God and man behind bars

National | Prison Fellowship's InnerChange, an in-prison pre-release program in Houston, will be viewed as a grand test case for other faith-based rehabilitation programs

Issue: "Face Off," Aug. 9, 1997

from Houston

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."

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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.)


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