Jesus in the Jailhouse

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

Modeled after an all-Christian prison in Brazil, the program first took root in Texas in 1997, with the blessing of then-Governor George W. Bush, who at the time was promoting faith-based programs as an alternative to government social efforts. Based on his own religious experience overcoming alcoholism, Bush believed that programs like InnerChange could do a better job than secular ones at solving social problems such as homelessness or drug addiction. He pledged that, if elected, he would increase funding for these sorts of programs.

In the decade since, the InnerChange program has become a model for faith-based initiatives. It has also had a far-reaching influence within the corrections community. Both the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison contractor, and the federal Bureau of Prisons now have facilities that run nondenominational programs similar to InnerChange. Prisons in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Arkansas and Missouri use the InnerChange program.

The program has caught on, supporters say, because when it comes to recidivism, nothing works better. Only 8 percent of the program's graduates are back in prison within three years, according to a 2003 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. On average, 50 percent of prisoners in the United States will be re-incarcerated.

Afternoon worship services such as this one are a regular part of life at the Vance Unit. Attendance is encouraged but not mandatory.
Afternoon worship services such as this one are a regular part of life at the Vance Unit. Attendance is encouraged but not mandatory.
Michael Jarmon, left, is an IFI re-entry specialist responsible for inmates in the Dallas area. His job is to make sure each one has a job, a mentor, a place to live and a church upon release.
Michael Jarmon, left, is an IFI re-entry specialist responsible for inmates in the Dallas area. His job is to make sure each one has a job, a mentor, a place to live and a church upon release.

"I think what you're seeing is a willingness to attack the problem in a different way," says Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley. "We've done a good job in getting criminals off the street and putting them behind bars, but we've done a miserable job in preparing them to re-enter society."

Yet in spite of the program's purported success, a court has already ordered it to shut down in one state, and critics hope that ruling will be the first step in abolishing "God pods" in American prisons. To these critics, InnerChange represents everything that's wrong with the faith-based programs that have flourished under Bush.

InnerChange, they say, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Last year, a federal judge in Iowa agreed, ruling that the IFI program in Iowa is "pervasively sectarian." If the ruling is upheld—a decision might come as early as May—it could open the door to lawsuits against other states that use the InnerChange program.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has said one more courthouse defeat "could well be the death knell" for InnerChange and programs like it. But it could also have broader implications. It could mean the beginning of the end for Bush's faith-based initiatives movement.


Outside the office, the lunch hour is drawing to a close. A faint aroma of boiling cabbage hangs in the air.

The interview now over, the prisoner gathers his personal documents and stuffs them back in the plastic sack on his lap. The man behind the desk rises to shake his hand. "We'll talk soon," he says.

His name is Michael Jarmon. He is tall, bald and walks with a bit of a limp—the result of bad knees, he says. Once a month, maybe more, Jarmon, a full-time IFI employee, comes to the prison to meet with men from the Dallas area who are a few months shy of release. He finds an empty office at the prison, sets up his laptop and goes to work.

One by one, the prisoners Jarmon has selected for the day's interviews come to see him. One has a tattoo of his daughter's name inscribed on his neck. Another shows Jarmon pictures of his grandchildren. One he will meet today has 10 children from eight women. The men talk to Jarmon as if he is an old friend. He teases, he scolds and he encourages.

At one point, he tells a prisoner to drop and give him 25 push-ups. The prisoner stares back at him, unsure what to say or do. And then Jarmon cracks a smile, and the room erupts in laughter.

For Jarmon this is a job, but it's also personal. At 18, he was arrested on a felony robbery conviction. Thanks to help from friends, he never served jail time on that conviction, and he stayed away from trouble from that point on. "I had someone to step in and help me out, show me a better way," he says. Now he's trying to do the same.

Jarmon is a re-entry specialist, and his job is to make sure "his guys," as he calls them, have a job, a place to go, a mentor and a church upon release. No other prison in Texas has an equivalent program.

"I got a guy," Jarmon says, turning the page on his yellow legal pad. "He used to work as a butcher, so I'm trying to get him on at this sausage plant. If we can get that set up, he's on his way."

Jarmon has built a network in the Dallas area of employers, churches and community organizations willing to help IFI parolees. They range from Bishop T.D. Jakes' Potter's House to a small restaurant near the Dallas Police Department headquarters that has hired IFI participants.

"Say a guy gets out and he's going to Fort Worth. He needs a place to stay and some clothes. I take care of it. I know churches where he can go to get clothes, places he can get groceries.

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