There is a strong emphasis on prisoners taking responsibility for themselves, for each other, and for the community within the prison. Prisoners are given positions of trust; a prisoner acts as the doorkeeper to the prison. – Daniel Van Ness

There are many dimensions to how restorative work in prisons interfaces with church and faith-related matters. The same applies to the re-entry context. Ministries of chaplaincy and visitation come to mind, along with church-sponsored services for offenders returning to their communities.

Western Michigan Inmates Lead Out 

One cutting-edge example is the Calvin Prison Initiative which operates within the Handlon Correctional Facility in western Michigan.  Liberal arts education has combined with ministry leadership and restorative justice curriculum to help inmates (most of whom are doing ‘life’) to enrich their lives and learning.


Out of this partnership, a cohort of inmates, led by inmate Eric Boldiszar, organized the first restorative justice conference at Hope College in 2016. As they could not be physically present, the men made an inspiring video which was shown during the conference. Listen to their Radical Hospitality video. Read more about an award given to Eric Boldiszar at the National Association for Community and Restorative Justice (Oakland, 2017) NACRJ award page.

The Calvin Prison Institute was seeded in 2005 when Calvin theological students visited inmates in the Angola prison in Louisiana, one of the bloodiest prisons in the nation. Thereafter, a local seminary was granted permission to teach classes within prison walls. This effort, over time, has reduced prison-based violence by 80%!  Read more.

Video of entire conference held at Hope College, March 2016.  Hope For Restoration: Radical Hospitality and Prison Reform Conference. Note: this is a long 4 hour video. The Radical Hospitality video made by the inmates is 14 minutes and well worth the entire watch!

A Virtuous Prison

A leading voice in both restorative justice and prison reform has been Daniel Van Ness, founder of Prison Fellowship International’s Centre for Justice & Reconciliation.  In 1979, Prison Fellowship International was founded by Charles Colson after he served time for his involvement in Nixon’s Watergate.

Read an article by Daniel W. Van Ness: Restorative Justice in Prisons  The following paragraphs are excepted from that article.

Perhaps the best example of a restorative prison, a virtuous prison, that I have seen is the model developed by the Brazilian affiliate of Prison Fellowship. The acronym of their Portuguese name is APAC. I will call this model APAC. The APAC prisons use no correctional or police staff. It is run entirely by volunteers from the community who come to express the love of God for the prisoners. It is believed that if the staff were paid, both prisoners and staff would recognize that they come because they receive money to do this. No payment means they come out of love.”

The philosophy of the methodology is that crime is the violent and tragic refusal to love. We were all made to love and to be loved. But love is like speaking and writing; we are born with the innate ability but need to be taught how to do it. Unfortunately, some families are not able to love or to teach what it means to love. When that happens, and when the result is criminal behaviour,the prisoner needs to be taught how to love. APAC creates a community in which that can happen.There is a strong emphasis on prisoners taking responsibility for themselves, for each other, and for the community within the prison. Prisoners are given positions of trust; a prisoner acts as the doorkeeper to the prison, for example.

Read a presentation by Daniel Van Ness: Church Role in Criminal Justice Reform – 2002


The Catholic Mobilizing Network in Washington D.C. works to end the death penalty in the United States and to promote restorative justice alternatives. Learn more and get involved.

Also, read a recent article by Betsy Shirley in America: The Jesuit Review…“Religious ideals shaped the broken U.S. prison system. Can they also fix it?


Books on Restorative Justice and Incarceration

Barb Toews, The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison: Rebuilding the Web of Relationships (2006).  Barb is the RJ Program Manager for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Dominique DuBois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores (2018). Includes the role of the church in dealing with mass-incarceration.

Amy Levad, Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical & Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration (2014).  Levad, a Catholic theologian, integrates liturgy and prison reform.

James S. Logan, Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (2008).  A deep analysis that is inter-disciplinary.

Richard Snyder, The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Punishment (2001).  Explores Christian misunderstandings of human nature and God’s grace that influence penal traditions.

Endorsements for Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard (InterVarsity Press)

“From slavery and Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the confinement and control of black bodies in the United States has always been the heartbeat of the Republic’s strategy to maintain white dominion. Twisted theologies grew like hedges of support and wicked webs of justification for crimes against the humanity of African peoples. White supremacy’s most long-standing strategy has largely stayed intact because we have not cut down its supports at the root. Dominique Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration chops at the roots of mass incarceration by challenging the theological premises upon which it rests.”  – Lisa Sharon Harper, founder and president,

“Dominique DuBois Gilliard calls for a holy disruption of the systems and pipelines that imprison mostly black and brown people in the United States’ mass-incarceration-industrial complex. Rethinking Incarceration exposes the ways the church has been complicit in this injustice and invites people of faith to engage in justice that is restorative. This book is historical, theological, scholarly, accessible, pastoral, and prophetic. It should be read in the seminary and university classroom, the pastor’s study, and the church book club.” – Curtiss Paul DeYoung, CEO, Minnesota Council of Churches

Author Dominique DuBois Gilliard is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice (LMDJ) initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). He serves on the boards of directors for the Christian Community Development Association and Evangelicals for Justice.

What is Racial Righteousness?


Doing Life with Dignity

In the early 1990s, Howard Zehr photographed and interviewed men and women serving life sentences in Pennsylvania for his book, Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences (published in 1996 and 2010). Twenty-five years later, Howard was able to return to the same prisons to re-photograph and interview some of the same people.

View his more recent photo portfolio that combines the two portraits which are separated by 25 years.


View also Howard Zehr’s book of portraits and interviews, Transcending: Reflections Of Crime Victims