From Cells to Souls

Chuck Colson and his evangelical Christians team up with a local prison for a divine intervention program

If you want to survive prison, there is only one way to do your time: Mind your own business. Prison culture demands that you keep to yourself and show no weakness, emotion or tears unless you want to be someone's punk or prey. Someone disrespects you, plays on you by stealing your stuff, you better get your respect back -- and fast. There's no such thing as trust in the pen: Cozy up to the guards, and you're marked as a snitch. Cozy up to another inmate, and you'd better be sure he's not running some con on you. Prison is no place to make friends.

That is, unless you're transferred to the Carol S. Vance Unit at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility outside Sugar Land. From a distance, the prison looks like any other -- a cluster of brick-and-concrete structures surrounded by acres of furrowed farmland. Vance is a minimum-security facility, but not so minimum that a 12-foot chain-link fence topped by three feet of razor wire won't stop a wild romp through Houston's nightlife only 30 miles away.

But gain access to the secured area just past the guards, and things begin to look almost ethereal. The prison yard is a well-manicured flower garden. A "hallelujah tent" offers an outdoor sanctuary for communal prayer. Inmates walk around virtually unrestricted, carrying Bibles as though they were regulation prison-issue. They stop to chat, hugging each other openly while exchanging I-love-yous.

"This is agape love, not sexual love," Warden Fred Becker says. "The whole way the program operates is rather nontraditional. It took us a while to learn how to deal with it."

The 200 inmates who occupy more than half of the Vance Unit live in cubicles, not cells; they are called members, not inmates; and they are part of a controversial "Christ-centered, biblically based" program -- the first of its kind in the nation -- that hopes to rehabilitate convicts by pumping them full of God, 24/7.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, a worldwide organization founded by born-again Watergate co-conspirator Chuck Colson after he served seven months in prison for obstruction of justice. IFI first took seed in Texas in 1997 and had much to do with Governor George W. Bush seeking to define himself both in Texas and nationally as a compassionate conservative. Bush supports faith-based initiatives that limit the government's role in providing social services such as welfare and drug treatment while expanding the role of churches. "Charitable choice" has become a political catchphrase for those who seek a religious alternative to the government's social safety net, even if it means using taxpayer dollars to fund nonsecular programs. But it does create problems for those who fear faith-based initiatives will tear down the wall between church and state by using public money to promote Christianity and subsidize religious discrimination.

Nevertheless, Bush has promised, if he wins the presidency, to bring faith-based programs to at least four federal prisons. Vice President Al Gore also has touted faith-based programming as a cornerstone of his social-service agenda. IFI has begun similar programs in Kansas and Iowa and has received inquiries from more than a dozen other states and countries. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees 163,000 state inmates, supports expanding the InnerChange program to women and implementing it beyond the Houston area to include Dallas and Fort Worth. Much depends on the upcoming session of the legislature. Prison Fellowship Ministries always has raised private donations to support InnerChange operations, and for the first time lawmakers will be asked to approve public funding.

The support for Bible-based prisons is being generated without hard research that shows whether they are lowering the recidivist rate, which in Texas hovers around 30 percent. Although IFI is still accumulating data, the program claims that its parolees re-offend far less often than parolees from the general prison population. Since the few secular rehabilitation programs in Texas prisons don't seem to be making an impact, IFI claims God is the only way to go.

As the program seeks to "transform" the inmate from the "inside out" by immersing him in an otherworldly environment, it may be creating a biblical worldview that its inmates can't sustain after they make parole. No doubt IFI inmates are offered valuable rehabilitative tools -- mentoring, aftercare, family reconciliation classes, a job upon release. But for the state to deny inmates who are not evangelical Christians these same programs on a secular basis may be unconstitutional, as well as unfair. InnerChange argues its programming just won't work without the nonstop God: It's the Bible, with its moral structure and theology of forgiveness, that enables hardened convicts to rebuild their shattered lives.

InnerChange member Kevin Bigelow sits in the prison library and claims he has read every book -- religious or otherwise -- among the stacks. He's a Christian now, and if there is anyone in the program that can out-Jesus the other members with his superior biblical knowledge, it's Bigelow. At 38, he seems caring, thoughtful, but acts as if he were smarter than everyone else. If it weren't for the fact that he was addicted to stealing, he may never have gotten caught -- four times.

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