Jesus in the Jailhouse

Old-time religion confronts 21st-century Texas prisons: Does it work, and is it constitutional?

The prisoner, dressed in white cotton that's beginning to fray, ducks into the office and glances around nervously. The man behind the desk asks him to take a seat.

The prisoner sits on a metal chair, his knees together, his scuffed work boots placed squarely on the floor. He is a quiet, slender man, with a gap where his two front teeth should be. His hands, scarred here and there, rest in his lap, and below them, in a plastic sack, is the rest of his life—a thin sheaf of papers, full of hand-written instructions and Post-It notes, that details how much time he has left and where he will go when he gets out. His name is Jerry Richards, he is 48, and so far, his life has been a disappointment.

This is his third time in the pen. A three-time loser, in jailhouse parlance. In two months, he will leave this prison, just outside of Houston, and return to his sister's home in Oak Cliff. This is a sort of exit interview. It is taking place in one of the prison offices—a brightly lit room of white cinder block.

The Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston, Texas, uses the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates.
AP/Wide World Photo
The Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston, Texas, uses the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates.
Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976.
Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976.

"What kind of work do you do?" the man across the table asks. He wears slacks and black cowboy boots.

"Well," Richards says, letting out a soft sigh, "I do plumbing work; I do roofing."

The man writes this down on a yellow legal pad.

"Do you have substance abuse in your background?"

"Yes, sir. Crack cocaine."

Well, they're probably going to have you take some classes for that, the man says. And you're probably going to have to wear an ankle monitor. Richards looks up from the floor and nods.

"What about church?" the man asks.

"I'll probably be going with my sister."

"And you'll be needing a mentor?" But this is more a declaration than a question. When Richards gets out, he will have a mentor; the man across the desk will make sure of that.

This time will be different, Richards says. Since the age of 21, he's been addicted to drugs. At 24, craving a fix, he mugged a woman at gunpoint. He did about four years on that charge, and he has been in and out of prison ever since.

But he is a changed man now, thanks to the things he has learned in this prison. He has taken public-speaking classes and learned how to format a résumé on a computer, and when he gets out there will be a job waiting for him.

But the biggest change, Richards says, has been internal. Thanks to the staff and the programs available here, he has come to know Jesus like never before.

"I want to live for the Lord," he says. "I want to do the right thing."

The man on the other side of the table nods his head emphatically. This is exactly what he wants to hear.

From the outside, the Carol S. Vance Unit looks like any other minimum-security prison in Texas—a cluster of brick buildings, a fence topped with razor wire, a group of inmates loitering in the yard.

But this prison is different. It is unlike any other in Texas. In fact, there are few like it in the world. Journalists from England and France have come to visit it. Corrections officials from as far away as Singapore have traveled here to study its unusual and controversial methods, which recently have been challenged in court.

Inside the prison, the cinder block walls are decorated with murals depicting biblical events such as the crucifixion of Christ and an apocalyptic vision from the book of Revelation. In one of the offices down the hall, a pencil drawing of Mother Teresa hangs above a desk.

The inmates are different too. They carry Bibles as if they were prison-issue. They talk incessantly of Jesus. Some even wake as early as 4:30 a.m. to study Scripture and pray. And it is not uncommon to see men of various races, marked with tattoos of rival prison gangs, circled together to pray.

On Sundays, there are revivals, led by either the prison staff or by evangelical churches from nearby Houston. These meetings sometimes end with inmates streaming to the front of the chapel to be baptized in a dunk tank. Visitors have remarked that the Vance Unit feels more like a Bible college than a prison.

The unit operates under an unusual agreement, the first of its kind in the United States. The state is responsible for the physical care and safety of the 281 inmates, but the programming—which defines the day-to-day life of the prison—is the responsibility of an evangelical Christian organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Founded in 1976 by famed Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, the Virginia-based ministry runs weekly Bible studies and seminars in more than 1,300 state and federal prisons. These programs focus on things such as "surviving life in prison" and "building a relationship with God." But the program Prison Fellowship runs at the Vance Unit is far more ambitious.

It is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, or IFI, and in the last 10 years it has had a dramatic influence on prisons across the country. Its basic premise is that criminal behavior is the result of a sinful heart. "Acceptance of God and biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit," IFI material states. "Transformation happens through an instantaneous miracle."

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