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Reforming convicts through Scripture


At first glance, the recreation yard of the Jester II prison - with its razor wire and whitewashed walls - could pass for any prison yard in the United States. But for 187 inmates here, it is the first step on a possible road to redemption.

The men don't huddle around the yard in clumps, with their backs to the fence and eyes on each other for any signs of danger. Instead, a popcorn bag - cheerily passed from hand to hand - evokes the feeling of a family picnic.

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"This is no prison," says Jack Whittington, an avuncular repeat offender everyone calls "Pops," who is serving 2-1/2 years for credit-card fraud. "What you see here, we are a church. This is holy ground."

Mr. Whittington, like the others, is a volunteer-participant in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a rigorous, nondenominational Scripture-based rehabilitation effort at this prison 35 miles southwest of Houston. The concept is simple: Apply the teachings of the Gospels to provide inmates with the self-esteem, moral framework, and life skills needed to become productive citizens. And it is quietly making great waves within the national corrections community as other prisons look for clues as to how they can cut repeat-offender rates.

"It's up to all of us to determine what kind of shape they come back to the world in," says Jester Warden Fred Becker, noting that all but about 1,000 of Texas' 143,000 prisoners are facing an eventual release date. "If we can stop only 10 percent of those inmates from re- offending, it will mean thousands of citizens who never become victims of crime. InnerChange is a step in that direction."

Innerchange is modeled after Brazil's all-Christian Humaita prison - which claims a 4 percent recidivism rate in a country where the national rate is 75 percent. It is an unusual church-state partnership in America, between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Philadelphia-based Prison Fellowship Ministry, headed by Watergate-felon-turned-evangelist Chuck Colson.

The program, which is funded entirely by Prison Fellowship, wants to cut the recidivism rate among its members to 25 percent - or roughly half the Texas rate. While any meaningful conclusions about its effectiveness are still at least two years away, interest in the program is growing, based on anecdotal evidence alone. State prison agencies in Kansas and Iowa are currently involved in negotiations with Prison Fellowship to implement InnerChange programs by the end of 1999.

"You see guys here change right before you," says program manager Tommie Dorsett, who hopes to expand InnerChange to 300 inmates before the year 2000. "I've watched guys ... go from hardened thugs to guys you'd just like to have over for dinner. You see prayers getting answered."

While InnerChange represents a new approach to old criminal-justice problems, it is no country club. The minimum-security participants - who average 2-1/2 prior prison terms for everything from murder to white-collar crime - give up secular television and roughly half their recreational hours under the program. They also forgo the relative comfort of life in a two-man cell for a 5-by-7-foot cubicle in an InnerChange communal dorm.

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A typical day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a morning devotional, followed by breakfast and either three hours of work at an assigned prison job or study toward a high school diploma. Free time - which includes lunch and study hall - begins at 10 a.m., followed by three more hours of Bible study and Scripture-based life skills classes. There, inmates learn simple skills such as balancing a checkbook, in addition to social skills designed to help them once they are released.

After six months, nonviolent offenders in the program may also choose to devote afternoons to community-service work outside Jester II walls, such as building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Evenings are reserved for special activities, such as small-group discussions with crime victims and "family nights," where the inmates work to rebuild their often-fractured personal relationships.

"But this program here, you get to meet people, you talk to 'em and you see how you hurt 'em," says Whittington, echoing many inmates' sentiments. "You want to do right the next time around."

The cornerstone of InnerChange is its mentoring program, under which inmates are paired with a Christian "role model" in the outside world. The volunteer mentors, from the same communities where the inmates will be paroled, visit their protégés weekly in prison, offering one-on-one attention and advice on the transition to freedom. The mentors pledge to remain involved with their inmates for at least six months after release, providing an "in" to a welcoming church congregation, and often job and housing assistance.

"The mentoring relationship is really the key to InnerChange working," says the Rev. James Busby, who oversees all the interactions between the inmates and the outside world. "A lot of these guys have never had a successful Christian person in their life before now. So we provide them with that one person they can grow to trust, and confide in, and see that, yes, they can go out and become the productive citizens the Lord wants them to be."

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