Though some would dismiss him as oversimplistic, Chuck Colson was held in high regard here where he came to mind again yesterday while reading colleague Joe Dwinell’s chilling profile of the barbaric gang known as MS-13.

Once a special counsel for President Richard Nixon, Colson would serve seven months in federal prison for obstructing justice in the Watergate affair. But what was meant to be punitive turned out to be life-changing. Touched by the plights of prisoners and their families, his own imprisonment led him to establish a faith-based outreach known as Prison Fellowship that’s now active in all 50 states, impacting more than 1,000 prisons.

Colson founded it in 1976 and by the time of his death in 2012 he had become a recognized authority on American incarceration.

We met one day when he came here to speak.

“Hollywood used to picture incoming prisoners as fearful of living among the old cons,” he said. “But wardens tell me it’s just the opposite today. It’s the old cons who now want protection from the young ones coming in.”

Dwinell’s piece described the “havoc” MS-13 has been wreaking in Boston “with violent killings in Eastie, robberies, extortion, drug dealing and racketeering.”

But it was the next line that brought Colson to mind, telling us “49 gang members (were) recently convicted, many of them facing life in prison.”

“We can’t build prisons fast enough,” Colson noted. “So we’re releasing inmates ahead of time to make room for the more ruthless ones coming in.”

But if building more prisons isn’t the answer, he was asked, what is?

“This is where the problem begins,” he replied. “There are two types of restraint on human behavior; one is external and the other is internal.

“The external restraint is having more prisons, but we need more than we can build.

“The internal restraint is an appeal to conscience through the teaching of values, but we’re told we can’t do that in America anymore. Faith must be kept in a closet and any attempt to regulate or prohibit devious conduct is immediately met with resistance.

“We’re basically telling young people that what they see on TV is right; you go around only once, so grab all the gusto you can. Everything goes, everything’s OK! And you see the results we’re getting.”

Was Colson right?

There’ll be those who’ll immediately reject him as a Bible thumper. It’s called killing the messenger.

They’ll say his message was too simple.

Perhaps. But do you have a better one?

No? No better one exists here either.


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