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Changing Lives Behind Bars

Changing Lives Behind Bars
Alumnus Brings Hope, Dignity to the Incarcerated

By Miles Doyle

Chuck Brown, a former FBI agent, has been active in prison ministries through his local parish in rural Virginia since the late 1990s.
For years, Chuck Brown, UGE ’60, a former special agent with the FBI, spent his time trying to catch the country’s criminal element. Now, in his retirement, he’s only interested in catching up with them.

A member of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond prison minister advisory committee, Brown regularly visits inmates in prisons throughout the commonwealth of Virginia, and recently started exchanging letters with a number of convicts he now considers friends.
“I write regularly to about eighty-five or ninety different prisoners,” said Brown, who entered a special FBI employee program during his sophomore year at Fordham. “I’ve sent and received roughly fifteen hundred letters over the past year and a half.

“All of the letters contain the words of spiritually centered men looking for redemption.”

Brown’s epistolary relationship with inmates began more than 12 years ago, when Brown became active in prison ministries through his local parish, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, in rural Virginia.

After a number of visits to various prisons, he started receiving regular letters from prisoners throughout the state. Later, he joined the Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a multi-layered international grassroots organization dedicated to the improvement of the criminal justice system, which brought even more letters—this time from prisoners around the country.

“Combined with my regular visits, the letters helped change my perception about human dignity,” said Brown, who previously participated in the apprehension, prosecution and imprisonment of criminal offenders during his 13 years with the FBI. “They created in me an awareness that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Brown has compiled some of the inmates’ letters into a book
Inside: Letters from the World’s Largest Prison System (PublishingWorks, 2008), which offers a behind-the-bars, first-person account of the their daily lives.

Inside contains the reflections, fears, and frustrations of men who are trying to cope with their personal demons,” said Brown.

“Like many of us, they are finding peace in God’s love and guidance.”

Brown said he hopes his new book will raise awareness about prison reform, and promote various social rehabilitation programs for recently paroled inmates. He also wants the book to chip away at society’s prejudices about the men behind the fortified walls and concertina wire. 

“Every human being has an invaluable right to dignity,” he said. “All of us must be held accountable for our own actions, but many of these prisoners have repented and want to be recognized for changing their lives.”

Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., author of
Dead Man Walking, said Brown’s book is a “reminder to readers that we are all human and deserve basic human rights, no matter who we are.”

Brown, who worked at PricewaterhouseCooper’s in various management positions for 30 years before retiring in 1998, was recently asked to participate in a state-sponsored study to help update Virginia’s antiquated parole system, which has become a lynchpin of Senator Jim Webb’s proposed plan to reform the entire U.S. prison system.

According to the Pew Center on the States and other groups the United States has more than two million people behind bars, a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. By some estimates, the cost to American taxpayers is approximately $50,000 a year for every inmate.

 “The idea is to get signatures of as many state senators as possible,” Brown said, “to support these changes. It is far more humane and far less expensive to plan for prevention and rehabilitation.

“I hope, in some small way, I will make a difference in their lives.”

—Miles Doyle, FCRH '01, is the associate editor of FORDHAM magazine.

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