The reason for James Peterson to stay straight when he's released from this Texas prison in 18 months is his tiny, dark-haired, 5-year-old daughter. Mr. Peterson, 38, hasn't seen Lucy for nearly two years, since he was convicted of embezzling money from his Houston employer. He keeps a snapshot of her, arm-in-arm with two friends from preschool, taped to a crude cardboard frame, inches away from his pillow. He can see it in the morning when he awakens, even before he puts on his glasses.
"It's been one of my prayers that she would come and visit me," says the tall, thin, college-educated felon. "She only lives a few miles away. But my ex-wife says Lucy doesn't even want to talk about it. She's still mad at me for going away."
That's the motivation. But the means of staying out of prison might be InnerChange, the Christ-centered pre-release program that has taken over one section of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's T.C. Jester II unit near Houston. The "God Pod" is a self-contained section of the prison that will eventually house 200 offenders. It's run by Prison Fellowship Ministries for the state of Texas-and as such, it's the grandest experiment yet of faith-based solutions being encouraged and empowered (though not funded) by government.
Here's how it works: The state of Texas issued a Request for Proposals last year for a "values-based, faith-neutral" pre-release program. Prison Fellowship, which runs highly successful prisons in Brazil and Ecuador, responded with a proposal for InnerChange. What made it a viable candidate was Gov. George W. Bush's vocal support for faith-based programs. (WORLD readers will recall that Gov. Bush saw the light two years ago when a successful Teen Challenge drug treatment program in San Antonio was threatened by state bureaucrats.) Under the governor's leadership, the state has been willing to define "faith-neutral" as non-discriminatory, not as faith-devoid.
Quietly and deliberately, Prison Fellowship and state officials worked out the details of the two-year contract. The state would continue to provide guards, food, and clothing for the prisoners, but InnerChange would supply the program, the directors, the volunteers, and the church-based support system for up to 200 prisoners who had two or fewer years until their release date.
All the participating inmates volunteer for the program, and they need not be Christians. But the program itself is explicitly Bible-centered. It lasts 18 months, and when the men are released into the Houston area, churches will step up and take direct responsibility for the men for another six months. InnerChange began formal operations in April with 37 prisoners; another 25 came into the program last month.
Program director Raymond Roberts, a former warden at prisons in Mississippi and Kansas, says he's not surprised that the state was willing to cede so much authority to a Christian ministry.
"I'm not surprised because we're in desperate times," says Mr. Roberts, 45, in his office in a converted solitary confinement section. "What we've been doing in prisons hasn't worked. Nationwide, the recidivism [re-conviction] rate is about 70 percent. We've got to do something different."
The state will be watching InnerChange closely, he knows. "We'll never have a better chance to show that Christianity works, that spiritual transformation is what these inmates truly need."
Success or failure will be clearly measurable in two ways: recidivism rates and the cost to the state to incarcerate these inmates. The numbers should start coming in two years from now. A control group of inmates-men with similar backgrounds, convictions, and sentences-will be tracked and compared to the men in InnerChange.
Morning began at 5 a.m. for James Peterson and the other "members" of the program. If any prisoner volunteered for the God Pod expecting a bunch of weak-willed do-gooders running a vacation Bible school, they were mistaken, Mr. Peterson says. It's more like a Bible boot camp, with calls to repentance and calls to worship instead of calisthenics.
Most Texas prisoners have ample time to sleep and watch television. Not so in InnerChange.
"We go from 5:30 a.m. until 9 p.m.," he says. "And after that, we still have homework. But that's how it is in the real world; you get up, you go to work. You come home and have responsibilities until late. And you don't complain about not getting enough time in front of the TV."
(In fact, 11 of the initial 37 prisoners left the program after a few weeks, many of them citing a lack of "TV time" as a reason.)
A half-hour of Bible study and worship begins at 5:30 a.m., and then inmates disperse for their work assignment (members without high school diplomas go to GED classes instead of work details). Lunch comes at about 10 a.m., stretching until noon. Then three hours of "life skills" classes are taught by volunteers. Those include classes on parenting, marriage relationships, anger management, and social skills.
Before dinner, more Bible study and worship. Dinnertime is 4 p.m., and then part of the evening is spent on recreation. But from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m., small group Bible studies are held. On some nights special classes are held, such as "Making Peace with the Past."
For the last six months of the program (prior to their release), prisoners will be taken out into the community to work cleaning parks and repairing homes. Some will work with groups such as the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. Often they'll work alongside volunteers from the churches who will be mentoring them after their release. The work builds ties to the community and the church members, program director Mr. Roberts says.
"They start thinking about somebody other than themselves, and they also see Christ-like love in action," he says. "They begin-some of them for the first time-to think about their victims, and their families, and they stop blaming other people for the way their lives have gone."
Mr. Peterson admits he has no one to blame but himself. "I had been in the business world for 15 years, but suddenly I found myself in the Harris Country (Houston) jail, facing an eight-year sentence," he says. "I realized I wasn't doing something right."
He has grown used to the Texas heat-a few fans move the hot air around, but it's no real relief. He wears the two-piece white cotton fatigues of Texas inmates (think of hospital scrubs that fit even worse) and the inexpert haircut of a prison barber with electric clippers.
The "dorm" where he's resting after lunch is a room the size of a basketball court. The walls and bars are heavy with thick layers of paint; the concrete floors and walls send every sound crashing about until the air itself seems stale with white noise. Each man has a waist-high cubicle, seven-feet-by-seven-feet, for his bed and his belongings. There are a few tables bolted to the floors; two of them have plastic chess sets.
The God Pod is a minimum security facility; to qualify for the program, inmates must be "minimum out"-that means they've proven they can be trusted to behave themselves with a minimum of supervision. So far only one fight has broken out, and both of those men were kicked out of the program.
A few beds over, Frederick Reed, 30, says that a few months ago, he likely would have been at the center of any fight. "I had a terr'ble attitude," he smiles. "Terr'ble. But now I've been here, I've started to learn the word brotherhood. That's a change for me."
He's a young black man with a shaved head and "prison muscles"-the top-heavy build developed by inmates who have little else to do than pump iron. Frederick, a three-time offender has been in for nearly six years on his most current conviction (drug possession). But Mr. Roberts and other program officials saw something more in Frederick; they moved him into a leadership position (member president) and found him a mentor to befriend him.
"God's working with me," Frederick says. "It's not easy. There's one class we have that's particularly hard for me. It's called 'Meaningful Self-Talk.' There were-are-some things about myself I don't particularly want to face. I've been selfish. I've been ungrateful. When I had a problem I would fight."
But InnerChange has shown him something he hadn't expected, he adds: biblical love.
"I used to think all of society was against me, that if I didn't look out for myself, no one would. But here are these people ... they see me as something more than a three-time loser."
For more than 20 years, Raymond Roberts has worked in the corrections field. He was the warden at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (where John Grisham's books A Time to Kill and The Chamber were set) and the Kansas state prison at Lansing. He knows the wardening business. He's also a committed Christian, quick to smile, who knows his members' names and families and backgrounds. In his office hang two pictures-one is a framed photo of John Wayne, and the other is a crude whitetail buck painted on black velvet. An overmatched window air conditioner unit toils above his desk.
"Within the corrections system, one of the only two things I've seen work is age: as an inmate gets older and the testosterone levels start dropping, his propensity to commit offenses is reduced. The only other thing is a sincere conversion."
To be sure, he adds, education and vocational training, 12-step programs and behavior modification programs help, but only if a real change has occurred in the heart of the offender.
Increasingly, studies are bearing out his observations. The most recent one came out last spring. Two groups of inmates in New York prisons were tracked for a year after their release. The first group of 201 inmates had attended 10 or more Bible studies per year while in prison. The second group of 201 prisoners had not. Once released, 41 percent the men who had not attended Bible studies were re-arrested. Only 14 percent of the men who had attended Bible study were arrested again. The study was sponsored by the National Institute of Healthcare Research, a conservative organization, and conducted by Lamar University criminologist Byron Johnson.
Mr. Johnson will conduct a similar study of graduates of the God Pod.
It's a fair test, InnerChange's Mr. Roberts says. InnerChange has a representative cross-section of Texas inmates to work with. "We don't have the cream of the crop. We have guys who have been in three times, four times, one guy six times. We have drug dealers, thieves, murderers, and one used-car salesman. These guys were picked out of a hat."
Prison Fellowship will spend about $425,000 per year operating the program, with a maximum of six staffers. This isn't Prison Fellowship's first experience at running a corrections facility; since 1973, the organization has operated a prison in Brazil and reduced the recidivism rate there to less than 5 percent. There's now a similar PF-run prison in Ecuador.
Retired Houston firefighter Don Bentley is InnerChange's administrator. He also serves as pastor to the men, preaching at the unit's chapel on Sundays. He started as a Prison Fellowship volunteer, and gradually moved into a full-time position. He smiles and greets guards and prisoners in the same manner, and he likes to talk about what a great job he has now.
It's only 10:15 a.m., but Mr. Bentley eats lunch in the officers' dining room, where he's served greens and macaroni and a pressed fish patty. The cook is a huge man with hands the size of small cars-after he serves up a plate, he picks up a tiny, delicate New Testament. The effect is comical, and Mr. Bentley chuckles.
But isn't prison ministry hard? Almost by definition, people involved don't see the successes because success is defined as not coming back.
Mr. Bentley thinks about it a moment, then cites as an example of success the Houston area director for Prison Fellowship. "He sat under me at the Ramsey II unit in Rosharon (Texas) for two years. He was a prisoner then; he has a Doctor of Divinity degree now. Yes, I sometimes see the successes."
The third member of the InnerChange staff is Tommy Dorsett, a former probation officer with the build of a maturing athlete. This afternoon he's conducting an orientation class for the newer inmates. He stands next to a battered communion table in a classroom filled with hard benches and weary inmates.
It's Friday, and Mr. Dorsett is closing a week's worth of orientation with his testimony. Suddenly, members who had been inattentive (or even nearly asleep) perk up, as their teacher tells of his involvement with drugs and crime-but then of his return to the God of his childhood.
Halfway back in the row of benches, a member named Keith whispers to another, "First time I saw him, I said this brother ain't never been in trouble for anything.... I'm glad to know this. Shows good can come out of anything."
"The hardest thing to overcome here is the inmate mentality," Mr. Dorsett explains later. "Guys feel that the other guys here can't help them-they're in the same boat, after all; they're locked up, too. You have to change how they perceive themselves. They have to become transparent, to each other and to themselves. They have to admit their areas of weakness, and they have to be strong enough to address those. It's not easy."
Mr. Dorsett smiles and continues. "But that is, after all, what we all have to do. I tell them I'm no different, and these volunteers are no different. And it's true."