Prisoners of Love

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative says it can rehabilitate Texas prison inmates through God--a conservative evangelical Christian God, to be more precise

He remembers the date he was sent to prison--December 26, 1996--as if it were tattooed on his arm. It's the last day he saw his son. "God has shown me that it is good for him not to see me here," Escamilla says.

The whole experience broke him, and once in prison he quickly returned to God. He was a natural for the InnerChange program and made the transition easily. "Anyone can be a man," he says. "But to be God's man, a man who walks in humility and love and patience, that is what the program pushes, and it is transforming my life."

He winces when asked if all the inmates are on his same spiritual journey. "Twenty to 30 percent of the guys are here because they want to make parole, and they see this as a way to go home," he says. "They learn how to talk the talk, but when they get back to their cubicle, it's obvious they are conning the program and living their life without God."

Watergate conspirator and born-again Christian Chuck Colson is the inspirational force behind the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a pioneering faith-based prison program in Texas.
AP/Wide World Photo
Watergate conspirator and born-again Christian Chuck Colson is the inspirational force behind the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a pioneering faith-based prison program in Texas.

This comes as no surprise to Ruben Garza, a street-savvy IFI biblical counselor. "Prison culture requires that you find out what you need to say and do to get yourself out of here," he explains. Garza believes that half the men at InnerChange are serious about the program, another 25 percent are uncertain, while the other 25 percent aren't ready for it at all. "They have always depended on one person, themselves, and now we are asking them to depend on something that they can't even see or touch. But the environment is at least conducive to planting the seed."

Whether that seed will grow after a member makes parole falls under the purview of aftercare manager Larry Frank, a big bear of a man who is more likely to hug a stranger than shake his hand. He has supervised the 156 InnerChange members in Harris County who have been released since the program began, helping them with their transitions, catching them before they stumble.

Because Frank does not have the authority of a parole officer, the only method he has to keep InnerChange members involved in aftercare is by marketing its benefits. "The things I have to keep them hooked are jobs, housing, a nurturing church, and mentoring," he says. "But they can walk away from their aftercare any time they want." Frank claims he has only lost a dozen or so members, but no one at InnerChange is willing to offer any hard numbers on the program's success until the state does its evaluation next spring.

The most critical time for InnerChange parolees, says Frank, is the first 12 months after they leave prison. "They're forced to come down from the mountain and confront all the things they left behind."

Success often depends on the strength of the relationship between mentor and member. "We would like to see each man become part of the mentor's church and family," Frank says. "But even then, we expect them to hit a valley three to four months after they come out of prison. We call it spiritual ambivalence."

This ambivalence is generally precipitated by some form of rejection--the loss of a job or a girlfriend, a wife or brother-in-law who resents the holier-than-thou attitude of someone who has just gotten himself out of the state pen. "The biggest mistake our guys make is trying to pick up where they left off," Frank says. "The devil starts bringing back old survival thoughts." The member turns to marijuana, crack; it becomes easier, more familiar to lie around the house than go to work. That's where the mentor and the church come in, trying to rescue the parolee from himself, "to get him walking in the spirit rather than the flesh," Frank says.

Gerardo Escamilla has been instructed in all the ungodly traps that members must avoid once they walk through the back gate of the Vance Unit. Nevertheless, in May he is scheduled to begin his life all over again in the free world. A mentor has agreed to back him in the trucking business. Escamilla wants to see if he can get it right this time, "and get right with God," he says. He wonders what it will be like with his family. He invited his ex-wife to family reconciliation classes, but she didn't respond. She does write him, though, as does his 12-year-old son, who has made his father proud, maintaining an A average in school. Escamilla knows that when he sees his boy, they will be fine.

He also hasn't given up on his ex-wife, who hasn't remarried. "When I get out," he assures himself, "and we finally make eye contact, I know she will say to me, 'You really are that changed man you say you are.'"

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