This is the second article in a three-part series on mass incarceration and the Church. Previously, we discussed how a variety of discriminatory factors converge to put millions of people behind bars, a disproportionate number of whom are our black and brown citizens. Here, we examine one organization’s attempt to bring redemption to a broken system.

Prison can feel like a forgotten place. A place where we send our broken and unwanted to hide them away from the nation’s consciousness. For so many, it is a place of trauma, of retribution, that only adds to a lifetime of hurt. But what if instead, prisons were a place of redemption, a place of hope? What if prison became a beacon of God’s love, not just to those living there, but to the world?

These are some of the questions that the Horizon Prison Initiative tries to answer.

Horizon grew out of the Kairos Prison Ministry when several leaders saw the need to expand beyond a brief three-day encounter into a more in-depth program that could build lasting relationships to truly transform lives. They found that “removing your inner scarring and resentments toward yourself and others is not a simple process; it is achieved in a 24/7 year-long living, learning, and loving environment.”

After an initial launch in Florida, Executive Director Jeff Hunsaker says the program expanded to Ohio when a compassionate warden saw the importance of faith communities within prison walls. Horizon aimed to do what the prison institution couldn’t—to love on prisoners with God’s love in a profoundly transformative way. Hunsaker observes “you can’t pay people to care about people.” It has to come freely, and from the heart.

Horizon’s mission is to “transform prisoners to embrace society, not harm it. These transformed prisoners then transform prison cultures. Then they transform home communities.” Horizon graduates are told “you are a living example of faith, love, and respect. As a graduate your message of spiritual development and personal growth will impact prison culture. You will make light out of darkness and bring hope where little is expected.”

In explaining how he came to lead such a unique and sometimes trying endeavor Hunsaker said “It’s about calling. You have to be called to do this work. I could not resist it.”

The Horizon Program

The structure of the Horizon Program gives participants the opportunity to live out the lessons they are learning as they experience their transformation. As a sort of monastic community, participants are grouped into family units that meet together regularly. “That family part is critical” says Hunsaker. It helps the participants learn to live together, encouraging each other and resolving conflicts as a functional family, even if this hasn’t been their experience with their families outside of the prison.

Though Horizon participants are required to maintain their normal work schedules and prison life during the day, evenings are spent with other participants in a variety of Horizon programing. There are eight core components that are mandatory elements of the program:

  1. Awakenings: Enhancing Spiritual Wholeness. Awakenings helps participants find meaning from their experiences, confronting thoughts and habits that contribute to current beliefs and behavior.
  2. Building Community helps participants learn to resolve conflicts in constructive and meaningful ways and to gain “faith solutions to life’s trials and conflicts.”
  3. Character Reformation is a time set aside to address how one’s thoughts and attitudes can themselves perpetuate negative circumstances and interactions.
  4. Daily Family Meetings contribute to participants’ sense of belonging and help foster abiding relationships within family groups.
  5. Faith Fundamentals shore up the foundations of participants’ spiritual beliefs and offers the building blocks for a committed faith.
  6. Outside Brothers meet with participants to connect them with the outside community in solid, caring one-on-one relationships.
  7. The Trauma/Healing Awareness Workshop allows participants to examine how trauma has affected their lives, and about breaking the trauma cycle.
  8. Victim Awareness gives participants the opportunity to reflect on the effects of various crimes on victims, their families, and their communities.

Each program element provides an essential component of Horizon’s success, and participants can also create their own activities and electives. Hunsaker notes his particular gratitude for the Outside Brothers who work closely with each participant. He says that they “bring the grace of God,” entering into conversation with no agenda, but listening and loving unconditionally. They bring hope, helping the men realize “I’m not this piece of dirt that people are saying I am.”

Participants also have the opportunity to join in the Family Letter Writing program, which provides them each with two stamps and two envelopes per week. After weeks of exchanging letters with individuals back home, relationships can begin to be healed and families can be restored.

Graduates of the Horizon Program can return in subsequent years as Encouragers. Each family unit is assigned an Encourager who guides the group through the program, helping to resolve conflicts and to serve as a mentor to the men as they progress.

One of the Encouragers, known as Coach, attests “I love what I do. It’s about inmates helping inmates to change their lives. Who’d have thought I’d have the opportunity to go to prison and change lives.”

Transformative Community

As a result of Horizon’s work, lives are changed both inside and out of prison walls. The Horizon Program realizes that “prisons don’t successfully transform lives. Prisoners do.” It is sometimes the first encounter with the deep love of God for men who have never had anyone care about them.

Thus, faith plays a central role in the Horizon curriculum:

“Faith is a critical ingredient in Horizon’s transformation process. Horizon is not a place for quick, short-term, and for-show jailhouse displays of religiosity. The faith experience is real and deep with meaning – one that uncovers truth, gives purpose to those who thought they had none, and reinforces the changes they so desperately want to make. It provides a way for atonement and forgiveness—of self and others. It invigorates people from the outside to volunteer and places of worship to become reentry lifelines. It gives hope where hope is not expected.”

Horizon also focuses on trauma recovery, knowing that “trauma not transformed is trauma transferred.”

Those on the inside note that “just coming to prison is trauma itself.” There is a victim offender cycle in which those in prison were often first victims themselves before becoming perpetrators. Horizon helps them recognize this cycle, and to forgive.

Jimmy Cheadle is a Horizon graduate, and served as an Encourager on the inside. He now works as an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, offering support and programing for recently released citizens. He explains “Horizons changes a few people at a time, letting them go back into the rest of the population to change the culture of the prison. But changing the culture takes a long time.”

That’s why Hunsaker says he actually sometimes prefers to enroll men serving life sentences. They have the opportunity to have the greatest long-term impact on prison culture. There are men who have graduated the program that are “far more affective inside than they would be on the street.” Thus, he note that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), even inside prison walls.

Horizons volunteer Sue Wolfe acknowledges that much of the transformative power of the program comes from the men themselves: “we recognize that we’re with them for a few hours a week in a long week.” The men are doing their own work of “reclaiming their own humanity, to learn they are also a person of worth.”

The Horizon Initiative believes that “Honor, Respect, and Dignity are due to each and every Human Being, not because of the greatness of their achievements nor how they have behaved, but because they are home to a soul that is inherently Holy.” Hunsaker elaborates “it’s all about instilling hope and saying that you don’t have to be defined by what society has told you about you”

Wolfe notes that “too often prisons are about retribution, not restitution, but that Horizon can “restore who God created us to be.” She has interacted with many men in the prison who “had thought they were not smart, who were told they aren’t, but now are learning so many things…it changes who they perceive themselves to be.”

Not a One-Way Street

Horizon has become part of the volunteers’ spiritual journey as well. “The volunteers will tell you they receive more than they give,” says Hunsaker. And indeed, the testimony of those visiting the prison attests to this. “I’m braver than I thought I was” Wolfe notes about her interactions and experiences, “I didn’t think I could do that.”

Susan McGarvey, also a volunteer with the Horizon Initiative shared that she “always lived and worked in communities similar to me. Certainly my world view has broadened immensely.” She goes on to explain “it makes us realize we are more alike than we are different. We sit down at table with each other week after week and find out that they are flawed human beings just like I am.”

The Horizon program provides an important step for volunteers to live into the faith they profess. McGarvey expounds “it’s a real opportunity to find out if the things you’ve been saying your whole life are really true: grace , mercy, forgiveness, loving the unlovable.” She has had a tremendous impact on the lives of men, and the men on her.

McGarvey notes that she also came to realize how similar we all are, that we all do “foolish things could have turned out differently. Hunsaker agrees, “we’re all part of the great uncaught.”

A Lasting Impact

When Dale, one of the Horizon Encouragers went before his parole board they asked him what benefited him the most while in prison, “Head and shoulders above, the answer was Horizon.”

With a recidivism rate that is five times lower than average, Horizon graduates make good use of the tools provided to them in the program. With government budgets becoming ever tighter, the program notes that “for every 10 Horizon participants that get out of prison and stay out, the state stands to save $260,000 per year, for every year they stay out!”

This makes the $1,600/person yearly cost of the program more than worthwhile, with the “return on that investment being in significant reduction in recidivism,” explains McGarvey. In the face of bloated prisons and broken legal systems, more programs like Horizon are needed to let the Light of God shine in dark places.

Having looked at the effect that God’s transformative love can have inside prison walls, we will next examine what local churches can do for those who have been recently released and are looking to rejoin our communities. If you would like to learn more about the Horizon Prison Initiative, or to support their work, visit:

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