Doing Time

With JC in the TDCJ

Damon Dorroh has "TEXAS" tattooed on the back of his head with inch-high letters. The 25-year-old was sent to prison more than four years ago after shooting someone in a drug deal gone bad on Houston's southeast side. He's been at the Vance Unit for two years and expects to go home next year.

Dorroh says when convicts first arrive at InnerChange, "They're always glancing around and not looking you in the eye." He says it takes several months for the paranoia to wear off for men who've come from prisons where even church services are occasions for gang meetings. "At other prisons, they'll ask you where you're from, and if you're from the wrong place…" At the Vance Unit, inmates greet new arrivals with handshakes and hugs rather than the beat-down that is the traditional welcome at some Texas prisons.

Even the guards are different. Dorroh says, "At other units, they treat us like animals. You feel more human here." Dorroh now works in the Vance Unit's computer lab. Two years ago, he'd never been on a computer but will soon be Microsoft-certified.

Convicted murderer Robert Sutten first met Bush in 
1998.
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.

The question seems to be whether the same results that graduates have achieved would be obtainable with a secular approach. Phillips wonders, "Is religion the critical ingredient for rehabilitation, or would the same intense rehabilitation efforts succeed in the absence of religion?"

Of course, somebody would have to pay for that and, at a cost of about $5,000 per inmate (which doesn't even include the enormous volunteer contributions like the mentoring program), it won't be happening anytime soon. For now, evangelical Christians seem to be the only group willing and able to devote the resources required to sustain a program that provides food, housing, clothing, time and love to convicted felons.

And no one can accuse Colson, Sutten, Minchew or Vance of not putting their faith into action. Colson donated a million-dollar prize he was awarded for his efforts to his ministry. Sutten works a minimum-wage job as caretaker at the Greater Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Minchew still volunteers at the Vance Unit. So does Vance, where he sometimes ministers to prisoners he helped put behind bars. The prison was named for him after his retirement from the prison board in 2000.

Kleiman says he's not opposed to InnerChange. "My objection is to bad research," he says. Lozoff says, "I'm not trying to scuttle a program that helps inmates grow spiritually, but what makes sense is to have people who are more open-minded." But some civil libertarians fear the move toward funding faith-based programs like InnerChange will come at the expense of secular programs that serve all.

The Texas legislature recently slashed the budget of many such programs, at least one of which -- the In Prison Therapeutic Community, a drug program operated by TDCJ -- had a 5 percent recidivism rate. In 2001, the legislature appropriated $1.5 million to Colson's ministry, which later declined the money on the advice of state attorneys who deemed it unwise because the appropriation did not go through the normal bid process. However, the InnerChange leadership is eager to expand -- with government help -- and it appears that will soon be coming.

As for Sutten, he still prowls the streets of the Third Ward. "I go down in the bottoms, down on McGowen, Napoleon and Dennis, where they got all the drug-infested areas, and talk to some brothers and sisters there. Most of them my age are still involved in drugs and drinking." He adds, "I'm comfortable talking to prostitutes, thieves, murderers and robbers. The Lord saved me so I can go back and let them see someone who's made it -- but it's not easy for a man to go from the outhouse to the White House."

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