Losing a child is unbearable; losing four children in one night is the hell that Bob and Kathy Connell had to live through in 1997, when a drunk driver hit their kids’ car head-on. “Someone could have dug a fifth hole in the ground for me, and I would have laid down beside them,” Bob says. “The pain was more than we could stand. But there came a point when we had to decide if we were going to die along with them or if we were going to join the living.” He and his wife decided to get involved with a prison ministry called Bridges to Life, and during visits to prisons around East Texas, they began having face-to-face conversations with inmates, including men who were serving time for the same crime that had claimed their children’s lives. “It started off as a way to try to persuade people not to drive drunk, and it turned out to be a way to heal ourselves,” Kathy says.
Bridges to Life is one of only two prison ministries in Texas that are trying to rehabilitate violent offenders by creating a dialogue between inmates and crime victims. (Volunteers are not paired with the people who victimized them.) The eight-year-old program is an example of restorative justice, an approach that encourages offenders to see the profound impact that their crimes have had on others and to take responsibility for their actions. The fourteen-week program, which inmates participate in shortly before they are released on parole, requires them to listen to crime victims’ stories, take part in weekly discussion groups, and write a letter (which is never sent) to their victims. In discussion groups, all information remains confidential, and repeat offenders often break down in front of their peers as they recount stories of hard-luck childhoods and bad choices made along the way to the penitentiary. Many inmates—who have often seen themselves as the victims—are startled to hear the devastating effect that crime has had on the lives of their group leaders, like the Connells. Unlike a number of prison ministries, Bridges to Life is not evangelical. “We don’t proselytize,” says John Sage, who founded the program. “These guys have already been preached at. Still, there is a big spiritual component to what we do. Instead of quoting Scripture, we try to show them hope and love and forgiveness.” The program’s goal, Sage explains, is to foster reconciliation. Saint Francis of Assisi said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.’ ”