Jesus in the Jailhouse

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


In 1974, a New York criminologist named Robert Martinson published a study on prisons in America titled "What Works, Questions and Answers About Prison Reform." For most of the 20th century, rehabilitation was viewed as a legitimate goal for prisons. But with rising crime rates and a burgeoning prison population, there was a growing disillusionment, both among the general public and within the corrections community, about the effectiveness of prisoner rehabilitation efforts.

Martinson studied 231 of these programs. He concluded that none of them worked. Not education, not psychotherapy, not anything else, could reverse "the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behavior." This became known as the "nothing works doctrine," and it became widely accepted. (Apparently, nothing worked for Martinson either: In 1980, he jumped from the ninth-floor window of his Manhattan apartment, killing himself as his son watched from across the room.)

By 1989, the United States had all but given up on rehabilitation in prisons. In January of that year, in a case called Mistretta v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines, which essentially ended the discussion on rehabilitation as a legitimate goal for the prison system. "Rehabilitation as a sound penological theory came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases," the court wrote. It went on to cite a Senate report which "referred to the 'outmoded rehabilitation model' for federal criminal sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed." This came at a time when politicians everywhere were promising to get tough on crime.

(This mentality, according to a recent report in the Texas Law Journal by Marie Gottschalk, has had alarming results: "The U.S. incarceration rate has accelerated dramatically, increasing five-fold between 1971 and 2000," she writes. "Today a higher proportion of the adult population is behind bars in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.")

Research over the past two decades has found that certain programs, in certain settings, do reduce recidivism. Viewed most optimistically, the typical prison rehabilitation program reduces recidivism by less than 10 percent, according to Byron Johnson, a researcher now at Baylor University.

In the mid-'90s, Johnson began studying two different prisons in Brazil that claimed exceptionally low recidivism rates. Both were in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous region. Then, as now, the Brazilian prison system was known as one of the most dangerous in the world. The national recidivism rate was somewhere between 50 to 70 percent, which is standard for most industrialized nations. Yet these two prisons claimed recidivism rates of less than 20 percent.

One of the prisons, called Braganca, was run by a nonprofit corporation. The prison essentially operated as a factory. Local companies contracted with the prison for labor, and the inmates were paid a small wage—the rest went back into the coffers of the nonprofit. The other prison, called Humaita, had completely turned over its operations to a group of religious volunteers, who worked as the prison's guards, cooks and even its warden. The prison was saturated with religious programming and instruction. The program had three main components: family visits, spiritual mentoring and work release.

Johnson and a team of researchers tracked 148 prisoners from Humaita and 247 from Braganca who were released between 1996 and 1999 to see how many would wind up back in prison. In general, the prisoners from Humaita were imprisoned for more violent crimes and had spent more time in prison than inmates at Braganca.

Johnson concluded that both prisons had successfully reduced recidivism, but that Humaita, which had a recidivism rate of just 16 percent, was far more successful: Prisoners at Braganca were three times more likely to wind up back in prison.

When the Texas Legislature approved the InnerChange program in 1997, it did so under one condition—the program had to work. It charged the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council with monitoring the program and determining if it effectively reduced recidivism.

With the support of CJPC and Prison Fellowship, Johnson began a study of the IFI program in 1997. At the time, Johnson was director of the Center for Research and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. The study would last for six years and include more than 125 interviews with inmates. The research team would make hundreds of visits to the Vance Unit over the years, at all hours of the day and night.

"Over the first year of its existence," researchers wrote, the prison "began to take on the identity of a 'church community.'" They described the environment as "extremely open, supportive, upbeat, friendly and nurturing."

Most prisons are infected with what is known as the "prison code," Johnson wrote. It teaches that prisoners can't trust anyone, especially authority figures. Showing any sort of emotion, or talking about feelings, is a sign of weakness. Violence, sexual aggression and allegiances based on racism and hatred are promoted. These antisocial attitudes probably contribute more than anything else to recidivism, Johnson noted. Some corrections officials think the code is so pervasive that most prisoners are beyond reclaiming.

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