DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Faith in the Big House




The grassroots documentary “Faith in the Big House” sharply packs an informative punch on the realities and impacts of religious-based reform programs that operate in our nation’s prisons.  This film isn’t a sugarcoated “hey, look at me” humblebrag fireworks display celebrating any particular preacher or church’s shallow efforts that, in reality, only add up to little more than window dressing.  This film isn’t an offshoot of the conveniently-produced stereotypes being perpetuated on reality TV prison shows flooding cable channels.  “Faith in the Big House” commendably exudes wide-ranging integrity to redefine the mountain of misleading facts and truths.

Jonathan Schwartz’s film makes its U.S. premiere at the Fourth Presbyterian Church at 126 East Chestnut Street in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, April 25th.

Sponsored by public television and narrated by actor Nick Chinlund ("Con Air"), the documentary efficiently begins by walking the audience through the history of church involvement in the United State prison system, from the wrongly-delivered manifestation of spiritual malaise to the more effective personal programs developing rapport between volunteers and inmates.  In the present day, “Faith in the Big House” centers its story on Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a maximum security prison farm near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the farthest from a country club prison you will find.  Five inmates, their stories, and several trained volunteer service leaders, like the electric Phil Fisher of Residents Encounter Christ, are highlighted throughout the film.

“Faith in the Big House” presents dueling main interview subjects presenting the merits of different approaches.  On one side is the late Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, a founder of the nonprofit Prison Fellowships program stressing a platform focused on faith.  On the other is Rev. Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.  His favorable cause is to challenge the benefits and virtues of turn-key faith-based programs and assert the strengths of secular inmate counseling and training programs instead.  The debate, staged within the same moral and political battleground, is nothing short of fascinating in a short period of time.

At just under an hour, “Faith in the Big House” is perfectly succinct in its pacing and length of interview statements.  No one is grandstanding for airtime.  Nothing spoken is a circular or wasteful rant.  Taut musical cues steer and mesh solid transitions of perspectives and settings.  Schwartz and his team maintain a firm leash of sharp editing, allowing the documentary to flow with uncommon energy to pack together a hefty bevvy of personal anecdotes, living examples, and stellar roots of facts and details.  

No matter what faith (or absence of faith) you carry into this film’s experience, you will respect the positive efforts of the real-life ministries featured in “Faith in the Big House.”  Lives are changed before your eyes and it’s not all Bible-thumping.  To that end, it is wholly refreshing to observe a Christian point-of-view that holds its peers of different denominations and, more importantly, itself strictly accountable for this kind of communal service.

LESSON #1: “FOR WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED”-- As Matthew 18:20 states, it only takes a few meeting in faith for the holy presence to resonate.  A congregation in a prison is no less than the shiniest church in the country.  In fact, one can argue those settings are the more challenging and important mission field.  Let them gather.  Let them find themselves through their chosen path in life.  What's the harm for that in a prison setting?

LESSON #2: RELIGION ISN’T THE ONLY CORRECTIVE ANSWER, BUT IT WORKS-- Too many ex-convicts return to the prison system after their release.  One has to wonder where the “correction” was in “correctional facility.”  Good people have stepped up to do something about that with a variety of approaches.  Religious and secular programs have shown to operate with great success at turning lives around.  Combine those efforts with job training and other educational efforts, and, like elementary schools trying to teach the “whole child,” proper and immersive rehabilitation programs change the “whole man” and not just their faith.