Proclaiming freedom for prisoners - Word&Way

Proclaiming freedom for prisoners

For the past 15 years, Alan Bean has found himself involved in some of the biggest criminal justice controversies in Texas and Louisiana.

In 1999, the mild-mannered Baptist minister founded Friends of Justice and assumed the role of prophet and advocate for criminal justice reform. After successfully working to overturn “what we considered to be a grave injustice” in Tulia, Texas, Bean and his organization received requests to help in other cases, including the “Jena Six” case in Jena, La., in 2007.

Prison MinistryHe told the story of the first case in his book Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas, and both cases found him talking with national media on issues of justice and race.

Today Bean spends much of his time writing and speaking in churches to help Christians understand biblical teachings on issues of criminal justice and prison reform.

“Throughout the teachings of Jesus this is something he was very concerned about,” Bean explained. “Throughout the teachings of Jesus there is this strong sense of compassion for the least, the last and the lost.”

Bean noted Jesus started and ended this ministry by including prisoners in lists of those his followers should particularly care for.

In Luke 4, Jesus recited a passage from Isaiah to say he had come “to proclaim good news to the poor” and “proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable of sheep and goats being separated in part based on if they cared for “the least of these” like prisoners.

For Bean, this means Christians need to recapture the teachings of Jesus on caring for prisoners and others often cast out, like widows, orphans, immigrants and refugees.

“Our Christian faith compels us to become prophets, to become advocates,” he explained, “on any issue that affects the poor and the disadvantaged.”

“We’ve lost that but I think we’re getting it back,” he added. “There has been a shift in prison ministry from going into prisons and merely trying to save souls to combining that evangelistic mission with what is redemptive for these people.”

For Christians who have not engaged in prison reform advocacy, Bean said “the best place to start is with Bible study and looking at the scriptures.” He added that “the love of God compels” us to then act.

Through the Door

From The Shawshank Redemption to Orange is the New Black, prisons often provide the context for movies and TV shows. However, some see film as a medium not merely for entertainment but also for information and advocacy on prison reform.

Through the Door, the most recent documentary created by, takes viewers inside prisons to explore how faith communities are ministering to inmate and officers. Shot in Nashville, Tenn., Richmond, Va., Huntsville, Texas, Carlisle, Ind., and Atlanta, Ga., the film explores several aspects of prison life and ministry.

The film has aired on multiple TV broadcast stations and screened at churches across the country. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a Baptist Sunday School teacher, is among those interviewed in the film.

Cliff Vaughn, media producer for, served as a producer and director for the film. He noted he had previously visited a prison for some “background research” on an earlier documentary, but he went inside several to film Through the Door.

“One of my dominant impressions was respect for the people who work there,” Vaughn explained. “I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, so to speak. My naïveté about some things was punctured.”

“I had never really thought much — prior to this project — about those who work in corrections,” he added. “This project put me in touch with wardens, officers, chaplains, guards, on and on. Their task is tough, to say the least, on so many levels. As we work for a better criminal justice system, we must pay attention to these citizens as well — their safety, wages, support.”

Another area Vaughn particularly saw important was education, not just behind bars but earlier in individuals’ lives.

“I observed what tough work it is to equip folks behind bars — equip them with necessary training, counseling, education and so forth,” he said. “God knows it must continue because so many people behind bars need this help. But it’s easy, for me anyway, to draw a line from this necessity behind bars to our dropping the ball earlier in terms of that which is necessary: education, living wages, building up families and communities. I’m not saying people don’t make bad choices, but if that’s all we see, I think we’ve got bad vision.”

“Frankly, we’ve made a lot of documentaries on various topics: immigration, racism, taxes, prisons, to name some,” he added. “When we talk to experts in various fields, they almost always wind up talking about one thing: education. That’s just an observation I’ve made listening to experts talk for the last decade.”

The film is designed for use in churches, either as a full movie screening or shorter segments for Sunday School or small group use. As Vaughn reflected on visiting prisons for the film, he connected issues of prison reform to his faith.

“I was also saddened to see the loss of liberty, the missed opportunities for individuals and for society in the aggregate,” he said. “It made me grateful for the context of blessing and advantage into which I was born, but surely my gratitude isn’t enough. My faith mandates working for justice — and I think somewhere in there that means giving others the opportunities I had.

“And that’s what I walked out wishing: that my individual blessings could be systemic blessings,” he added.

“I guess that’s the kingdom of heaven. If I don’t act on my wish, then maybe my faith is dead and the kingdom doesn’t break in.”