Faith Behind Bars

Faith behind bars

By Tim Townsend

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

03/02/2007

RICHMOND, Texas — The circle of 12 men joined hands and closed their eyes. Latino, black, white, some baby-faced, some marked with blurry neck tattoos — all bowed their heads in prayer.

They had gathered Tuesday at the town’s minimum-security prison for Leon Johnson, who was finishing a 10-year stint. It was the 55-year-old’s third time in prison, this one for a trio of drug charges.

Johnson’s fellow inmate, Jeff Smith, began. “God, guide him as he leaves here. We pray he will be mindful that you’re just a prayer away, and that he seeks your strength when he needs to. We thank you for giving us all a second chance.”

Second chances are the specialty of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a prisoner re-entry program where Johnson spent the last two years. The controversial program, based on fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, aims to reduce the rate at which freed inmates wind up back in prison. The program gives prisoners practical life-skills — how to write a résumé, what to wear to an interview, how to pass a driving test — and a Christian-values-based foundation upon which they can rebuild their lives.

On Thursday, Missouri launched InnerChange at the men’s Algoa

Correctional Center in Jefferson City, becoming the sixth state to adopt the program. This summer, it will begin the initiative at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia.

The Missouri program comes less than a month after a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis heard arguments in a case weighing the constitutionality of the program in Iowa. In June, a federal judge in Iowa agreed with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which sued InnerChange’s parent organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries, saying prisoners who enter the program receive preferable treatment and that Iowa was promoting a specific strain of a particular religion.

The 8th Circuit’s ruling, which is expected sometime this summer, could have broad implications for President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative and for all partnerships between religious institutions and the government.

Missouri’s InnerChange program will not receive money directly from the state, as Iowa’s program did.

Missouri “is a different case than the Iowa case, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be constitutional questions raised,” said Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. “Government support can come in forms other than cash.”

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Leon Johnson is the latest prisoner to test InnerChange’s premise. Fifteen minutes after the prayer circle, he walked through the prison gates in civilian clothes and a tight ankle-monitoring bracelet toward a catfish dinner with his mentor, Gene Cantrell, before settling in at a Houston halfway house.

Johnson is the fifth ex-convict from the Carol S. Vance Unit to join Cantrell’s church, First Colony Church of Christ, located near the prison. First Colony’s members will serve as Johnson’s support group. It will be their job to continue the spiritual fellowship Johnson experienced the last two years with the 270 men in the intensive Christian rehabilitation program. It will be their job to make sure Johnson doesn’t stray from his “walk” — as the prisoners here are fond of calling their Christian faith — and end up back in prison for a fourth time.

Hard to say no

Money is a big problem for corrections departments throughout the country, so when an organization says it’s willing to take over the rehabilitation of prisoners with a goal of reducing recidivism and pay for it, state corrections officials have a hard time saying no.

“This is a more intensive program than we’re able to offer with the resources we have,” said Larry Crawford, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. “I have the taxpayers’ well-being and a finite budget in mind.”

The latest comprehensive national study done by the Justice Department found that of the 272,000 former inmates released from state prisons in 1994, more than half were back in prison within three years. Missouri’s recidivism rate fluctuates between about 33 percent to 40 percent, according to Crawford.

“To have a program that’s a proven success in other states, and to get that delivered to Missouri at no cost — that’s exciting,” Crawford said.

A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study of the Texas InnerChange program found that only 8 percent of its graduates returned to prison. But critics point out the study did not count men who dropped out of the program.

InnerChange’s champions fail to alleviate the anxieties of those concerned about First Amendment rights. “Constitutional questions are not based on what works,” said Rogers, of Wake Forest University. “We have a commitment, on one hand, to successful programs, but we don’t let that run roughshod over people’s rights.”

Mark Early, a former Virginia attorney general who is now president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said a dearth of correctional funding was “part of the reason, but not the whole reason,” states are interested in InnerChange. “Corrections is low on the priority list of legislators, but that’s beginning to change because states like Missouri are beginning to realize that recidivism rates are a public safety issue.”

Prison Fellowship Ministries was founded by Charles Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, after he served prison time in the 1970s on Watergate-related charges. It is, by far, the largest organization of its kind in the country. Its expense budget for this fiscal year is $51 million, of which $4.4 million is dedicated to the InnerChange program. Missouri’s two InnerChange programs together will cost about $700,000 to get off the ground, all of it coming from 600 individuals, churches and organizations. InnerChange would not provide a list of donors. By the end of the year, InnerChange expects to fill all 94 beds in its program at Algoa.

Tom Maxwell, a retired Navy officer from Boonville, Mo., a Christian and longtime prison volunteer, was a driving force in making sure Missouri got an InnerChange program, lobbying state legislators and raising $50,000. He said the state would have paid for the nonsectarian part of the InnerChange program, but that “it’s hard to break out the sectarian and nonsectarian portions.” The program was set to launch a year ago but was delayed so that the entire start-up budget could be raised privately.

A statement of faith

At the Vance Unit campus near Houston, where the InnerChange program was founded 10 years ago, Christianity is everywhere.

Bright, colorful murals of the resurrection, painted by inmates, cover the otherwise dingy white walls. Christian programming is piped into the two televisions in the unit’s common room. In the eight dormitories where inmates sleep next to one another in cubicles, books by Christian authors Rick Warren and C.S. Lewis sit on bunks.

InnerChange officials say their program does not discriminate, in its acceptance of prisoners or its teaching. Its programs are staffed mostly by volunteers, who have to sign a statement of faith that lays out a specific Christian theology.

The statement, included in Judge Robert Pratt’s decision against InnerChange in Iowa, says those who sign it believe, among other things, “in the coeternal Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; “that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired Word. It is without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, and its own origins, and salvation”; “that all people are lost sinners and cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven except through the new birth. Justification is by grace through faith alone.”

Prisoners who want to participate have to be within two years of being released. They are screened and interviewed before they are accepted. Crawford said it’s not easy to get into the program.

“We won’t take the mentally ill,” he said. If they owe money for drugs, and someone’s after them, they’re not going to escape by going to (InnerChange). Those who get accepted are not those with high needs. … We want to invest in people that can make a change.”

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State says InnerChange draws inmates attracted to a life outside the dangerous general prison population and then targets them for conversion to Christianity.

“Any rehabilitation program is going to have some benefits that someone who is warehoused all day doesn’t have,” said Early, of Prison Fellowship Ministeries. “And they’ll have to make some sacrifices that those who are warehoused don’t have to make.”

In the structured, regimented program, inmates are kept busy with class, work and study. Personal televisions, pornography and much of their free time are taken away.

Life in InnerChange is different from life in the general population, said Deno Gellepes, a 49-year-old inmate in Texas serving an eight-year sentence for a drug conviction. “The frame of mind here is mellower, less violent,” he said. “You come here and you can keep an open mind. Other places it’s about survival, but here you can let your guard down and concentrate on doing something good for yourself.

“Everybody has opinions on how to make parole, how to better yourself,” Gellepes said. “This was my fourth trip to prison and I’d tried everything to get clean. I tried for my kids, I tried for my wife. I guess this time I’m trying Jesus.”
 

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