By Michael Ireland
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA (October 30, 2000)-- Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, recently praised "faith-based" organizations, such as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, in helping to reduce recidivism rates among the inmate population in the nation's prisons.
Ramstad Hvass, who is the sister of Minnesota Third District Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad, made her comments at a Sunday morning worship service dedicated to the work of Prison Fellowship.
Ramstad Hvass was introduced by Don Dewey, the Prison Fellowship Area Council Chairman for Minnesota and North Dakota. Dewey said Ramstad Hvass has been the Commissioner for the last two years after building considerable credibility in the legal community as a county judge and an assistant prosecutor.
"It is really a privilege to worship with you this morning and to share with you how since becoming Commissioner of the Department of Corrections approximately 20 months ago, I have seen first hand the positive influence that faith-based programs have in changing hearts and healing people. How programs like Prison Fellowship give hope to those whose circumstances can seem pretty hopeless," said Ramstad Hvass.
"Many become suspicious of those who come to Jesus while they're behind bars. Yet, as someone once said, groanings that cannot be articulated are often prayers that cannot be refused. It's Prison Fellowship's vision that people who are impacted by crime experience the redemptive grace and the peace of Christianity. And that has happened over and over and over and over again. As Chuck Colson writes, 'If pits of prison can be turned into Christian communities this is the most powerful and vivid metaphor of hope for our society.' Studies show that recidivism rates drop by 65 percent for prisoners who regularly participate in religious-based Bible studies and seminars," she said.
"During a time when corrections has become a fast-growing industry in the United States, it's faith-centered work with prisoners to restore their relationships with family, community their faith, that provide she most hope for our future. Faith-based programs can transform the inner person, thereby changing the outer one. The need is greater than before as the FBI 'crime clock' shows that now there's a murder every 34 minutes, a forcible rape every six minutes, a robbery every minute, and a property crime every three seconds. Replacing that offender's heart of stone with a heart of flesh presents the greatest likelihood of keeping people out of that vicious cycle and out of continually a life of crime. And for many, the truth is, that the only Bible college they'll ever see may be in prison," said Ramstad Hvass.
"Often times the toughest part facing an offender comes after he gets out of prison, facing the world as an ex-offender, a label that many never shake. Helping that offender go beyond the prison walls and deal with the punishment that society imposes after release can make all the difference and define his or her future. During the first nine months of release, offenders are most likely to re-offend. That's why former (Minnesota) Gov. Al Quie says that it's crucial that we have people who believe in Jesus walking with people as they come out of prison, helping them adjust to the world outside and walk with Jesus as their Lord in the midst of the world's many temptations," Ramstad Hvass said.
"Prison Fellowship holds an important key to reintegrating offenders as positive, contributing members of our society. What a need there is to link offenders coming out of prison to churches and provide mentors to facilitate their re-entry into the free world. That hand of friendship, extended by each volunteer, serves as a buffer against the many rejections that an ex-offender faces. It is indeed their lifeline. Having just one person who believes in him or her and supports his or her efforts to change makes it easier to build a new life. And about 95 percent of those people who are in our prisons do eventually return to our community. Without strong roots, and a supportive community, those offenders are bound to fail."
Ramstad Hvass shared the words to a song written by some Texas prison inmates she visited on three separate occasions. "I think it says a lot about what inmates themselves feel when they have the opportunity to experience Christ inside those prison walls," she said.
The song is entitled 'The Lord Can Make the Inner Change' and its lyrics are as follows: "When did I start thinking I could make it on my own, Living life to serve myself, I could do it all alone Didn't need anyone to tell me right from wrong Wasn't so bad, made a few mistakes, but I could get along The Lord can make the Inner Change, Not for the moment -- it's long range My life, my own, so disarranged He wants to make that inner change."
In closing, Ramstad Hvass highlighted the story of Steve Gerken, an inmate at Minnesota's Oak Park Heights prison, a facility which Ramstad Hvass said "supposedly houses the worst of the worst." Gerken was featured telling his story on a video presentation during the service.
Ramstad Hvass said Gerken had a serious drinking problem, which developed into a drug problem, involvement in con games and selling drugs.
"Eventually he killed a Colombian drug dealer by using explosives to blow up that drug dealer's automobile," said Ramstad Hvass. "He's serving 48 years behind bars."
"As he said, (Steve) got a good whiff of the stench of his own life. And then he experienced a change that immediately gave his life meaning," she said.
Ramstad Hvass told how Gerken was in a jail cell in Manorville, Pennsylvania, when he heard a local church radio ministry broadcast. "He was touched, he got down on his knees.Then he sent a letter to that church and thanked that church for their radio ministry. He reached a woman in the church in charge of their outreach by the name of Judy Hawkins. Judy Hawkins has now brought over 30 people from that church in Manorville, Pennsylvania, up to see Steve (in Minnesota)," said Ramstad Hvass.
She said Hawkins told her that when Gerken was transferred from Pennsylvania to Minnesota "We wondered, 'Why?' Because we were starting to have a relationship."
Ramstad Hvass said Steve was actually invited to join the church from inside his jail cell.
"They found out why," she said. "The reason Steve was transferred to Minnesota was to bring that entire congregation with him. People from that church spend their vacations, spend any discretionary money they may have, coming up here to Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, to minister to inmates here inside our state," said Ramstad Hvass.Ramstad Hvass said that nobody could tell more what kind of a change Steve Gerken has experienced in prison since finding the Lord than his mother, Barbara Gerken Carter, who flew to Minnesota from Phoenix, Arizona to attend a recent Prison Fellowship dinner in St. Paul. Gerken Carter was present in the service at which Ramstad Hvass spoke.
Ramstad Hvass said Gerken Carter told her that when her son contacted Hawkins in Pennsylvania, about his change of heart, she was skeptical because she thought "Here's another scam my son's been involved in. He's been in many, many scams, and I've been disheartened over and over again. This is just another way that Steve's out to be able to con those inside Corrections."
"Well, ask Barbara. Just ask Barbara," said Ramstad Hvass.
Ramstad Hvass said Gerken is the first offender in the entire country who has been granted a full scholarship to study with Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. "He's going to be studying from inside Oak Park Heights prison and getting his degree. That's what faith-based programming and what your outreach as a congregation, as an individual to extend that hand of friendship to offenders inside the walls, and then as they're coming back into the community, that's what that can mean," she said.
Ramstad Hvass added: "It's thanks to faith-based programs that the Lord makes the 'inner change' that truly provides the best hope of reducing recidivism and returning men and women from prison as productive, contributing members of society. I hope you'll join us in that effort."