and podcasting, while tackling tough topics on the international environmental, public health, and human rights fronts. Their previous film, Turned Out: "Sexual Assault Behind Bar" examined rape in correctional facilities.

About NETA: The National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) serves public television licensees and educational entities in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Since 1967, they have connected public television stations to quality programming and educational resources.

Jonathan Schwartz
Interlock Media, Inc.
355 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02141
Photos and interview available upon request.

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