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.
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.
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."
But when Kleiman read the Penn study, he was dismayed. Kleiman says the study "gives you this happy horseshit about the graduates, but if you look at the 'intent to treat,' it's a loser." He accuses InnerChange of cherry-picking inmates who likely already have the drive and discipline to succeed.
Last month at msn.com, Kleiman published a scathing essay titled "Faith-Based Fudging." Kleiman wrote that the study results "ought to discourage InnerChange's advocates, but it doesn't because they have just ignored the failure of the failures and focused on the success of the successes."
Graduation from InnerChange requires six months of employment after release. Kleiman says, "Most of the recidivism risk is in the first six months and one of the best predictors of recidivism is employment." Of the 177 prisoners tracked in the study, only 75 graduated. The study did not track whether the control group was employed and Kleiman says, "Anything that selects out from a group of ex-inmates those who hold jobs is going to look like a miracle cure." Social scientists call it selection bias.
"The InnerChange cheerleaders simply ignored the other 102 participants who dropped out, were kicked out or got early parole and didn't finish," says Kleiman. "If you select out the winners, you leave mostly losers."
As a group, of the 177 prisoners in the InnerChange Fellowship Initiative program, 36 percent were arrested within two years and 24 percent were incarcerated within that time. This compares to 35 percent arrested and 20 percent incarcerated in the control group that had no exposure to the special Christian ministry.
Kleiman says selection bias is "the oldest trick in the book," but not an uncommon one. "You see the same methodology in drug treatment studies," he says. "You don't have to be a Christian to be a liar."
Jerry Bryan says it's not fair to count the nongraduates. He's been the chaplain at the Vance Unit since InnerChange began in 1997. Bryan has worked at some of the state's worst prisons and believes the InnerChange program is nothing short of miraculous, even if some aren't interested in the miracle. "There's a pool of people who don't get anything," says Bryan. "That shouldn't count against us." He says, "Many offenders volunteer for all the wrong reasons. The most prevalent is 'I'll get more visits.' "
The Vance Unit's proximity to Harris County, which supplies TDCJ with a quarter of its prisoners, can seem attractive to a Houston inmate doing time in Amarillo. InnerChange also has several family days per year, where prisoners can spend quality time with their wives and children. Some volunteer for the program because of that, or to get away from the violence and racial tension that pervade TDCJ.
One ex-convict faked his way through the program. David Doherty was offered the chance to attend InnerChange three years ago by the chaplain at the maximum-security prison in West Texas where Doherty had been stuck for years. The Houston native didn't have to think long about moving to a minimum-security prison a half-hour drive from home.
"I didn't want my people coming 500 miles for a two-hour visit," says Doherty. "I heard the Vance Unit was easy time and I figured I could just ride along with [the Christian programming] until I got paroled." He adds, "After a while, I think they kind of knew I wasn't really into it. They would always be asking if you were saved and all that.
"As long as you go to class, do the homework and don't act stupid, they don't really mess with you too much," says Doherty, who hasn't had any contact with InnerChange since he paroled from the Vance Unit. He says, "They're good people, but I wasn't into all that rah-rah stuff." Doherty says he enjoyed working on the Habitat for Humanity projects that InnerChange aids, but he is still on parole and asked that his real name not be used in this story.
InnerChange gives prisoners access to equipment that most can only dream about, such as the computer class that offers Microsoft-certified training or the course that allows an inmate to obtain a commercial driver's license, as Theo Bailey did before his release.
At the Vance Unit, fights are virtually unheard of, the guards are friendly, and the living conditions are as good or better than any prison in Texas. Convicts call it a Cadillac Unit, and some believe that if they turn down the offer to volunteer for InnerChange, parole may be denied. Another inducement may simply be to spend most of the day in air-conditioned classrooms. Muslims, Jews and atheists have all attended InnerChange. Bryan says most who graduate end up becoming Christians.
That bothers the members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who say the InnerChange program at an Iowa prison is unconstitutional, akin to state-sponsored religion. Unlike the original Texas program, the other three InnerChange facilities (Kansas and Minnesota each have one) receive varying degrees of state funding. One purpose of Colson's visit to Washington this summer was to drum up support on Capitol Hill for federal dollars to be made available to religious organizations.
Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United, says, "We see a need to litigate this whole faith-based concept. We're asking that the program be terminated in Iowa." He says that program is partially funded through a prison telephone rebate program, causing inmates to pay for something many aren't eligible for. Boston says, "The program in Texas is just as troubling. Even if it worked, it still wouldn't be right." He says the perks that come with InnerChange amount to proselytizing "not only Christianity but a specific brand."
"They're offering them so much, it's almost like a bribe," says Bo Lozoff, the founder and director of The Human Kindness Foundation, an interfaith group that ministers to prisoners nationwide. Lozoff was volunteering in prisons when Colson was still working for Nixon and has spoken at more than 700 prisons. His book We're All Doing Time borrows ideas from all the major religions, especially Buddhism. Lozoff advocates turning jail time into a monastic experience and runs a sort of commune in North Carolina for ex-convicts.
Lozoff says he went to North Carolina prison officials a few years ago to try to get a multifaith prison started but was turned down without explanation. He says, "There's a lot of Buddhist groups that would love to get a program set up like this." When asked if he thought he could get a multifaith InnerChange-type prison started here, Lozoff laughs. "In Texas? Of course not." He adds, "When Christians go meet with prison officials, they don't get treated as weirdos."
Carol Vance definitely wasn't treated like a weirdo when he asked Governor Bush to turn over a prison to Colson's group in 1996. Vance, a former Harris County district attorney, was then chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. He'd toured a Christian prison in Brazil with Colson and was impressed with the 10 percent recidivism rate there. "The inmates ran the prison. They policed themselves," says Vance. "It was phenomenal."
Bush had campaigned in 1994 on a promise to put faith-based initiatives to work in state government. Vance says, "Governor Bush was very enthusiastic, and once he got behind it, that made it go real fast."
Texas became home to the nation's first faith-based prison in at least a century. Of course, it probably didn't hurt that Vance was a tennis partner of a former president -- Vance and Bush's father both belong to the Houston Country Club -- or that Colson's group has long, strong ties to the Republican Party. A common concern is that because evangelical Christianity is the religion du jour in Washington, other faiths won't get a fair shake should federal dollars become available.
The man President Bush has charged with putting faith-based programs into the federal prison system, Attorney General John Ashcroft, is definitely an Old Testament kind of guy. He had himself anointed with oil after his Senate confirmation, a move viewed by even some mainstream Protestants as, well, a little kooky.
Chuck Colson, through the Christian public relations firm his ministry employs, declined to be interviewed for this article, but he did publish a response to Kleiman's criticisms. Colson didn't really address Kleiman's argument of selection bias but dismissed him as someone "whose objective is to score points against the president." Colson had previously been quoted as saying the Penn study was "a tremendous vindication, I think, for the president."
The Houston Press asked Scott Phillips, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, for his assessment of the Penn study. He said, "Considering all participants, IFI does not reduce recidivism. Considering the graduates, IFI leads to a dramatic reduction in recidivism. Is it appropriate to just consider graduates? No."
However, Phillips added, "Even the most rigorous evaluation would probably conclude that IFI has real benefits for the small number of inmates who are both interested in the program and complete the program. But at this point it's impossible to be sure."
But the White House seems sure enough to push Congress hard for federal funding, though no one outside the Christian community is making much of an argument with Kleiman's position -- not even the study's author, Byron Johnson. Johnson has declined all media requests since Kleiman's story appeared.
Johnson is not the only one suddenly silent. Representatives from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives initially agreed to speak about the InnerChange program. They later backed out when it became apparent the Press would be addressing criticisms of the study they'd trumpeted.
But none of that matters much to the Christians who live, work and volunteer at the Vance Unit. And statistics would probably tell you that Robert Sutten should be locked up or dead, or that Theo Bailey should be slinging dope on the nearest street corner.
Kleiman tends to agree. "In some ways it's unfair," he says. "They're not trying to achieve statistical significance, they're interested in individual salvation."
And that seems to be happening. The men who have stuck with InnerChange exhibit an air of calmness and stability not often found in those who've done time in Texas. And there even seems to be a marked difference between the prisoners who have just arrived at InnerChange and those who are about to leave.
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.
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."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.