I'm Behind Bars

By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be locked up. I can hear some critics thinking, “It’s about time!”

There is nothing like a weekend in a maximum-security prison to enable a person to appreciate the blessings of liberty.

I do this several times a year. I am part of a volunteer ministry called Kairos. That is the Greek word for “special time,” as distinguished from chronos: “clock time.” The organization is well-named. It offers a very special time.

Anywhere from 30 to 40 “free worlders” go into a prison. We sit at tables with hardened criminals. There are guys here who you would not like to meet in a dark alley. Yet by the end of this weekend, a few of them will have their lives transformed. I have seen it happen again and again. This is why I keep going back.


In the Bible, the only prisons are in the empires: Joseph in an Egyptian prison, John the Baptist in a Roman prison, Peter and Paul in Roman prisons.

There was no prison system in Mosaic Israel. This was no accident. There were punishments in Mosaic Israel: restitution to the victim, whipping, and execution for certain crimes. But there were no prisons. Why not? Because there was no need. The criminal owed no debt to society.

If a person stole and then got caught, he paid double restitution to his victims (Exodus 22:4). He did not owe anything to society. He had not committed a crime against society. He owed money to his victims.

This weekend, I will be dealing with men who may have committed theft. If I were able to offer them the following option, do you think they would take it?

First, you can serve your time here. Second, you will be released tomorrow, on this basis: you will pay your victims 25% of everything you earn until you have paid twice the value of what you stole from them, plus interest. If you fail to pay or attempt to flee, you will be put back in here for twice your original term.

I don’t have to guess. I know what 99% of them would choose: option #1.

Now think of the arrangement from the victim’s point of view. He has two choices:

(1) Pay his share of the $50,000 a year it takes to house the thief, or (2) get double his money back plus a tax refund for his share of the saved housing money for the remainder of the man’s term.

This decision is called a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, the people who designed the prison system preferred to collect taxes and cheat the victims.

The American prison system was invented in the 1820s, along with the state-run orphanage, the state-run poorhouse, and the state-run insane asylum. Before the 1820s, these institutions were locally funded and operated. Then the reformers got their hands on these institutions and the taxes generated to operate them. (A well-researched book on this is David Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum [1971].)

So famous was the experiment in its day that Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s to see how the system worked. He never got around to writing about it. He wrote Democracy in America instead — one of the great books of all time (although it could have used an editor with a blue pencil.)

The prison was supposed to reform men, to make them good. This was part of the Grand Idea: salvation by legislation. The public school system was part of this same messianic program. (See R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education [1963].)

Now that Grand Idea looks less than grand. The results are in. Mankind has not yet been reformed. Taxes are a lot higher. Crime rates are a lot higher. Literacy rates are a lot lower. But the bureaucratic heirs of the original reformers still serve as caretakers of a clearly botched series of systems.


For three and a half days, a group of mostly average Joes will bring a message of hope to men who have very little hope. We don’t offer consolation. We don’t offer parole letters. But we do offer hope. And food.

To get them to attend three days of speeches and activities in painful self-examination, we offer food. The ministry understands Paul’s description:

For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things (Philippians 3:18—19).

The way to a prisoner’s heart is through his belly. So we feed them. They get high-fat ice cream. They get hamburgers with all the trimmings. They get bar-b-que. They get cookies. Oh, man, do they get cookies!

A team takes in 4,000 dozen cookies. We could use 5,000. We leave empty-handed.

In most prisons, cookies serve as currency. Whenever Kairos comes in, the local currency market is disrupted for several days. (There is a Ph.D. dissertation here somewhere.)

The inmates come through the doors on Thursday evening as professional skeptics. They don’t trust us. They think, “What’s their angle?”

Actually, this isn’t all that different from what anyone thinks when he first hears Christianity’s message of hope. TANSTAAFL. “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” True: but he who has paid the price for your free lunch has the right to offer you a place at the table.

That’s what we do for three days.


Here are a few testimonies from men in one prison where I have served.

My emotional and spiritual condition was on empty. I was walking around dead. The system had taken all hope out of me. . . . Today I am a new creature. I am not alone. I have a family that truly cares about me. . . . Kairos saved my life. . . . My weekend was the best weekend of my life.

~ Bruce A.

I joined Kairos out of selfishness because I couldn’t resist the temptation offered by all the things I had heard about how ‘great’ Kairos was. The Lord really had a surprise in store for me. Since joining, I have given my whole tired life to God. . . . Words cannot explain how truly wonderful and beneficial the Kairos program really is.

~ Frank P.

I am no longer depressed or filled with anger and hatred of all white people. . . . The ministry gave me hope for a future I thought I had lost. I have found peace of mind that I never thought possible. It is not easy being a Christian, but it is fulfilling.

~ Nordling C.

I was a lost person as far as religion went. . . . Now after turning my life over to God, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. . . . I’m a new me. I wouldn’t change back to the old me for anything in the world.

~ Joseph M.

I was hanging on by a thread so small, it could have broken at any moment, but Jesus just would not give up on me. . . . The Kairos ministry has made a big difference in my life. It has reassured me that there are a lot of Christian people out there who really care for people like me.

~ Steven L.

My emotional and spiritual condition before my Kairos weekend was completely dead. I had no emotions and did not care about anyone. . . . I hardly knew anything about religion and despised all Christians. . . . I now live as those people who I used to think of as weak. They have shown me a better life. . . . I could have never made it without the Christians who have helped me.

~ David L.


So, I did not write a report on the state of the economy or the latest hurricane. There is lots of news, most of it bad. Today, I will be focusing on good news. But you won’t get to hear this. Take my word for it.

September 24, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2005