Jesus in the Jailhouse

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

Johnson found that the IFI program counteracted this mentality in a number of ways. First, it taught inmates that they were not on their own, that they were part of a community, and as such they were not only accountable for their own actions but were also responsible for those around them. They were encouraged to file "drop slips," or misconduct reports, when they saw inmates breaking rules. Some inmates refused to participate at first, insisting that they were above snitching. But over time, successful participants in the program began to understand the purpose of this exercise.

The program also helped inmates, according to the study, "realize that people on the outside do care about them, rather than believing that society as a whole has rejected them."

One inmate told researchers that he couldn't believe his mentor would regularly come to see him when he had a job, a family and kids already occupying his time.

A group of inmates pray before beginning a class.
A group of inmates pray before beginning a class.
At Vance, biblical principles are applied in all classes, including GED courses such as the one pictured.
At Vance, biblical principles are applied in all classes, including GED courses such as the one pictured.

"My mentor stopped by here last night on his way home from Virginia," another was quoted as saying. "His wife picked him up at the airport and brought him straight here on Tuesday night before going home. Can you believe that? And then his wife waited in the prison parking lot for two hours while he was in here mentoring me. I can't understand how someone could care that much."

Another said his mentor had helped him set goals, something he had never done before.

The focus of the study became a group of 177 inmates who were released before September 1, 2000. Johnson wanted to know where the inmates would be two years after release. The IFI program contained many of the characteristics criminologists considered essential to a successful prison rehabilitation effort, but did it work?

The group was compared with 1,754 inmates who met the IFI selection criteria but did not participate in the program. In 2003, Johnson and his team released their findings. Of the 177 selected for study, only 75 had completed all phases of the program, meaning more than half had dropped out.

Graduates of the program, however, had done quite well: During the two-year tracking period, only 8 percent were re-incarcerated, compared with 20 percent from the matched group, and only 17 percent of the program's graduates were re-arrested, compared with 35 percent of the comparison group.

But it wasn't all good news. When considering all participants, including those who dropped out or didn't complete the program, 36 percent of IFI participants were re-arrested, compared with 35 percent of the matched group. And 24 percent were re-incarcerated, compared with 20 percent from the control group. Had the IFI program made them worse? "Is it possible," the study asked, "that after a certain time period in such an intensive program there is a point of diminishing or even negative returns?"

While the study was widely trumpeted as proof that the IFI program was effective (The Wall Street Journal used it to bash those who opposed faith-based initiatives), others saw it as evidence that the program didn't work. In a 2003 story by the Houston Press, a UCLA professor of public policy named Mark Kleiman said the study didn't really prove anything. It "gives you this happy horseshit about the graduates, but [the program] is a loser," he said. He accused InnerChange of selecting inmates who already had the drive and discipline to succeed.

But Johnson has not backed off from his conclusions. Last year, an updated version of the study was republished by Baylor's Center for Religious Inquiry Across the Disciplines, of which Johnson is now the director. If inmates complete all phases of the program, his research suggests, they will in all likelihood never come back to prison.

Two weeks into his first term, surrounded by a group of black pastors and evangelical leaders, President Bush announced the formation of the first-ever White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "The days of discrimination against religious institutions, just because they are religious, must come to an end," he declared.

In the run-up to the presidency, Bush had labeled himself a "compassionate conservative" and had promised that if elected he would increase funding to faith-based groups. "Whenever my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives," he said.

He often brought up two examples that he had supported as Texas governor: Teen Challenge, a Christian drug rehab program that claimed an astonishing 86 percent success rate, and the InnerChange program. InnerChange was especially close to his heart. He had often brought up InnerChange during his presidential campaign. At one press conference, held at the prison, he walked over to a row of inmates, put his arms around two convicted murderers, and joined them in the singing of "Amazing Grace." "There is a presence in this place," Bush said. A Washington Post reporter later asked him why he supported religious programs such as InnerChange, even though there was scant empirical evidence they worked.

"My answer to that is, 'Let's try,'" Bush said. "The old way in most cases, in a lot of cases, has not done a good job of meeting societal goals."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help