Jesus in the Jailhouse

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

"I go around to businesses, I say, 'This is my guy, he's a felon, but he's a good guy. He has a mentor, he has a parole officer, he has to be at work on time, he has to be drug-tested. Give him a chance.'"

Jarmon calls in the next inmate. His name is Paul Johnson, he is 51, and he is from South Dallas. He is a heavy-set man with thick arms and a double chin. His fingernails could use clipping. Like Richards, he is missing a few teeth.

His bio goes like this: Father was a truck driver, mother worked two jobs. Pretty much raised himself, he says. At the age of 18, he robbed a bank. He did six years on a 25-year sentence, went through "a good dry season" and then got caught up on parole violations. In total, he has been in prison five times.

Tommie Dorsett is the director of the IFI program at the Vance Unit. A former parole officer, he says there's no telling which program graduates will succeed once they re-enter the world.
Tommie Dorsett is the director of the IFI program at the Vance Unit. A former parole officer, he says there's no telling which program graduates will succeed once they re-enter the world.
Jerry Richards, 48, learned to read at Vance.
Jerry Richards, 48, learned to read at Vance.

"I chose a crooked path to follow: the life of drugs, the life of crime," he says in his deep baritone. "If I could do it all over again, there are things I would change."

The Vance Unit is a highly selective unit, and the truth is, Johnson is lucky to be here. It doesn't take sex offenders, and because it is a low-security unit, it won't accept prisoners who pose a safety risk.

To be in Vance, inmates must have a "minimum-out" status, meaning they can work outside the fence line with little supervision. Only inmates from the Houston or Dallas areas who are within two years of release are considered for the program, because it's easier to find mentors and volunteers from these areas who will regularly come into the prison.

Upon completing a 30-day trial period, IFI staff decide whether the inmate will be allowed in the program. Critics say this amounts to cherry-picking; IFI staff say their program works only in an environment where inmates feel safe.

"We get you over here and we isolate you from general population and we work on your core issues," Jarmon says. "You're not going to get guys to make transformational-type decisions in a hostile environment. If you've got to constantly be watching your back, you can't learn."

At first, Johnson says, he saw the program as a game. He believed in God, but he wasn't overly religious. If he could fake his way through the religious aspects of the program, he could take advantage of the prison's amenities. This is common, IFI staff say. Some come for the air-conditioned classrooms; others come for better access to treatment programs, which are necessary for parole; and others apply because they're allowed more visits. They don't come for the religion.

But the program isn't as easy as it's made out to be. Johnson is required to get up every morning at 5:30. Then throughout the day there are classes. Some deal with Bible instruction, others with job skills—like what to wear to an interview. Johnson spends time every day working toward his high school diploma. Richards, the last man Jarmon met with, has learned to read in the prison.

At night, until 10:30, the prisoners are involved in evening programming. This could mean meeting with mentors (each inmate is assigned a mentor after six months; they will stay in contact at least a year after release) or listening to crime victims tell their stories. On weekends, there is special programming, like the occasional "Date With Dad" event in which the children of prisoners are brought in for a day with their fathers.

In the beginning, says IFI Texas director Tommie Dorsett, the program was "pretty much Bible study 24/7." But it has evolved. "We recognized that there was an imbalance. Now we strive for a more holistic approach—education, getting your GED and the minimal vocational stuff we can offer in 18 months."

Over time, Johnson's perception of the program changed. He began to look at the world differently. Simply put, he felt hope for the first time in a long while.

"If you come here and you apply yourself to this curriculum and take on everything these people offer you, man, it can open up a lot of things," he says. "You give up your issues as well, your anger, your lust, all your issues that you had that always kept you in bondage to Satan. These people can help you break these bonds through this curriculum."

Jarmon says the true test for Johnson will begin when he gets out of prison. Will he keep in touch with his mentor? Will he keep going to church? And when he faces the first setback, where will he turn?

"I tell my guys, 'Give me a year, stop making decisions on your own. Your decisions lead to you going to jail. Don't make those decisions for yourself anymore, allow me to help you.'"

After 10 years of running the program, Dorsett says there's no telling who will make it and who won't.

"I've seen guys who can quote the Bible backward and forward, understand theology, and I think, 'This guy is going to do well.' And he crashes and burns. Then there's guys that just go through the motions, and they do very well. You just never know."

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