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One Nation Under God

Tuesday, July 1, 1997

When it comes to fighting crime, liberals and conservatives alike seem to be shadowboxing--dodging the most fateful aspect of criminal justice, the religious dimension. Liberals want more money for rehabilitation programs, which often amount to nothing more than fuzzy self-esteem courses or cushy entertainment privileges. Conservatives correctly expose the failure of these initiatives and rightly demand hard time for serious offenders. But they are too eager to abandon criminals to a system that almost certainly will further harden their hearts.

Charles Colson, who has probably been in more prisons than any man in America, is calling for a new approach to rehabilitation, one defined by its moral and religious mettle-one that seeks, in a word, redemption.

Colson--the Watergate felon turned evangelical Christian--is the founder of Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach effort active in 90 percent of America's prisons. After 20 years of creating piecemeal programs for inmates and ex-cons, Colson wants to launch the spiritual equivalent of Desert Storm. In April, the first wave of his church-based volunteers invaded a Texas prison to offer two dozen inmates round-the-clock Christian education and training.

Although state guards continue to provide security, Prison Fellowship staffers run virtually all other day-to-day activities in one wing of the Jester II facility, a minimum-security prison outside Houston. Call it the God Pod. Prayers have replaced early-morning push-ups, while group Bible discussions have pre-empted evening MTV. The ultimate objective: To help as many men as possible become followers of Christ.

"You can teach people about character, but what is needed is the transformation of the human will," Colson says. "There has to be something in people that makes them want to do the right thing. That's what Christian conversion does that nothing else does."

The initiative brings together, under one roof, some of the most effective Prison Fellowship programs developed since its inception in 1976. Inmates enter a vigorous routine of counseling, work, accountability, and restitution. Virtually every activity, from learning to control anger to acquiring good work habits, is connected to Christian teaching. Volunteers, always the lifeblood of this organization, will continue to be crucial: Every three months another two dozen teachers and mentors will be paired with a fresh cadre of inmates at the facility. About 300 volunteers eventually will work with 200 prisoners-well over half the inmate population.

Ray Roberts, Prison Fellowship's program director for Jester II, says most criminals need a radical overhaul of their moral machinery, their sense of right and wrong. "We want to create a climate where spiritual and moral rebirth can take place," he says, "where inmates can restore and develop their relationship with God, their families and their communities."

How did Texas officials agree to host one of the boldest experiments in criminal rehabilitation in a generation?

With 160,000 inmates, Texas maintains the largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The Lone Star State spends $4 billion a year in corrections, making it the largest item in the budget. If taxpayers think they're investing in the rehabiliation of criminals, however, they don't get much bang for the buck: Nearly half of the state's ex-prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

That's pretty close to the national average. Indeed, the typical offender is careening down a long, tortuous road of criminal behavior. Most have been flouting the law since they were teenagers, and most will continue well into adulthood. We have, in fact, created a system in which one in three serious offenders have already racked up at least five prior arrests; in which the majority of ex-cons are recidivists who commit an average of 15 crimes a year; in which a third of ex-cons who rob, rape, or murder again do so while on probation, parole, or pre-trial release.


A Texas prison tests a new approach to rehabilitation:
full-time Christian education and training

It is a system in which almost every effort to upset this lifestyle of lawlessness-short of incarceration-will fail. "We've not been able to affect recidivism in decade after decade of experimenting," says Byron Johnson, a criminologist at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. "The best we've been able to say is this: Some things work with some offenders some of the time."

A New Value System

Prison Fellowship, however, points to research suggesting that the majority of prisoners in the program will successfully reintegrate into society. A recent study by the National Institute for Healthcare Research found that inmates in four New York prisons who attended at least 10 Bible studies a year were three times more likely to stay out of trouble after their release than those who didn't. Johnson, who helped conduct the study, asks, "If 10 measly Bible studies had this effect, what will happen when they get religious programming and nurturing around the clock?"

Texas law enforcement officials are ready to find out. Most of the inmates selected for the program are chronic adult offenders between the age of 18 to 55. Among the initial 26 participants are several convicted of murder, rape, and assault. "We all bring a lot of garbage to the table, but these people bring a tremendous amount," says Carol Vance, a member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the governing body of the state's prison and probation system.

Officials call the two-year program "Innerchange." The first phase, with its Bible-based emphasis on rebuilding values and character, begins 18 months before an inmate is released. The second phase tests his new value system in real life, through community-service projects and other activities.

Participants rise at 5 a.m. for a session of Scripture reading and prayer. They spend most of the morning at a prison job or studying to earn a GED, the equivalent of a high-school diploma. Afternoons are filled with instruction in "life skills," from better work habits to parenting and marital advice. Evenings feature Christian teaching and group discussions.

Sin vs. Self-Esteem

The final phase-the program's acid test-begins when the prisoner is released. For six months, a volunteer mentor works closely with the ex-offender to help him repair relationships, especially with his family members and his victims. Cathy McVey, an assistant program director with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, calls this "restorative justice"-an approach mostly neglected by traditional rehabilitation schemes. "We can't find state dollars to do that type of support," she says.

Even if states had the money, however, most lack the right philosophy of rehabilitation. Government-funded programs often duck questions of personal responsibility; they substitute biblical ideas about sin with saccharine notions of self-esteem.

"Other programs focus on depression, self-esteem," Johnson says. "These self-help, image-producing programs don't affect outcomes. They make men feel better about themselves, but that doesn't make them better men." Roberts, a 21-year veteran in adult corrections, agrees: "Inmates tend to blame everybody for their problems. Our focus is getting them to understand that they are responsible to God, their families, and their victims."

To do so, Prison Fellowship is performing a high-wire act in church-state relations. The program receives no government money, yet it operates in the belly of a state correctional facility. Inmates need not claim a Christian faith, but must be willing to participate fully in a "Bible-based, Christ-centered" program. And though they are allowed to pursue their own religious beliefs-one participant attends weekly Islamic services-the explicit goal is Christian conversion.

State officials say they are not worried about First Amendment challenges because the program is completely voluntary, accepts no government funding, and does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Civil libertarian groups have so far been quiet. The state's Department of Criminal Justice unanimously approved the plan last November and it quickly earned the backing of the state's attorney general. Says Pat Nolan, the president of Justice Fellowship, the public-policy arm of Prison Fellowship, "The attorney general feels that we've structured this thing so that it's airtight."

The Evidence is in

One of the initiative's most vocal supporters is Governor George W. Bush. No matter what the social problem may be, Bush likes to say, "There is no overcoming anything without faith." Indeed, the governor helped pave the way for the program in 1996 when he commissioned a task force to recommend ways to ease the state's regulatory burden on religiously based service groups. The task force's final report urged state officials to allow faith-based organizations a greater role in criminal rehabilitation.

The Texas program got its genesis from a similar effort begun in Brazil in 1969. That initiative, which soon involved inmates in half the cells in Sao Paolo's infamous Humaita prison, has seen recidivism rates plunge to below 5 percent. Today the program is active in more than 40 prisons throughout Brazil.

But the Texas experiment is the first of its kind in the United States, and it might not have happened without an emerging tide of research indicating that involvement in religious activities inhibits criminal behavior.

"It's remarkable how much good empirical evidence there is that religious belief can make a positive difference," says John DiIulio, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. Patrick Fagan, an analyst of family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation, agrees. "Religious behavior is associated with reduced crime," he says. "This has been known in the social-science literature for over 20 years."

Known, yes-but mostly ignored. A 1995 review of all relevant criminology literature, concluding that religious influences probably do discourage crime and delinquency, has helped get the attention of policymakers, DiIulio says. At a Washington news conference to announce the Texas program, he said it is now "intellectually irresponsible" to ignore the "faith factor" in tackling social problems.

The "faith factor" will continue to form the basis of Prison Fellowship's outreach to convicts at Jester II well beyond their release from prison. Vance, a former district attorney in Houston, has long believed in the need to involve church-based volunteers in the state's prisons. "This is more than just going to church," he says. "I'm talking about God really getting hold of people's lives." Roberts agrees: "The key is for faith communities to become invested in seeing inmates become successful."

Mentors and other church volunteers will help ex-cons with a range of practical issues, from holding down a job to managing the family finances. But they also hope to keep former criminals on the straight and narrow by getting them actively involved in local churches and keeping them away from some of their old haunts and habits. "If you have a group of people coming out of prison, moving into your neighborhood," asks Nolan, "wouldn't you feel better if they were an active part of a Christian community?"

Prison Fellowship is so certain of the answer to that question that it has commissioned a two-year study of its Texas experiment. With funding from the ministry and from the state of Texas, the National Institute for Healthcare Research eventually will track all 200 inmates in the program. Johnson, who will conduct the study, says any significant drop in the number of re-arrests will count as a success. After seeing the results in New York, he has high hopes: "We have a chance to cut the recidivism rate in half."

If that happens, Prison Fellowship officials say they'll take the program on the road. "We want to be in every state and federal prison in the country," says president Thomas Pratt, "building the church inside prison walls."

The apostle Paul, who also spent much of his life under arrest, would likely approve. He once praised a fellow Christian named Onesiphorus "because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains."

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