From Cells to Souls

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

After Bush decided to run for president, he would speak about InnerChange on the stump, promising to expand faith-based prisons into the federal system. His campaign asked Jack Cowley to speak at the Republican National Convention, though his speech was whittled down to seven minutes.

Only recently have First Amendment advocates begun to challenge the constitutionality of charitable choice in the courts. In July the American Jewish Congress, a civil liberties organization, filed suit in Austin alleging that Texas state officials should not have given public money to a church group in Brenham that used Christian theology to prepare welfare recipients for work. AJC contends that any public money spent on preaching violates church-state separation and subsidizes religious discrimination.

Even though InnerChange doesn't receive state money and ostensibly makes participation voluntary, AJC staff attorney Marc Stern still finds it constitutionally offensive. "The theory of charitable choice is at least there is a choice," Stern says. "On a secular basis, Texas doesn't provide the kinds of rehabilitative services that InnerChange does. There are no family programs, no mentoring or aftercare. If you want to be rehabilitated in Texas, then you have to go through Chuck Colson. That's not voluntary, it's coercive."

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.
Intensive evangelical services and prayer dominate the InnerChange prison program.
Robert Allred
Intensive evangelical services and prayer dominate the InnerChange prison program.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, contends the IFI program violates the First Amendment's establishment clause because "it is government endorsement of religious conversions," says spokesman Steve Benen. "For the state to allow prisoners to be segregated into those who are willing to be converted and then to give them special treatment -- a safer environment, better living conditions, more access to family -- that's not only unconstitutional, it's blatantly unfair."

Cowley doesn't worry about the legality of his program, not when any religious organization can come to the state and try to set up its own faith-based program. In fact, he is so confident that InnerChange will pass constitutional muster that his organization is asking the next session of the Texas legislature to pick up $1.5 million of its operating budget for an expanded program, proselytizing and all. According to Cowley, Wayne Scott, executive director of the prison system, is so supportive of InnerChange that he wants the program to take over the entire Vance Unit. With room for 400 inmates, IFI would increase its "catchment" beyond Harris County to include inmates paroled to Dallas and Tarrant counties. Scott also wants InnerChange to begin a women's unit, but as a condition, Cowley is insisting that female inmates not be separated from their children six years old and younger. ("It's not only biblical, it makes sense socially," he says.) Raising preschoolers in prison, however, just might be a deal-breaker.

If the legislature appropriates public money for InnerChange, expect civil liberties groups to entertain litigation. "From what I know, Colson's group runs a good program, but it's expensive," says attorney Stern. "If the state does fund it, American Jewish Congress will look at the possibility of challenging that funding in court."

But litigation isn't likely to drive InnerChange out of business. It's more likely to shut its doors if the results it has promised the state aren't realized. Next spring InnerChange expects researchers with the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council to complete a statistical evaluation of the program. "If our recidivist rate isn't significantly lower," Cowley says, "then we will leave."

But how statistically significant will the small IFI sample be when no comparable secular program can be used as a control group because none exists? InnerChange members might just do better because they get much more attention than the rest of the prison population. The program accepts no sex offenders, few violent offenders and no inmates who pose a security risk. More than 20 percent of the inmates drop out of the program once they realize how rigorous it is. Change is hard; some inmates figure it's a lot easier sitting around the dayroom watching TV than contemplating the Holy Ghost.

But those who remain in these nurturing environs are so immersed in the Bible that a moment seldom passes when they are not given the opportunity to think about matters of the spirit. Reproducing this God-high on the outside will not be easy. Only after members make parole will their true test of faith begin.

Gerardo Escamilla believes he can make it on the outside. Before getting busted for delivery of cocaine in 1991, he lived a "Christian life." He was married, a father, attended church and owned his own trucking company in Houston. But money got tight, and when he needed some extra cash to fund his business, he began selling drugs. A lot of them.

"I could have closed the company," he says. "But it was my company and my pride, and I knew what I had to do to keep it alive." He was arrested holding 20 kilos of what he thought was premium cocaine. Turns out his supplier had ripped him off, selling him cornstarch. That made no difference to Harris County. He was charged with possession of a simulated controlled substance.

"By the grace of God, I received a 15-year sentence," he says, his wide eyes tearing as he confesses the pain he caused his family. "While I was on bond, I went off the deep end -- abusing drugs and whore-mongering and staying away from home two to three days at a time." Though he still loves his wife, she divorced him. He says he understands why.

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