Folsom Prison Blues
Acton Institute Powerblog

Folsom Prison Blues

I received an email today from the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an independent outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries. It seems the initiative is facing rising program costs due to legal battles over the legitimacy of its Christian makeup. And constant critics of the program, like Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, seem rather incredibly cold-hearted to the plight of today’s prisoner.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is one of the few elements in prisoners’ lives that has the ability to give them hope. And this hope is not just hope for release from physical bonds, but hope for release from the spiritual bonds of sin and corruption. Here are some of the key facts about the initiative:

  • The corrections system in America is broken. More than 600,000 people will be released from U.S. prisons and jails this year, and 52% of those ex-inmates will be return to prison within three years.
  • Departments of Correction are seeking help, asking for proposals for values-based prisoner rehabilitation alternatives.
  • The InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a biblically based, round-the-clock prison program works. An independent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 8% of prisoners who graduated from our IFI program in Texas were reincarcerated within two years of their release.

This final point gets at the heart of the prison problem in America. For a system that is supposed to be based in large part on “rehabilitation,” recidivism rates are disturbingly high. This remains the case because the root issues are spiritual, and the state is spectacularly incapable of addresses such concerns. Johnny Cash, a Christian who had to push to record Gospel albums, recorded a hit song in 1968, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The lyrics of this song attest to the spiritual nature of criminality (emphasis added):

I hear the train a comin’; it’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.
I’m stuck at Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on.
But that train keeps rollin’ on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy; don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin’ I hang my head and cry.

I bet there’s rich folk eatin’ in a fancy dining car.
They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.

Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine, I bet I’d move on over a little farther down the line, Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay, And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.