Features

Change of hearts

National | Studies show that a faith-based prison program, though under legal attack by liberals, is changing prisoners' lives

Issue: "Marx isn't dead," July 19, 2003

WHEN VIRGIL HENDERSON roamed the streets of Minneapolis selling drugs and instigating violent fights with a gang in the 1990s, he never could shake the feeling that someone might attack him. Often, looking behind him, his body shook with fear: "I wasn't worried about being caught. I was worried about being hurt," Mr. Henderson said.

Mr. Henderson wasn't hurt, but in the fall of 1998 he was caught. Later, he went to prison for thrusting a kitchen knife into the chest of 25-year-old Rodney Harris. Now 35 years old and serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder, Mr. Henderson is determined never to return to prison when he is released in 2008. Justice Department statistics paint a pessimistic picture: Nearly 68 percent of released prisoners are re-arrested and 25 percent return to prison.

But Mr. Henderson's likelihood of staying out of jail will rise dramatically if he graduates from InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based, pre-release prison program that immerses participants in 16-hour days of education, job training, Bible study, worship, and accountability. IFI, affiliated with Prison Fellowship Ministries, has programs in prisons in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas. "I want Jesus to change my heart," Mr. Henderson said in a telephone interview from IFI's newest program in Lino Lakes (Minn.) Correctional Facility.

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A University of Pennsylvania study completed last month shows that something is changing among many IFI participants. The study showed that IFI graduates in Texas, where the Prison Fellowship program has been going the longest, are 50 percent less likely than other prisoners to be re-arrested within two years. (The two-year post-release re-arrest rate among IFI graduates was 17 percent, compared with 35 percent of the matched comparison group.) The return-to-prison differential is even greater: 60 percent. (The two-year post-release reincarceration rate among IFI graduates was 8 percent, compared with 20 percent of the matched comparison group.) A study released earlier this year by Texas' Criminal Justice Policy Council showed similar results (see WORLD, Feb. 22).

Despite such success for IFI's graduates, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the Iowa program in March to stop it from using state funds for religious purposes (see WORLD, March 15). The funds come from profits the Department of Corrections makes by charging inmates for phone calls at a rate that is higher than what the state pays for the service. IFI claims those funds are earmarked "for the benefit of the inmates," and that "a values-based pre-release program that reduces recidivism is a proper program for both the benefits of the inmates and the citizens of Iowa."

Mr. Henderson has seen the benefits since he began the program in September 2002. "The program has really changed my life," he said, and especially his anger. Before, accusations from other prisoners would send him into rages; now, officials note, Mr. Henderson peacefully discusses problems with other prisoners and then discusses them within the larger group of IFI prisoners. Joni Lane, Mr. Henderson's 37-year-old sister, has noticed her brother's transformation. "Before, he would become more violent with physical and verbal abuse," she said. "He has learned more about what leads to anger."

"You can't be changed by head knowledge. It has to come by this understanding that you are insufficient and you need help," said Dan Kingery, IFI's director in Minnesota. "You have to say, 'I am broken and I am lost.'" For Bernard Veal, 52, who graduated from the Texas program four years ago, change has come through IFI's emphasis on Bible study. Convicted of credit-card fraud and forgery after his wife died of cancer, Mr. Veal said, "One of the best things that ever happened to me was that I went to prison. My punishment ... caused me to learn the Word of God." Mr. Veal is now a sales representative in Houston.

Learning biblical principles is a community effort in IFI, which maintains a regimented schedule that in Minnesota begins at 6 a.m. each day. "We're so close-knit that each of us is watching each other's sin" by being accountable to one another, Mr. Henderson said. Prisoners in the general population also closely watch the IFI guys, who sometimes mingle with the general population through prison-wide requirements like work-release. "They see something in us and they see the change," Mr. Henderson said. "They want to know what it is"-and although they may not acknowledge it, "they know it's God."

-Mr. Jenkins is a World Journalism Institute student

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