Successful Media and Entertainment Executive to Head Prison Fellowship

“We just can’t ignore 2.2 million incarcerated people in America.” —James Ackerman

While many bemoan the fact that the U.S. incarcerates 2.2 million men and women in its prisons and jails—a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years—James Ackerman has decided to do something more. Stepping back from his operational duties as a successful executive in the media and entertainment industry, he will focus his business acumen, extensive cross-industry networks, and passion for those affected by crime and incarceration on running a nonprofit aimed at changing the criminal justice system.

Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families, announced today the appointment of Ackerman as its new president and chief executive officer. The accomplished business leader and longtime Prison Fellowship volunteer and supporter, who was mentored by Prison Fellowship’s founder, the late Charles Colson, is slated for an Aug. 1 start, coinciding with the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the faith-based organization’s founding.

“James has made a personal commitment to restoring those affected by crime and incarceration, and we are excited to see him bring his strategic thinking, courageous innovation and organizational aptitude to leverage Prison Fellowship’s extensive resources, capitalize on current opportunities and expand the critical work of this organization,” said Prison Fellowship board member Chris Colson, Charles Colson’s son. “My father would be delighted to see him join this ministry he passionately founded 40 years ago.”

Amid a 25-year global career in media and entertainment, Ackerman’s first exposure to Prison Fellowship in 2004 inspired him to serve long-term as a prison ministry volunteer with the organization he will now lead. Ackerman has spent the last dozen years volunteering with Prison Fellowship, leveraging his business experience to teach prisoners important life skills, such as resume writing, job interviewing, household budgeting and personal planning. He also spent 10 years mentoring prisoners and former prisoners, including a man who, though convicted of murder, went on to start a successful business of his own following his release from prison. Ackerman maintains a close friendship with him today.

“Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with unjust laws resulting in disproportionate, often entirely unnecessary, prison sentences,” said Ackerman, explaining his decision to make such a drastic career change. “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. I also look forward to building bridges with the community at large and advocating for restorative solutions within the criminal justice system.”

Ackerman and his wife, Martha, have also served as local coordinators for Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree, the only nationwide, year-round program that reaches out exclusively to children who have a parent in prison. In addition, Ackerman graduated as part of the second annual class of the Centurions program (now called the Colson Fellows program), one of Charles Colson’s greatest legacies. Sponsored by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, the program equips people of strong faith with relevant skills, biblical knowledge and a solid Christian worldview to help them influence culture.

Ackerman has cultivated his specialty as a CEO who helps media companies like Documentary Channel, British Interactive Broadcasting, Broadway Systems and Open TV navigate periods of transition and growth. In 2005 Ackerman founded Spinnaker Media to develop innovative entertainment and digital media companies, and he will remain a general partner with that organization. He also previously held roles at British Sky Broadcasting, A&E Television Networks, Hearst Entertainment, International Family Entertainment and Grey Entertainment & Media.

Ackerman is a child of the entertainment industry in which he has made his career—the son of actress Elinor Donahue—best-known for her role as Betty in the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best—and the late Emmy award-winning television executive producer Harry Ackerman (Bewitched, Dennis the Menace, The Flying Nun), who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

He has served on the boards of several companies and nonprofit organizations, including Saving Innocence, which provides social services to underage girls rescued from sex trafficking, and the International Documentary Association. He was recently appointed chairman of the board for Stockholm-based Accedo, a global pioneer in video applications.

Ackerman succeeds former Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske, who recently followed a call to return to full-time church leadership as senior pastor at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan. 

Ackerman is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, and he and Martha have two grown children. The couple looks forward to relocating to the D.C. area from Los Angeles.