Relaymedia

Faith Groups Expand Their Outreach to Prisons in Florida

( [email protected] ) Apr 17, 2004 09:42 AM EDT

FLORIDA -- While the nation’s first faith-based prison for women was opened in Florida, more prisons in Florida are opening their doors to evangelical Christians and adopting “the Jesus method” to reach out to both juvenile and adult offenders.

Starting today, through out next week, Youth Direct is sponsoring a tour, visiting ten of the state’s juvenile correctional institutions and Christian hip-hop artist, basketball player, and a karate expert will spread Gospel and the message of love and hope to young criminals by performing their talents.

"Every performer will say I committed my heart to Jesus Christ and that's what means everything to me," said Don Smarto, president of Youth Direct, a Texas-based nonprofit organization.

At the same time, a national network of 24 Christian faith-based groups called Operation Starting Line will visit Florida's adult prisons, reaching 21,000 inmates with a similar show featuring comedians, ex-offenders, musicians and athletes.

The event is sponsored by various Christian organizations such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, Promise Keepers and Prison Fellowship, a national prison outreach program started by former Watergate felon Chuck Colson.

About 300 volunteers gathered Thursday night at a local Presbyterian church for prayer and marked the starting day of the two campaigns.

Today through April 25, the Youth Direct campaign will stop at 10 institutions for eight hours each and they will continue with the campaign next year, visiting as many as prisons in Florida.

Organizers hope to build relationships as they spend time talking individually with the kids, sharing God’s message of hope and love and come back to the facilities in future weeks and months to support the youths.

"We're going in really as evangelists," Smarto said. "That is a word that just means a bearer of good news: that God really cares about them and has a plan for their lives."

He hopes many of the youths will be involved in a Bible Study conducted through the mail. "There is no one saying if you don't get your act together you'll go to hell," he added.

Administration of Gov. Jeb Bush has been encouraging religious groups to participate in reaching out to inmates but on the other side, secular human rights groups are revealing concern over separation of church and state.

The Department of Juvenile Justice "has literally thousands of different groups and organizations that come and speak to youth in our care," said Jacob DiPietre, spokesman for Gov. Bush. "Some talk about the importance faith can play in the youth's life. Some talk of other topics. But the bottom line is: all come and talk about the importance of changing your life and changing your course."