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James Ackerman last year became the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Previously, he was an executive at media companies including A&E Television Networks, British Sky Broadcasting, Documentary Channel, and Broadway Systems. Here are edited excerpts of our Q&A in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
You grew up in La La Land.
My father was the executive producer of many sitcoms, including Bewitched, Dennis the Menace, Gidget, and The Flying Nun.
Did you like Elizabeth Montgomery wiggling her nose?
She worked with a coach to get control over her nose muscles.
Your mom, Elinor Donahue...
She was the oldest daughter in Father Knows Best and the pharmacy girl in The Andy Griffith Show.
Was it weird to see your mother in person and also on television?
In the community in which I grew up, it wasn’t uncommon to be the son or daughter of “fill in the blank.” At home my mother would stand in front of the mirror in our kitchen and rehearse her lines over and over. At Prison Fellowship I must look insane when I’m rehearsing a speech, standing there and giving it in my office.
Public speaking is a kind of acting.
It is, it is.
Do you enjoy it?
I am one of the few people I know who really, really loves standing in front of an audience and sharing about our work.
And you have a lot of work, in part because of the theological background of U.S. prisons. Quakers and others thought prisoners in penitentiaries would sit and think about their crimes and become penitent. How has that worked out?
Not well. The population in American prisons has ballooned from approximately 440,000 men and women in prison 40 years ago, to 2.2 million men and women in federal and state prisons today. We are warehousing men and women.
‘Some people in prison shoplifted three times and got a life sentence. That’s crazy. Let’s invest in people’s lives so they can be successful citizens on the outside.’
We have a higher percentage of people in prison than Russia or China has.
The United States represents just under 5 percent of the world’s population, but we house 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.
Because in the ’80s and ’90s, getting tough on crime was almost a guarantee you would be elected. The concept that we are going to get the dangerous criminals off the street and put them in prison has ballooned the prison population.
Are typical prison sentences too long?
Depends on the state, and on whether the state or federal government allows the judge to have discretion. Too often sentences are not accomplishing the goal, which is to provide justice for the victims through a sentence proportionate to the crime committed, but also to put somebody on a path to become a productive citizen.
If the typical sentence is x and that’s too long, do you want on average half of x, or one-third x?
Depends on the nature of the crime and the repeat nature of the offenses, but that’s just the beginning point.
What about opportunities for parole for people showing themselves to be model citizens in prison? The idea that prisoners would meditate about their crimes has contributed to the lack of work opportunities in prison. Unions and some companies have also worried about prisoners performing jobs at lower expense and putting nonprisoners out of work.
The opportunity to work is also the opportunity to have dignity.
What’s been the effect of “three strikes” laws?
Some people in prison shoplifted three times and got a life sentence. That’s crazy. Let’s invest in people’s lives so they can be successful citizens on the outside.
I suspect investing in their lives is not putting them in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is an unfortunate and necessary evil. The central figure in an HBO film that premiered in February is a kid named Randall, who went to prison for a horrible violent murder. In prison he took the life of a fellow inmate, again in a very, very violent and egregious way. You have to put him away in a cell for 23 hours a day. The question is: The moment Randall arrived in that cell, are you just locking him away—OK, took care of that problem—or are you giving Randall a pathway to potentially return to the general population? That’s justice that restores.
What’s the pathway for Randall?
The State of Virginia offers a step-down program. If you complete a certain curriculum, behave yourself with the corrections officers, and do what you are told, you will eventually be provided the opportunity to live in a unit with a bit of interaction with men in that unit.
Many lawyers have told me they’re troubled by plea bargaining but see it as a necessary evil. How do you see it?
Eighty percent of cases get pleaded out now, and people confess to crimes they haven’t even committed because they’d rather have a short sentence than the likelihood of a long sentence. Too often people, and particularly the poor, are under-represented. The idea that you plead out and get two years, but if you don’t you get 10: That’s not justice.
Where is there the political will to spend more taxpayer money on public defenders?
There’s not, and won’t be unless Christians stand up and demand justice that restores and a balanced justice system.
What’s Prison Fellowship’s prime priority now?
Sentencing reform, primarily for nonviolent drug offenses, because it is the easiest to address.
How often can electronic monitoring be an alternative to incarceration?
That can be a great alternative for first-time offenses and nonviolent drug offenses. You can keep people productive, with their families, and hopefully on a path that deals with the core issues, such as addiction.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of giving certificates to ex-offenders who have gone drug-free and crime-free for a certain amount of time?
Our second priority when it comes to public policy is second chances: breaking down the second prison that exists when people get out of prison, providing a pathway by which people can find gainful employment, housing, and community, particularly a Christian community.
What about prisons that allow mothers who give birth in prison to have their babies, and prisons that have inmates training dogs?
Those are great programs. In a Minnesota women’s unit babies can be with their mothers. That sets the foundation for a healthy family experience once the mother gets out of prison. The dog training I’ve seen firsthand at Muskegon, Mich. The dogs sleep with the men in their cells. It’s a beautiful thing, and it adds to the level of peace in the prison versus anxiety and strife.
I spent a night in a cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at the invitation of Warden Burl Cain, a member of your Prison Fellowship board. He encourages some of his inmates to get seminary degrees in prison and minister to others.
It’s his vision to get seminary programs launched in prisons all over the country. Long-termers and lifers become advocates of hope and peace.