HOUSTON (BP)–“People say chain-gang religion is no good, that jailhouse religion doesn’t work. Well, it worked for me, and I’m gonna ride that horse all the way to heaven,” said Frank Constantino, president and founder of C.O.P.E., Coalition of Prison Evangelists, encompassing 300 prison ministries across the nation.
Constantino told his life story to more than 700 people at the fourth annual Criminal Justice Conference Feb. 7, sponsored by Texas Baptist Men and INFORMS — In-mate Family Organization Relationship Management — a criminal justice ministry information source.
Constantino told of admiring criminals as a boy and of becoming a professional criminal who for 11 years participated in burglaries, robberies and thefts totaling $11 million.
Then he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to “22-and-a-half years in prison.”
“I thought I was cool, but how you gonna be cool with a 22-year prison sentence?” Constantino asked. He defined “cool” by noting he had a reputation and some notoriety in prison. He could have lesser inmates bring him his meals.
The “worst part of doing time is the people I had to do time with,” he recounted. “I hated them.
“These were people who took what they wanted when they wanted it because they wanted it. That was a pretty accurate description of me.”
But God used a “hardened criminal, a pagan, a heathen who was later shot to death in a drug deal after he was released to break my heart,” Constantino said. “He told me I was just like them. He said there was no difference in me and these people I hated so badly.”
Constantino started reading the great philosophers and found they were at their greatest when they said, “I know that I don’t know.”
It was a prison chaplain — “a guy who wore white socks” — who presented the gospel to Constantino and prayed the hardened criminal would come to know the reality of Jesus Christ.
“He told me that deep inside every human is a desire for the truth,” he said. “He told me the truth is not abstract; the truth is a person named Jesus.
“People often act like they gave up something of value when they gave their lives to Jesus. Well, there I was, doing 22 years in prison, doing time with animals I hated. I hated them because I hated me. I didn’t give him anything of value when I gave him my life.”
Constantino told of lying on the floor in the chaplain’s office on Oct. 21, 1969, weeping. “I saw the Son of God high and lifted up. … I felt like molten fire purged me.”
In addition to founding the prison evangelists’ coalition, C.O.P.E., Constantino founded Christian Prison Ministries in 1973 after his release from prison. In 1976, he released his first book, “Holes in Time,” and in 1978, opened The Bridge, a facility that houses work release, aftercare, drug and alcohol abusers and men on alternative sentencing. Five Bridges facilities operate in the United States today.