Jesus in the Jailhouse

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

The prisoner, dressed in white cotton that's beginning to fray, ducks into the office and glances around nervously. The man behind the desk asks him to take a seat.

The prisoner sits on a metal chair, his knees together, his scuffed work boots placed squarely on the floor. He is a quiet, slender man, with a gap where his two front teeth should be. His hands, scarred here and there, rest in his lap, and below them, in a plastic sack, is the rest of his life—a thin sheaf of papers, full of hand-written instructions and Post-It notes, that details how much time he has left and where he will go when he gets out. His name is Jerry Richards, he is 48, and so far, his life has been a disappointment.

This is his third time in the pen. A three-time loser, in jailhouse parlance. In two months, he will leave this prison, just outside of Houston, and return to his sister's home in Oak Cliff. This is a sort of exit interview. It is taking place in one of the prison offices—a brightly lit room of white cinder block.

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.
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.
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.
Anthony Johnson, who has the words "Brown Power" tattooed on his arms, is serving time on an aggravated assault charge.
Anthony Johnson, who has the words "Brown Power" tattooed on his arms, is serving time on an aggravated assault charge.
Paul Johnson, 51, says he initially saw the program as a game.
Paul Johnson, 51, says he initially saw the program as a game.
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.

"What kind of work do you do?" the man across the table asks. He wears slacks and black cowboy boots.

"Well," Richards says, letting out a soft sigh, "I do plumbing work; I do roofing."

The man writes this down on a yellow legal pad.

"Do you have substance abuse in your background?"

"Yes, sir. Crack cocaine."

Well, they're probably going to have you take some classes for that, the man says. And you're probably going to have to wear an ankle monitor. Richards looks up from the floor and nods.

"What about church?" the man asks.

"I'll probably be going with my sister."

"And you'll be needing a mentor?" But this is more a declaration than a question. When Richards gets out, he will have a mentor; the man across the desk will make sure of that.

This time will be different, Richards says. Since the age of 21, he's been addicted to drugs. At 24, craving a fix, he mugged a woman at gunpoint. He did about four years on that charge, and he has been in and out of prison ever since.

But he is a changed man now, thanks to the things he has learned in this prison. He has taken public-speaking classes and learned how to format a résumé on a computer, and when he gets out there will be a job waiting for him.

But the biggest change, Richards says, has been internal. Thanks to the staff and the programs available here, he has come to know Jesus like never before.

"I want to live for the Lord," he says. "I want to do the right thing."

The man on the other side of the table nods his head emphatically. This is exactly what he wants to hear.


From the outside, the Carol S. Vance Unit looks like any other minimum-security prison in Texas—a cluster of brick buildings, a fence topped with razor wire, a group of inmates loitering in the yard.

But this prison is different. It is unlike any other in Texas. In fact, there are few like it in the world. Journalists from England and France have come to visit it. Corrections officials from as far away as Singapore have traveled here to study its unusual and controversial methods, which recently have been challenged in court.

Inside the prison, the cinder block walls are decorated with murals depicting biblical events such as the crucifixion of Christ and an apocalyptic vision from the book of Revelation. In one of the offices down the hall, a pencil drawing of Mother Teresa hangs above a desk.

The inmates are different too. They carry Bibles as if they were prison-issue. They talk incessantly of Jesus. Some even wake as early as 4:30 a.m. to study Scripture and pray. And it is not uncommon to see men of various races, marked with tattoos of rival prison gangs, circled together to pray.

On Sundays, there are revivals, led by either the prison staff or by evangelical churches from nearby Houston. These meetings sometimes end with inmates streaming to the front of the chapel to be baptized in a dunk tank. Visitors have remarked that the Vance Unit feels more like a Bible college than a prison.

The unit operates under an unusual agreement, the first of its kind in the United States. The state is responsible for the physical care and safety of the 281 inmates, but the programming—which defines the day-to-day life of the prison—is the responsibility of an evangelical Christian organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Founded in 1976 by famed Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, the Virginia-based ministry runs weekly Bible studies and seminars in more than 1,300 state and federal prisons. These programs focus on things such as "surviving life in prison" and "building a relationship with God." But the program Prison Fellowship runs at the Vance Unit is far more ambitious.

It is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, or IFI, and in the last 10 years it has had a dramatic influence on prisons across the country. Its basic premise is that criminal behavior is the result of a sinful heart. "Acceptance of God and biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit," IFI material states. "Transformation happens through an instantaneous miracle."

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.

"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.

"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.

"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."


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.

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.

"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."

Several years later, in 2005, Bush stood before another group of religious leaders, this time in a ballroom at a Washington, D.C. hotel. "It is said that faith can move mountains," he said. "Here in Washington, D.C., those helping the poor and needy often run up against a big mountain called bureaucracy. And I'm here to talk about how to move that mountain so that we can partner with programs to reach out to people who hurt."

In the past year, Bush announced, his administration had awarded $2 billion in grants to faith-based programs, the most the federal government had given in one year to religious charities.

Not everyone was pleased. When Bush made the announcement, a number of lawsuits were in the works that challenged the constitutionality of his faith-based initiative. One of those lawsuits took direct aim at InnerChange.

The suit, filed by a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, specifically targeted InnerChange in Iowa, the only state that had agreed to pay Prison Fellowship to run the program. In other states the program is funded by private donations. The suit had two main arguments: that the IFI program was discriminatory, and that in sponsoring it, the state of Iowa was promoting one form of religion over another, a violation of the First Amendment.

It argued that participants in the program were given special benefits not available to other inmates and that the real goal of the program was not to lower recidivism rates but to convert people to Christianity.

As evidence, it introduced a fund-raising letter from Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson that read: "We don't run IFI to reduce recidivism rates...We run this program so that through the Gospel, people's lives might be changed...so that the world around us will see the transforming power of Jesus Christ and be drawn to accept him as Lord."

According to the lawsuit, participants in the program were taught what is widely considered a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible—wives should be subservient to their husbands, homosexuality is a sin and non-Christian religions are "of Satan."

As evidence, Americans United entered the diary of a program participant. "Today we had some serious Catholic bashing in class," the diary read. "It hurt me very deeply. Never before had I heard serious criticism toward my faith."

The participant, Michael A. Bauer, would quit the program after a year because he felt IFI staff were hostile to his Roman Catholic beliefs. On one occasion, he said, they compared the Pope to Hitler and told him if he didn't leave the Catholic church he would burn in hell. Members of other minority faiths—including Jews, Mormons and Wiccans—had similar complaints. One Muslim inmate said if he were to participate in the program he would be committing blasphemy, according to the suit.

IFI classes, regardless of the subject matter, were buttressed by biblical principles, and religious references were constant, sometimes every few minutes, even in computer classes. "The application of biblical principles is not an agenda item," the IFI Web site stated. "It is the agenda."

Homework assignments dealt with Christian doctrine, and inmates were required to memorize Bible verses, attend morning devotionals, afternoon worship services and Friday night revivals. In a class called "Praise and Worship," inmates were taught the proper way to pray, the suit alleged.

Participants in the program also received special benefits not offered to other Iowa prisoners, the suit said. Their cells, for example, had wooden doors that could be locked. They had access to private bathrooms, while inmates in general population squatted in toilets side by side. They were also allowed more visitors, given prison jobs and had easier access to treatment programs that would put them on the fast track to parole.

In October 2005, the suit went to trial. During opening arguments, Americans United lawyer Alex Luchenitser told the court that the true nature of the InnerChange program was undeniable. "InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church," he said.

Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, agreed with the claims brought by Americans United. He noted that inmates of other religions were asked "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate." In giving participants of the program benefits not available to other Iowa inmates, the state had violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. He ordered Prison Fellowship to repay the state of Iowa the $1.5 million it had spent on the program.

Prison Fellowship appealed the ruling, and the case is now before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, a three-member panel that includes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"The whole lawsuit is full of allegations that we disagree with," Earley says. "Our big contention with the case in general was that the decision was not based upon what actually occurred in the program in Iowa, but what was really based on allegations of what occurred in Iowa, and really more based on the fact that the program had a Christian emphasis.

"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."

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...