Pass the Plate

God and Texas taxpayers answer the prayers of a prison-based ministry

Last November, inmate Erik Indian stood before the latest group of candidates to enter the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), the faith-based prison program operated at the Vance Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, just outside of Houston. "I have been here 14 months straight, and I have never seen a stronger group than I am looking at right now," he said. The chorus of "amens" confirmed his evangelical flair. "Y'all came in here loving God. It took six months before my bunch could sit in here without fighting."

Through its controversial "Christ-centered, Bible-based" program, IFI seeks to rehabilitate convicts by pumping them full of Jesus, 24-7. ["Prisoners of Love," November 30, 2000]. The first of its kind in the nation, the program is sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was founded by born-again Watergate co-conspirator Chuck Colson. In 1997, then Gov. George W. Bush signed onto the idea, which helped define him as a "compassionate conservative" who sought faith-based alternatives to government programs.

Indian had come to the class looking for volunteers. The IFI program director had asked for a prayer chain--72 hours of nonstop praying from Friday night until Monday night. "The reason," Indian explained, "is that there are financial needs of InnerChange that have to be met." Although the state provides for the food, housing and security needs of IFI inmates, its $500,000 annual operating budget--from Bible-based counselors to Christ-centric educational materials--had only been funded by the largess of its donors.

Inmates near Houston join in prayer as part of InnerChange Freedom Initiative's prison ministry.
Robert Allred
Inmates near Houston join in prayer as part of InnerChange Freedom Initiative's prison ministry.

It may have taken six months, but in May, God and the Texas Legislature answered the prayers of these inmates. Despite there being no hard evidence that the program reduces recidivism, despite thorny constitutional questions about the use of public money to promote a decidedly fundamentalist Christian theology, despite there being no secular prison alternatives that offer non-IFI inmates similar mentoring, family reconciliation classes, aftercare or job opportunities upon parole--Texas lawmakers appropriated $1.5 million to expand the program to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And they did it in a way that bypassed public debate on the matter.

Jack Cowley, IFI's national director of operations, made no secret about it: He wanted the state to pick up the tab for the program's increased operating budget. Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director Wayne Scott may have been less forthcoming when his spokesman told the Dallas Observer that there would be no appropriation for IFI in the prison system's budget request for the 2001 legislative session. According to Cowley, Scott supported the expansion of the program to Dallas-Fort Worth (it now serves inmates from the Houston area only). And after the session began, state Rep. Talmadge Heflin, a Houston Republican, proposed an addition to the TDCJ budget request, which included the $1.5 million IFI appropriation.

"The request was not acted upon," says Houston state Rep. Sylvester Turner, Democratic chairman of the subcommittee that handles criminal justice funding. "Instead it was put in a wish list of things members would like to see funded."

Heflin (who was unavailable for comment) is also a member of the joint House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the final draft of the 2001 legislative budget. And during the horse-trading that followed, his IFI wish became a reality. Although the appropriations bill still requires the governor's signature, the full House and Senate adopted the 1,000-page, $113 billion state budget, with legislators likely paying scant attention to a paltry $1.5 million prison expense. Not that more public scrutiny would have made a difference. "You can pretty much discern that I am not opposed to faith-based initiatives," Turner says.

But First Amendment activists are livid about what they consider an unprecedented use of public money to support religion. "It's totally unbelievable," says Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights group. "It is one thing to accommodate this group by giving its inmates food or housing. But direct public funding of proselytizing with taxpayer dollars is another monster entirely."

Even the new Bush administration has promised there would be no government subsidy of religion in its faith-based initiatives, Benen says. "It's all right to pay for the soup in the soup kitchen but not the Bibles. If public monies are used for evangelizing, that certainly seems like a violation of the First Amendment."

But the threat of litigation is not enough to stop IFI, which, at times, seems to be gunning for a fight. "We wouldn't be surprised if someone decides to sue us," Cowley says. "The way we see it, as long as our program is satisfying a secular interest [reducing recidivism], what modality we use--singing hymns rather than watching TV--is not that great an issue."

Whether IFI is actually reducing recidivism, which in Texas hovers around 30 percent, has yet to be substantiated. The Legislature will have no hard data on the program's efficacy until the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council crunches IFI numbers in 2003. Only then will there be enough graduates of the program to make accurate statistical comparisons. But Cowley still feels comfortable discussing his own anecdotal findings: "We have 117 guys who have completed the 16-month program and seven are back in prison."

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