Jesus in the Jailhouse

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

"There's a lot more flexibility in these programs than one reading the lawsuit might think."

In Texas, for example, inmates are not required to attend the prison's religious services. The Vance Unit also brings in a Catholic priest or deacon to hold Catholic services and keeps prayer blankets on hand for Muslim inmates. A Muslim recently graduated from the program in Texas, Earley says.

"If you came here with different beliefs you'd go through the classes like anyone else. You'd be exposed to biblical doctrines, biblical truths, but at the end of the day, the choice is yours," says Dorsett, director of the IFI program at the Vance Unit. "There's no pressure to convert. You practice what you came here with, and who you are is who you are."

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.

Luchenitser says this is just rhetoric. "There's no way someone who's Jewish or Muslim or Roman Catholic can stay true to their faith and take part in this program," he says. "This program...teaches that its specific version of Christianity is the one true religion and in doing so it tells inmates that all other religions are wrong."

While only Iowa paid Prison Fellowship to run the program, all states that use the program provide indirect financial support in the form of facilities, guards, food and clothing for IFI participants, Luchenitser says. If the ruling in Iowa is upheld, his organization may file lawsuits against other states.

Critics of Bush's faith-based initiative say there has been little oversight of programs such as IFI. What's more, critics say, when it comes to doling out federal grant money, the Bush administration seems to favor religious applicants over secular ones. According to a recent lawsuit, the number of federal grants to religious groups increased 38 percent between 2003 and 2005.

"Before, what you had is money going to religious organizations, like Catholic Charities, who kept their secular services completely separate from their religious services," Luchenitser says. "Now you have these groups like InnerChange, which are essentially proselytizing groups. It's a clear example of government funding one religion over another."

InnerChange is just one of Bush's faith-based initiatives under attack. Since 2000, lawsuits have been filed in Arizona against a Christian mentoring program for the children of prisoners, in Alaska against a Christian college that provided a religious education program to teenage Native Americans living in isolated villages and in California against a Christian-based drug rehab program.

Participants in the program say they don't understand the controversy. Many of them are fervent—one could say evangelical—in the support of InnerChange and believe it's the best thing going in the entire American prison system, a truly revolutionary approach to rehabilitating prisoners.

"Why would anyone be bothered with it?" Dorsett says. "If we're successful, then people don't commit crimes, so we've got less victims and ultimately that's good for everyone.

"What people don't understand is, we have 155,000 people incarcerated in Texas, and of that number only 485 are on death row. Everyone else is eventually going to get out. So what do we want to accomplish while a person is incarcerated who is eventually going to be a citizen coming back to our communities? We can do absolutely nothing, or we can do some things to help."

It's nearly 3 p.m. at the Vance Unit. The afternoon worship service is about to begin. Jarmon rises from his desk and clicks off his computer. He is done with the day's interviews.

He crosses the commons room, where a group of inmates are watching The Andy Griffith Show. They sit on wooden benches, their legs stretched out, their feet resting on the concrete floor. At the end of one bench, an old man is fighting off sleep. The room erupts in laughter, and he jolts awake. He repositions the Bible on the bench beside him. Before long, he is nodding off again, snoring quietly.

Jarmon stops to admire the efforts of an inmate working on an oil painting of Jesus Christ. It will be entered in a contest with IFI participants in other prisons across the country. "Looks good," Jarmon says with a nod. Then he crosses the room, pausing again at the door to tease a pair of inmates playing chess.

He crosses the grass of the prison yard and enters the chapel, a brightly lit, warehouse-sized building. At the front, there is a wooden lectern.

The prison choir takes its place behind it. They are all dressed in white. They are thieves and drug addicts and dope dealers. One of them closes his eyes and begins to hum, finding the right note. The keyboardist joins in. The man on the drums, who has the words "Brown Power" tattooed on his forearms, finds the beat. A trumpet wails. And they begin to sing.

Holiness is what I need

Holiness, holiness is what I long for.

On the front row, a slender, quiet man sits alone. He wears white cotton that is beginning to fray. His hands, scarred here and there, rest on his lap. He taps his toe and nods with the beat.

His name is Jerry Richards, and so far, his life has been a disappointment.

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