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'These people matter': Hollywood exec prepares for an entirely new role - in ministry

Posted August 4

The incoming leader of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry that helps inmates find faith and learn life skills, believes that citizens simply "can't ignore 2.2 million incarcerated people in America."

James Ackerman, a successful media and entertainment executive, is slated to take on his new leadership role on Aug. 1, telling "The Church Boys" podcast that he's aiming to grow the scope and reach of Prison Fellowship, a faith-based, criminal justice organization that was founded by the late Chuck Colson.

"I always had this fascination with prison ministry," Ackerman said.

That intrigue led him to visit a prison more than a decade ago to personally assess the impact that Prison Fellowship was having on incarcerated people.

That visit changed everything for Ackerman, as he instantly noticed that the inmates involved in the ministry differed greatly from the general prison population, showing calmness and a deeper kindness toward one another.

"I realized, 'These people matter,' and Jesus calls us in Matthew 12 to visit those who are in prison," Ackerman said. "And so I thought, 'Man, I am into this.'"

He was so moved, in fact, that Ackerman became a volunteer with Prison Fellowship, fulfilling that role for 12 years before being hired to head the organization.

Ackerman, who is a child of Hollywood (the son of actress Elinor Donahue of "Father Knows Best" and Emmy-winning producer Harry Ackerman), most recently worked for Broadway Systems and has held CEO positions with the Documentary Channel and British Interactive Broadcasting, among other media companies.

It was after Broadway Systems was recently sold to another company that Ackerman — who had heard that former Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske was vacating his role — reached out to the organization to express his interest.

After an extensive vetting process, he was hired to lead the ministry. Days before he officially assumes his role, Ackerman is enthusiastic, discussing with "The Church Boys" podcast just some of the bold plans he has to expand the organization's reach.

"The opportunity for us is huge, and our ambitions are to have programs running in every state of the country and at least [at] one men and one women's prison," he said.

Ackerman said that the organization is "holistic" in its approach as it seeks to serve inmates and their families. The central goal? To provide "people an opportunity to experience the living God, to hear the gospel message."

In addition to building inmates' faith, though, Ackerman said that Prison Fellowship is devoted to helping the incarcerated understand a victim's perspective, to learn what it means to truly be a man or a woman and to teach practical life skills that they can potentially use outside of the prison system.

"We build bridges with the community," he added, noting that Prison Fellowship also trains people who wish to work with inmates.

The organization also runs its "Angel Tree Christmas" program each year, which helps buy and deliver Christmas gifts to inmates' kids on behalf of the prisoners.

But the work doesn't end there, as advocates also seek to advance criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill, making proposals that they believe make the system more equitable for all Americans, regardless of race of creed.

"[We] spend time on Capitol Hill … [and in] state capitals across the country trying to advocate for fair sentencing guidelines for providing better opportunities for people when they leave prisons," Ackerman said.

In a statement on the nation's high incarceration rate, Ackerman said that it is paramount that Americans look deeper at the criminal justice system.

"Each one of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars has a life that matters, and I now want to dedicate myself to working with those who are among the most marginalized in society today by providing them the opportunity to experience the love of Christ and receive valuable education and training," he said.

Ackerman will surely have that very opportunity when he begins leading the organization.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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