By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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By Craig Malisow
They leave with 50 bucks and a bus ticket. They're usually too jazzed about their freedom to worry about things like where they're going to live or how they're going to support themselves. Reality comes later.
The release experience is familiar to almost every man who has ever left TDCJ without being executed. You are discharged at The Walls, and you don't get much help once you get off the bus. Of the 70 men leaving each day, about 25 will come back within two years, just as Robert Sutten did all three times he left The Walls.
But on his fourth trip, Sutten found another way out. At the Vance Unit, departing prisoners are dressed out in pressed pants, sharp shirts and new shoes. After an emotional round of prayers for the departing, they're walked out of the prison by a volunteer mentor who will drive them to Houston or Dallas, where they already have job prospects, a place to live and a small army of Christian soldiers to help them find their way in the world.
Tony Minchew is an InnerChange volunteer. The 47-year-old copier technician hooked up with InnerChange through his Sagemont Baptist Church and began mentoring a car thief named Byron Williams. Every Tuesday evening for more than a year, he drove 30 miles to the Vance Unit to spend two hours with Williams. Minchew says, "God's word is very clear. We're supposed to go to the highways and byways and visit orphans, widows and prisoners."
Williams was paroled in 2001 and Minchew and his wife, Jo Ann, brought Williams's mother and daughter along to pick him up. They all drove back to Houston, where the Minchews treated them to a crawfish feast at the Ragin' Cajun. Minchew and Williams then met with parole officials where Williams signed a release allowing Minchew access to his parole records, a practice encouraged by InnerChange. Later, Minchew helped Williams obtain food and clothing through Sagemont.
Had Williams needed a job or a place to live, Minchew would have helped him with that too, as he has done for others. He sums up his role with an all-too-true observation about prison commissaries. "They don't have any problem selling Mother's Day cards," says Minchew, "but they cannot get rid of the Father's Day cards."
Williams graduated from what is probably the most intensive prison rehabilitation course in the nation -- beginning with 16 months at the Vance Unit, where part of the InnerChange mission statement is "to create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God's laws and the rights of others."
That mission begins before dawn with the first of many Bible studies. Other than a few hours at prison jobs or meals, the 15-hour days are dominated by Christian teachings. Even courses with titles like "Life Skills," "Anger Management" and "Family Values" are Bible-driven.
InnerChange's A.A. meetings refer to Jesus rather than the traditional "higher power," and addiction is viewed as a sin, not a disease. Homosexuality, premarital sex and masturbation are also viewed as sins with the potential to draw convicts back into a life of crime. Prisoners are cautioned about the satanic influences of Ouija boards, horoscopes and Dungeons & Dragons. Program director Tommie Dorsett says, "It's about living a moral life, and that starts with God's word. If these guys accept any other standard, the next thing you know it's drugs."
InnerChange graduate Theo Bailey was living in sin last year. In 1991, a Harris County jury gave the 19-year-old a 60-year sentence for delivery of cocaine. He was denied parole seven times before his release from the Vance Unit in 2002. He got a job working 12-hour days, seven days a week, at a chemical plant. Bailey soon had enough money to move out of his aunt's home and into his girlfriend's. He was doing well, but that didn't suit Dorsett.
"Tommie was getting down on me," says Bailey. "He said, 'Man, you know you're down there living in adultery.' Everybody was bothering me about living with her, so I got married." It worked out pretty well. Bailey's new wife co-signed a loan allowing him to purchase a truck with a bobtail rig. The 33-year-old now owns a thriving business hauling raw materials around Houston.
Bailey is one of InnerChange's many success stories, and he drops by the Third Ward after-care facility every week for a cold soda and a warm welcome. He says, "Without InnerChange, I'd be selling drugs for sure."
Eligibility for InnerChange requires that inmates be healthy, speak English, have a track record of good behavior in prison, be within three years of release and intend to live in the Houston or Dallas areas, where the after-care programs are. TDCJ will not allow sex offenders into the program because work in the community is required.
InnerChange worked for Bailey, but critics say his case highlights a problem with the Penn study. They say comparing the recidivism rates of convicts like Bailey, with enormous support and resources behind them, to convicts who left Huntsville on a bus wearing clown clothes is like comparing oranges to rotten apples.
Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at UCLA and has been studying crime for a quarter-century. He says that when he first heard of the InnerChange results, he thought, "This is interesting. Those look like good recidivism numbers, and good recidivism numbers are hard to find."