From Cells to Souls

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

The InnerChange Web site claims the program is open to all faiths and denominations as long as inmates are willing to "participate in a Christ-centered, biblically based program." Yet it isn't enough to believe in "Christian values" to be transformed. IFI teaches that true inner change can occur only when Jesus is accepted as one's personal savior, which must make it difficult for Muslims and Jews.

"I told a Muslim going through the program that if he didn't have a relationship with Jesus, he was going to hell," Cowley says. "Our concern is to lower the recidivism rate, but our ministry is to save souls for Christ."

On weekends, InnerChange members are allowed to visit with their families, unrestricted by steel bars or glass partitions. Unlike other minimum-security prisons, light kissing, hugging and hand-holding with visiting family are not only permitted but encouraged. On weekday evenings, members and their families participate in reconciliation classes using biblical principles of forgiveness to bridge the pain, fear and deceit inflicted by the inmate on his family. "We use basic psychological principles, but we platform them on biblical principles," says IFI biblical counselor Cherry Pleasant (whom the members call Mama). "We look at what it means to be a man of God and try and teach what God intended the role of men and women to be."

Chuck Colson, the notorious Watergate conspirator and later convict, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries.
AP/Wide World Photos
Chuck Colson, the notorious Watergate conspirator and later convict, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Chuck Colson, the notorious Watergate conspirator and later convict, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries.
AP/Wide World Photos
Chuck Colson, the notorious Watergate conspirator and later convict, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Men are commanded by God to be providers, Pleasant says, to subdue the earth, be fruitful and multiply. Women are intuitive, detail-oriented and emotional. They must complement men, not compete with them, and must submit to the authority of their husbands, "but only if he is a man of God," Pleasant quickly adds. "That always creates quite a stir among the women."

Evenings also bring Christian volunteers to conduct classes on restorative justice, which attempt to promote forgiveness and empathy by engaging inmates in conversation with crime victims; biblically based substance-abuse programs and GED and computer classes also are held.

Within six months of entering the program, each inmate is assigned a Christian mentor, a volunteer from the Houston area who agrees to spend at least three hours a week for the next 12 months counseling, teaching and holding the hand of his new protégé. Mentors play a big part in an inmate's "re-entry program," introducing him to the mentor's church and family. The program virtually guarantees that each inmate will have a job upon release, and Christian businessmen from the community hold seminars on interview skills and résumé writing, offering inmates employment as part of the program. In addition to a job, each inmate upon release is expected by the program to have a place to live, a Christian mentor and a church to attend. These are not conditions of parole, so the members are free to disregard them without fear that the state will return them to prison.

"This program is not for everybody. The first batch we had were a bunch of manipulators," Warden Becker admits. "But if this transformation is taking place like it appears to be, it will be a guiding torch for prisons around the world."

Even though InnerChange is expanding its operations to other states and countries, even though it operates from a solely Christian theology and its promise of lowering the recidivist rate has yet to be substantiated, criticism of the program has been largely nonexistent.

"Most people figure that if it makes my mama feel safer when she goes to the Wal-Mart, then what do I care if they are praying every day," Cowley says.

Yet there are serious First Amendment questions presented by faith-based initiatives, which some claim are eroding the wall separating church and state. The conservative desire for limited government and privatization helped enable the passage of a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill called charitable choice. This federal legislation allows faith-based organizations to administer welfare programs with public funds as long as there are secular alternatives. The bill gets fuzzy when mandating the extent of religious involvement allowed in these programs. While it bans outright proselytizing with public funds, it allows a faith-based organization to retain the "practice and expression of its religious beliefs" while providing its "public purpose." It also protects the right of those receiving help to be free from religious coercion. Although charitable choice is a federal law, its application has been expanded in Texas under the Bush administration, which maintains its own faith-based task force.

In 1996 Carol Vance, the former Harris County district attorney and then-chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, approached Bush about implementing a faith-based prison in Texas. Vance had visited Brazil with Chuck Colson, where they toured a Christian prison that claimed it had lowered the recidivist rate of its inmates from 80 percent to 4 percent. Bush signed on to the plan, looking for ways to lower the staggering Texas recidivist rate, which at that time hovered around 48 percent. In addition to IFI, the state allocated money to secular rehabilitation programs within the prison system, including substance-abuse and sex-offender treatment units. But none of these programs was as extensive or as inmate-friendly as the church-state partnership reached with Prison Fellowship Ministries. Under its contract, the state would provide security, housing and food for IFI members, but Prison Fellowship Ministries would raise the program's $500,000 annual operating budget. For Bush, there could be no better expression of compassionate conservatism: a small ministry offering a viable alternative to a big government bureaucracy.

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