Doing Time

With JC in the TDCJ

In 1985, Robert Sutten was standing in horror holding a pistol he'd just fired into the head of the mother of his two children. He'd been up four days in the Third Ward on a roller-coaster ride of quaaludes and speed. Sutten was now frantically waiting for what seemed like hours on the ambulance he'd called, though he knew his ex-girlfriend was far beyond medical help.

When police arrived, Sutten said it was an accident. "I was playing with a gun," he recalls. "I knew she was afraid, and thinking that the bullets were out, I said, 'There ain't nothing in here. I'm going to show you,' and I snapped it."

The cops didn't buy it. Neighbors said they'd heard shouting just before the blast, and it didn't help Sutten's case that he'd been to prison three times, that he was a self-described "street character" or that his eyes looked like empty saucers. Facing a life sentence, he pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for 35 years in prison.

Convicted murderer Robert Sutten first met Bush in 
Courtesy of InnerChange
Convicted murderer Robert Sutten first met Bush in 1998.
Some inmates consider the Vance Unit in Sugar Land 
easy time.
Daniel Kramer
Some inmates consider the Vance Unit in Sugar Land easy time.

Last June, Sutten sat in a windowless room -- but it was no jail cell. He was in the Roosevelt Room of the White House speaking to a group including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. When President Bush entered he smiled and asked, "How ya' doing, Mr. Sutten?" The leader of the free world gave the former junkie and convicted murderer a warm hug before joining the discussion. The topic was Jesus.

Sutten first met Bush in 1998 when the then-governor was touring the Carol Vance Unit prison near Sugar Land. Bush put his arm around the convict during a service in the prison chapel and joined inmates in singing "Amazing Grace."

Sutten was among the first group of prisoners in the nation to participate in a program that may be the next big thing in rehabilitating convicts: faith-based prisons. In this case, fundamentalist Christianity as taught by the InnerChange Fellowship Initiative, which runs the Vance Unit jointly with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. InnerChange, with a full-time staff of ten aided by dozens of volunteers from Houston-area churches, provides intensive religious programming to 250 inmates who have volunteered for it. And it doesn't cost Texas a nickel.

InnerChange is part of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Its founder, Chuck Colson, was also at the White House meeting, where he once worked as special counsel to President Nixon. Known as Nixon's hatchet man, Colson reportedly had a sign in his office that read, "Once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." Former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan called him "the meanest man in American politics," and Colson ended up serving seven months in a federal prison for his role in the various crimes known as Watergate.

Like most of his co-conspirators, Colson wrote a book playing down his role in the Watergate scandal. "Born Again" was a 1976 best-seller, and the proceeds from that -- plus a lucrative speaking career -- funded the ministry.

Colson's return to the White House was staged to publicize a study by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. That study, paid for by Colson's ministry, reported that graduates of the Texas program had an astonishingly low recidivism rate of 8 percent. A control group tracked in the study had a recidivism rate (defined as those returning to prison within two years) of about 20 percent. The recidivism rate for all Texas prisoners is more than 30 percent.

Touting the results, a Wall Street Journal editorial called "Jesus Saves" slammed critics of faith-based programs for "turning a blind eye to science." An Associated Press story in the Houston Chronicle said it all in the title: "Christian-Based Rehab Is Working, Study Finds."

The message was obvious: Faith-based initiatives work, and President Bush intends to implement them into at least five cabinet-level departments, including the Department of Justice. InnerChange is willing to expand into the federal prison system but needs money to do that. The Penn study was intended to aid that organization's attempts to secure federal funding.

But included in the 60-page study was another startling result that wasn't mentioned by the White House or any major media: Those who joined the InnerChange program were actually more likely to return to prison than the control group. The recidivism rate for all InnerChange participants was 24 percent.

Even stranger: Those who started but didn't finish the InnerChange program were almost twice as likely to return to prison than the control group who had no contact with InnerChange.

God may work in mysterious ways, but the devil is usually in the details.

Any typical weekday, rain or shine, about 70 men exit ³The Walls,² officially known as the Huntsville Unit prison. Clothed by the state in ill- fitting garments that were never in style, they lug their few belongings in white nylon bags past the 20-foot-high red-brick walls of the state¹s oldest prison. The walk to Huntsville¹s dismal bus station is three blocks uphill. Rarely is anyone there to greet them because most weren¹t even sure what day they¹d be released.

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