Prisoners of Love

If you want to survive prison, there is only one way to do your time: Mind your own business. Prison culture demands that you keep to yourself and show no weakness, emotion, or tears unless you want to be someone's punk or prey. Someone disrespects you, plays on you by stealing your stuff, you better get your respect back and fast. There's no such thing as trust in the pen: Cozy up to the guards, and you're marked as a snitch. Cozy up to another inmate, and you'd better be sure he's not running some con on you. Prison is no place to make friends.

That is, unless you're transferred to the Carol S. Vance Unit at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility outside Sugar Land. From a distance, the prison looks like any other--a cluster of brick and concrete structures surrounded by acres of furrowed farmland. Vance is a minimum-security penitentiary--but not so minimum that a 12-foot chain-link fence topped by 3 feet of razor wire won't stop a wild romp through Houston's nightlife only 30 miles away.

But gain access to the secured area just past the guards, and things begin to look almost ethereal. The prison yard is a well-manicured flower garden. A "hallelujah tent" offers an outdoor sanctuary for communal prayer. Inmates walk around virtually unrestricted, carrying Bibles as though they were regulation prison-issue. They stop to chat, hugging each other openly while exchanging I-love-yous.

"This is agape love, not sexual love," Warden Fred Becker says. "The whole way the program operates is rather nontraditional. It took us a while to learn how to deal with it."

The 200 or so inmates who occupy more than half of the Vance Unit live in cubicles, not cells; they are called members, not inmates; and they are part of a controversial "Christ-centered, biblically based" program--the first of its kind in the nation--that hopes to rehabilitate convicts by pumping them full of God, 24-7.

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, a worldwide organization founded by born-again Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson after he served seven months in prison for obstruction of justice. That IFI first took seed in Texas in 1997 had much to do with Gov. George W. Bush seeking to define himself both in Texas and nationally as a compassionate conservative. Bush supports faith-based initiatives that limit the government's role in providing social services such as welfare and drug treatment while expanding the role of churches. "Charitable choice" has become a political catchphrase for those who seek a religious alternative to the government's social safety net, even if it means using taxpayer dollars to fund nonsecular programs. But it does create problems for those who fear faith-based initiatives will tear down the wall between church and state by using public money to promote Christianity and subsidize religious discrimination.

Nevertheless, Bush has promised, if elected president, to bring faith-based programs to at least four federal prisons. Vice President Al Gore has also touted faith-based programming as a cornerstone of his social-service agenda. IFI has begun similar programs in Kansas and Iowa and has received inquiries from more than a dozen other states and countries. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees 163,000 state inmates, supports expanding the InnerChange program to women as well as men and implementing the program beyond the Houston area to include Dallas and Fort Worth. Much depends on the upcoming session of the Legislature. Prison Fellowship Ministries has always raised private donations to support InnerChange operations, and for the first time lawmakers will be asked to approve public funding for the program.

The support for Bible-based prisons is being generated without hard research that shows whether they are lowering the recidivist rate, which in Texas hovers around 30 percent. Although IFI is still accumulating data, the program claims that its parolees re-offend far less often than parolees from the general prison population. Since the few secular rehabilitation programs in Texas prisons don't seem to be making an impact, IFI claims God is the only way to go.

As the program seeks to "transform" the inmate from the "inside out" by immersing him in an otherworldly environment, it may be creating a biblical worldview that its inmates can't sustain after they make parole. No doubt IFI inmates are offered valuable rehabilitative tools--mentoring, aftercare, family reconciliation classes, a job upon release. But for the state to deny inmates who are not evangelical Christians these same programs on a secular basis may be unconstitutional, as well as unfair. InnerChange argues their programming just won't work without the nonstop God: It's the Bible, with its moral structure and theology of forgiveness, that enables hardened convicts to rebuild their shattered lives.

InnerChange member Kevin Bigelow sits in the prison library and claims he has read every book--religious or otherwise--among the stacks. He's a Christian now, and if there is anyone in the program that can out-Jesus the other members with his superior biblical knowledge, it's Bigelow. At 38, he seems caring, thoughtful, but acts as if he is smarter than everyone else. If it weren't for the fact that he was addicted to stealing, he may never have gotten caught--four times.

As a kid, Bigelow was bored by school in Youngstown, Ohio, where his mother moved to marry for the fourth time. Bigelow, born in Dallas, came from a family of nine children, never knew his father, and rarely spent time with his mother, who worked two jobs. "She did the best she could to make sure her kids had a roof over their heads," he says. But Bigelow and his three brothers ran around Youngstown unfettered.

Rather than attend high school, the Bigelow brothers operated a burglary ring, at first breaking into houses just to see if they could. With that thrill came the realization that they were sitting on valuable merchandise that could easily be fenced for cash. The brothers were so successful that they bought two new cars, a boat, even paid cash for an $80,000 house in a nearby town. Their mother only found out about their enterprising ways when a friend snitched to the police to save her own skin. But their mother refused to let her sons learn their lesson from behind bars. When Kevin was released from juvenile detention after just a few weeks, he followed her to Houston.

Bigelow was a hard case, tightly wound and stubborn. Because he believed he knew more than everyone else, he grew reckless and took stupid chances as he sated his appetite for money, cars, and women. He figured the worst thing that could happen to him was a short trip to the pen, and during the '80s the state of Texas was only too happy to oblige.

Bigelow went to prison three times for various forms of larceny, serving no more than a few months before making parole. Although he earned his GED and a college degree behind bars, he says the only thing that prison taught him was how to be a better criminal.

In the early '90s, Bigelow graduated to con artist as he swindled those who brought him their family heirlooms for appraisal. Once caught, he was sentenced to 25 years, but his chance of quick release was stymied by an expanded Texas prison system that no longer needed to parole inmates to avoid overcrowding.

Doing time was no problem for Bigelow: His reputation for splitting open the head of another inmate with a mop bucket preceded him. During the first few years of his sentence, Bigelow got religion, but more as an academic exercise, studying the Bible when he became the librarian for the prison chaplain. He grew familiar with Latin and Greek, and his insatiable intellectual curiosity put him in contact with a Bible study ministry, where he learned about the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. The main condition for his participation in the program was that he be within 18-24 months of his release date.

After a 30-day introduction followed by a 30-day orientation, Bigelow was selected as an IFI member. He wasted no time falling into lockstep with the appropriate mindset. "Those of us who were chosen believe it was God's will," he says.

IFI member Erik Indian stands before the latest group of candidates to enter the program and praises both them and God. "I have been here 14 months, and I have never seen a stronger group than I am looking at right now." Indian delivers his words with the cadence of a tent preacher. "Y'all came in here loving God. It took six months before my bunch could sit in here without fighting."

Indian has come here to ask for volunteers among his fellow inmates. Tommie Dorsett, the IFI program director, has asked for a prayer chain--72 hours of nonstop praying from 7 p.m. Friday until 7 p.m. Monday. "The reason," Indian explains, "is that there are financial needs of InnerChange that have to be met." He points to a prayer sign-up sheet, 144 slots of 30 minutes each. "Now what is prayer? Not only is it you talking to God, it's also when God talks to you!"

A chorus of amens rings out.

Volunteering to pray at InnerChange is like volunteering to wear make-up at a Mary Kay convention. Some members wake up as early as 4 a.m. to get in some private Bible time. For others, a 5:30 a.m. breakfast brings Christian fellowship. Next comes the community devotional under the hallelujah tent. InnerChange life skills classes go from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. Biblical counselors teach members how to live with patience, understanding, and tolerance, using Jesus Christ as their role model. They are taught to abide by strict guidelines: no dancing, drinking, profanity, homosexuality, or masturbation (which always provokes a lively debate in prison). If members can live by this rigid code and understand what God (or at least evangelical Christianity) expects of them, their lives, they are told, will become less chaotic, more manageable.

"We believe that crime is a result of a sinful heart," says Jack Cowley, IFI's national director of operations. It's not enough that a counselor tells an inmate to stop "raping a 2-year old child," says Cowley, or that the therapist discovers whatever childhood trauma caused the inmate to rape. The inmate won't stop unless he believes God wants him to stop. "If you explain the relationship that Christ wants to have with them and acquaint them with the foundation of truth that rests in the Bible, something mystical happens. He will be transformed."

The InnerChange Web site claims the program is open to all faiths and denominations as long as inmates are willing to "participate in a Christ-centered, biblically based program." Yet it isn't enough to believe in "Christian values" to be transformed. IFI teaches that true inner change can only occur when Jesus is accepted as one's personal savior--which must make it difficult for Muslims and Jews.

"I told a Muslim going through the program that if he didn't have a relationship with Jesus, he was going to hell," Cowley says. "Our concern is to lower the recidivism rate, but our ministry is to save souls for Christ."

On weekends, InnerChange members are allowed to visit with their families, unrestricted by steel bars or glass partitions. Unlike other minimum-security prisons, light kissing, hugging, and hand-holding with visiting family are not only permitted but encouraged. Weekday evenings, members and their families participate in reconciliation classes using biblical principals of forgiveness to bridge the pain, fear, and deceit inflicted by the inmate on his family. "We use basic psychological principles, but we platform them on biblical principles," says IFI biblical counselor Cherry Pleasant (whom the members call Mama). "We look at what it means to be a man of God and try and teach what God intended the role of men and women to be."

Men are commanded by God to be providers, Pleasant says, to subdue the earth, be fruitful, and multiply. Women are intuitive, detail-oriented, and emotional. They must complement, not compete with men and must submit to the authority of their husbands, "but only if he is a man of God," Pleasant quickly adds. "That always creates quite a stir among the women."

Evenings also bring Christian volunteers who conduct classes on restorative justice, which attempt to promote forgiveness and empathy by engaging inmates in conversation with crime victims; biblically based substance abuse programs and GED and computer classes also are held.

Within six months of entering the program, each inmate is assigned a Christian mentor, a volunteer from the Houston area who agrees to spend at least three hours a week for the next 12 months counseling, teaching, and hand-holding his new protégé. Mentors play a big part in an inmate's "re-entry program," introducing them to the mentor's church and family. The program virtually guarantees that each inmate will have a job upon release, and Christian businessmen from the community hold seminars in interview skills and résumé writing, offering inmates employment as part of the program. In addition to a job, each inmate upon release is expected by the program to have a place to live, a Christian mentor, and a church to attend. These are not conditions of parole, so the members are free to disregard them without fear that the state will return them to prison.

"This program is not for everybody. The first batch we had were a bunch of manipulators," Warden Becker admits. "But if this transformation is taking place like it appears to be, it will be a guiding torch for prisons around the world."

Even though InnerChange is expanding its operations to other states and countries, even though it operates from a solely Christian theology and its promise of lowering the recidivist rate has yet to be substantiated, criticism of the program has been largely nonexistent.

"Most people figure that if it makes my mama feel safer when she goes to the Wal-Mart, then what do I care if they are praying every day," Cowley says.

Yet there are serious First Amendment questions presented by faith-based initiatives, which some claim are eroding the wall separating church and state. The conservative desire for limited government and privatization helped enable the passage of a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill called charitable choice. This federal legislation allows faith-based organizations to administer welfare programs with public funds as long as there are secular alternatives. The bill gets fuzzy when mandating the extent of religious involvement allowed in these programs. While it bans outright proselytizing with public funds, it allows a faith-based organization to retain the "practice and expression of its religious beliefs" while providing its "public purpose." It also protects the right of those receiving help to be free from religious coercion. Although charitable choice is a federal law, its application has been expanded in Texas under the Bush administration, which maintains its own faith-based task force.

In 1996, Carol Vance, the former Houston district attorney and then-chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, approached Bush about implementing a faith-based prison in Texas. Vance had visited Brazil with Chuck Colson, where they toured a Christian prison that claimed it had lowered the recidivist rate of its inmates from 80 percent to 4 percent. Bush signed onto the plan, looking for ways to lower the staggering Texas recidivist rate, which at that time hovered around 48 percent. In addition to IFI, the state also allocated money to secular rehabilitation programs within the prison system, including substance-abuse and sex offender treatment units. But none of these programs was as extensive or as inmate-friendly as the church-state partnership reached with Prison Fellowship Ministries. Under its contract, the state would provide security, housing, and food for IFI members, but Prison Fellowship Ministries would raise the program's $500,000 annual operating budget. For Bush, there could be no better expression of compassionate conservatism: a small ministry offering a viable alternative to a big government bureaucracy.

After Bush decided to run for president, he would speak about InnerChange on the stump, promising to expand faith-based prisons into the federal system. His campaign asked Jack Cowley to speak at the Republican National Convention, though his speech was whittled down to seven minutes.

Only recently have First Amendment advocates begun to challenge the constitutionality of charitable choice in the courts. In July, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a Jewish civil liberties organization, filed suit in Austin alleging that Texas state officials should not have given public money to a church group in Brenham that used Christian theology to prepare welfare recipients for work. AJC contends that any public money spent on preaching violates church-state separation and subsidizes religious discrimination.

Even though InnerChange doesn't receive state money and ostensibly makes participation voluntary, AJC staff attorney Marc Stern still finds it constitutionally offensive. "The theory of charitable choice is at least there is a choice," Stern says. "On a secular basis, Texas doesn't provide the kinds of rehabilitative services that InnerChange does. There are no family programs, no mentoring or aftercare. If you want to be rehabilitated in Texas, then you have to go through Chuck Colson. That's not voluntary, it's coercive."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, contends the IFI program violates the First Amendment's establishment clause because "it is government endorsement of religious conversions," says spokesman Steve Benen. "For the state to allow prisoners to be segregated into those who are willing to be converted and then to give them special treatment--a safer environment, better living conditions, more access to family--that's not only unconstitutional, it's blatantly unfair."

Cowley doesn't worry about the legality of his program, not when any religious organization can come to the state and try to set up its own faith-based program. In fact, he is so confident that InnerChange will pass constitutional muster that his organization is asking the next session of the Texas Legislature to pick up $1.5 million of its operating budget for an expanded program, proselytizing and all. According to Cowley, Wayne Scott, executive director of the TDC, is so supportive of InnerChange that he wants the program to take over the entire Vance Unit. With room for 400 inmates, IFI would increase its "catchment" beyond Harris County to include inmates paroled to Dallas and Tarrant counties. Scott also wants InnerChange to begin a women's unit, but as a condition, Cowley is insisting that female inmates not be separated from their children 6 years old and younger. ("It's not only biblical, it makes sense socially," he says.) Raising preschoolers in prison, however, just might be a deal-breaker.

If the Legislature appropriates public money for InnerChange, expect civil liberties groups to consider litigation. "From what I know, Colson's group runs a good program, but it's expensive," says attorney Stern. "If the state does fund it, American Jewish Congress will look at the possibility of challenging that funding in court."

But litigation isn't likely to drive InnerChange out of business. It's more likely to shut its doors if the results it has promised the state aren't realized. Next spring, InnerChange expects researchers with the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council to complete a statistical evaluation of the program. "If our recidivist rate isn't significantly lower," Cowley says, "then we will leave."

But how statistically significant will the small IFI sample be when no comparable secular program can be used as a control group because none exists? InnerChange members might just do better because they get much more attention than the rest of the prison population. The program accepts no sex offenders, few violent offenders, and no inmates who pose a security risk. More than 20 percent of the inmates drop out of the program once they realize how rigorous it is: Change is hard; some inmates figure it's a lot easier sitting around the dayroom watching TV than contemplating the Holy Ghost.

But those who remain in these nurturing environs are so immersed in the Bible, a moment seldom passes when they are not given the opportunity to think about matters of the spirit. Reproducing this God-high on the outside will not be easy. Only after members make parole will their true test of faith begin.

Gerardo Escamilla believes he can make it on the outside. Before getting busted for delivery of cocaine in 1991, he lived a "Christian life." He was married, a father, attended church, and owned his own trucking company in Houston. But money got tight, and when he needed some extra cash to fund his business, he began selling drugs. A lot of them.

"I could have closed the company," he says. "But it was my company and my pride, and I knew what I had do to keep it alive." He was arrested holding 20 kilos of what he thought was premium cocaine. Turns out his supplier had ripped him off, selling him cornstarch. That made no difference to Harris County. He was charged with possession of a simulated controlled substance.

"By the grace of God, I received a 15-year sentence," he says, his wide eyes tearing as he confesses the pain he caused his family. "While I was on bond, I went off the deep end--abusing drugs and whoremongering and staying away from home two to three days at a time." Though he still loves his wife, she divorced him. He says he understands why.

He remembers the date he was sent to prison--December 26, 1996--as if it were tattooed on his arm. It's the last day he saw his son. "God has shown me that it is good for him not to see me here," Escamilla says.

The whole experience broke him, and once in prison he quickly returned to God. He was a natural for the InnerChange program and made the transition easily. "Anyone can be a man," he says. "But to be God's man, a man who walks in humility and love and patience, that is what the program pushes, and it is transforming my life."

He winces when asked if all the inmates are on his same spiritual journey. "Twenty to 30 percent of the guys are here because they want to make parole, and they see this as a way to go home," he says. "They learn how to talk the talk, but when they get back to their cubicle, it's obvious they are conning the program and living their life without God."

This comes as no surprise to Ruben Garza, a street-savvy IFI biblical counselor. "Prison culture requires that you find out what you need to say and do to get yourself out of here," he explains. Garza believes that half the men at InnerChange are serious about the program, another 25 percent are uncertain, while the other 25 percent aren't ready for it at all. "They have always depended on one person, themselves, and now we are asking them to depend on something that they can't even see or touch. But the environment is at least conducive to planting the seed."

Whether that seed will grow after a member makes parole falls under the purview of aftercare manager Larry Frank, a big bear of a man who is more likely to hug a stranger than shake his hand. He has supervised the 156 InnerChange members in Harris County who have been released since the program began, helping them with their transitions, catching them before they stumble.

Because Frank does not have the authority of a parole officer, the only method he has to keep InnerChange members involved in aftercare is by marketing its benefits. "The things I have to keep them hooked are jobs, housing, a nurturing church, and mentoring," he says. "But they can walk away from their aftercare any time they want." Frank claims he has only lost a dozen or so members, but no one at InnerChange is willing to offer any hard numbers on the program's success until the state does its evaluation next spring.

The most critical time for InnerChange parolees, says Frank, is the first 12 months after they leave prison. "They're forced to come down from the mountain and confront all the things they left behind."

Success often depends on the strength of the relationship between mentor and member. "We would like to see each man become part of the mentor's church and family," Frank says. "But even then, we expect them to hit a valley three to four months after they come out of prison. We call it spiritual ambivalence."

This ambivalence is generally precipitated by some form of rejection--the loss of a job or a girlfriend, a wife or brother-in-law who resents the holier-than-thou attitude of someone who has just gotten himself out of the state pen. "The biggest mistake our guys make is trying to pick up where they left off," Frank says. "The devil starts bringing back old survival thoughts." The member turns to marijuana, crack; it becomes easier, more familiar to lie around the house than go to work. That's where the mentor and the church come in, trying to rescue the parolee from himself, "to get him walking in the spirit rather than the flesh," Frank says.

Gerardo Escamilla has been instructed in all the ungodly traps that members must avoid once they walk through the back gate of the Vance Unit. Nevertheless, in May he is scheduled to begin his life all over again in the free world. A mentor has agreed to back him in the trucking business. Escamilla wants to see if he can get it right this time, "and get right with God," he says. He wonders what it will be like with his family. He invited his ex-wife to family reconciliation classes, but she didn't respond. She does write him, though, as does his 12-year-old son, who has made his father proud, maintaining an A average in school. Escamilla knows that when he sees his boy, they will be fine.

He also hasn't given up on his ex-wife, who hasn't remarried. "When I get out," he assures himself, "and we finally make eye contact, I know she will say to me, 'You really are that changed man you say you are.'"

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories