From Cells to Souls

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

As a kid, Bigelow was bored by school in Youngstown, Ohio, where his mother moved to marry for the fourth time. Bigelow, born in Dallas, came from a family of nine children, never knew his father, and rarely spent time with his mother, who worked two jobs. "She did the best she could to make sure her kids had a roof over their heads," he says. But Bigelow and his three brothers ran around Youngstown unfettered.

Rather than attend high school, the Bigelow brothers operated a burglary ring, at first breaking into houses just to see if they could. With that thrill came the realization that they were sitting on valuable merchandise that easily could be fenced for cash. The brothers were so successful that they bought two new cars, a boat, and even paid cash for an $80,000 house in a nearby town. Their mother found out about their enterprising ways only when a friend snitched to the police to save her own skin. But their mother refused to let her sons learn their lesson from behind bars. When Kevin was released from juvenile detention after just a few weeks, he followed her to Houston.

Bigelow was a hard case, tightly wound and stubborn. Because he believed he knew more than everyone else, he grew reckless and took stupid chances as he sated his appetite for money, cars and women. He figured the worst thing that could happen to him was a short trip to the pen, and during the '80s the state of Texas was only too happy to oblige.

Bigelow went to prison three times for various forms of larceny, serving no more than a few months before making parole. Although he earned his GED and a college degree behind bars, he says the only thing that prison taught him was how to be a better criminal.

In the early '90s Bigelow graduated to con artist as he swindled those who brought him their family heirlooms for appraisal. Once caught, he was sentenced to 25 years, but his chance of quick release was stymied by an expanded Texas prison system that no longer needed to parole inmates to avoid overcrowding.

Doing time was no problem for Bigelow: His reputation for splitting open the head of another inmate with a mop bucket preceded him. During the first few years of his sentence, Bigelow got religion, but more as an academic exercise, studying the Bible when he became the librarian for the prison chaplain. He grew familiar with Latin and Greek, and his insatiable intellectual curiosity put him in contact with a Bible study ministry, where he learned about the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. The main condition for his participation in the program was that he be within 18 to 24 months of his release date.

After a 30-day introduction followed by a 30-day orientation, Bigelow was selected as an IFI member. He wasted no time falling into lockstep with the appropriate mind-set. "Those of us who were chosen believe it was God's will," he says.

IFI member Erik Indian stands before the latest group of candidates to enter the program and praises both them and God. "I have been here 14 months, and I have never seen a stronger group than I am looking at right now." Indian delivers his words with the cadence of a tent preacher. "Y'all came in here loving God. It took six months before my bunch could sit in here without fighting."

Indian has come here to ask for volunteers among his fellow inmates. Tommie Dorsett, the IFI program director, has asked for a prayer chain, 72 hours of nonstop praying from 7 p.m. Friday until 7 p.m. Monday. "The reason," Indian explains, "is that there are financial needs of InnerChange that have to be met." He points to a prayer sign-up sheet, 144 slots of 30 minutes each. "Now what is prayer? Not only is it you talking to God, it's also when God talks to you!"

A chorus of amens rings out.

Volunteering to pray at InnerChange is like volunteering to wear makeup at a Mary Kay convention. Some members wake up as early as 4 a.m. to get in some private Bible time. For others, a 5:30 a.m. breakfast brings Christian fellowship. Next comes the community devotional under the hallelujah tent. InnerChange life skills classes go from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. Biblical counselors teach members how to live with patience, understanding and tolerance, using Jesus Christ as their role model. They are taught to abide by strict guidelines: no dancing, drinking, profanity, homosexuality or masturbation (which always provokes a lively debate in prison). If members can live by this rigid code and understand what God (or at least evangelical Christianity) expects of them, their lives, they are told, will become less chaotic, more manageable.

"We believe that crime is a result of a sinful heart," says Jack Cowley, IFI's national director of operations. It's not enough that a counselor tells an inmate to stop "raping a two-year-old child," says Cowley, or that the therapist discovers whatever childhood trauma caused the inmate to rape. The inmate won't stop unless he believes God wants him to stop. "If you explain the relationship that Christ wants to have with them and acquaint them with the foundation of truth that rests in the Bible, something mystical happens. He will be transformed."

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