At 5:30 a.m., a group of inmates stagger out of their bunks and make their way to the hallelujah tent, anchored on a lawn just inside the barbed wire. It's too cold for their government-issue white uniforms, and it's much too early--the moon is still up. Still, the tent feels like a sanctuary, and in a way it is.
Other prisons have church, but this radical experiment in rehabilitation at a small state prison in Texas is all church, all the time. Here, about 150 inmates spend their days like students at a Bible college. Seven days a week, from the predawn prayer until 10 p.m., they follow a strict "Christ-centered" agenda, attending an array of Bible classes and prayer study whose purpose is summed up in the program's name: Inner Change.
Officially, Inner Change is designed to break the cycle of criminal behavior. But within the program, rehabilitation is rarely mentioned directly. Rather, it's an assumed byproduct of the primary goal, which is to turn convicts into devout believers. And while Inner Change is open to inmates of any faith, or no faith, the transformation it urges is explicitly a fundamentalist Christian one. If these felons never want to wind up behind bars again, they are told, they must accept the "life-transforming power of Jesus Christ."
Although the program at the Carol Vance Unit south of Houston is only two years old, it has already become a model for the national movement to boost "faith-based" organizations as an alternative to government programs in such areas as drug treatment and sheltering the homeless. The faith-based movement is being touted by a range of politicians, including leading presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.
As governor of Texas, Bush helped shepherd Inner Change into his state when no other state would accept it. On the campaign trail, he regularly praises it as a prototype for church-state cooperation that he would apply to a range of federal services if elected president.
So committed is Bush to Inner Change that last May he risked the kind of snapshot that can come back to haunt a politician in a death penalty state: In a press conference at the prison, Bush wandered over to a row of inmates, put his arm around two convicted murderers in the program and sang "Amazing Grace." "There is a presence in this place," he said.
Bush experienced his own religious conversion about a decade ago and credits it with helping him stop drinking. Now, on the campaign trail, he seems to call for no less than a religious revival, pounding the theme that people of faith are better equipped than the government bureaucracy to help the needy. In fact, proving the great potential of this religious renewal is a primary reason he wants to be president, Bush said in an interview.
"I believe when a person changes his heart, it changes his behavior," he said. "So I welcome programs that say we're going to change your heart and that will get you off drugs . . . we're going to change your heart and that will reduce recidivism."
Inner Change is the inspiration of Charles W. Colson, who served seven months in prison for Watergate-related crimes. While there, Colson found God and his own mission: bringing prisoners to Christ. The program is one of the newer projects run by Colson's 23-year-old Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Of the many faith-based groups that Bush supports, Inner Change falls at the religiously intense end of the spectrum. But in many ways the program perfectly captures the revolutionary goals of the faith-based movement.
State and local governments routinely establish relationships with the social service arms of religious groups, such as hospitals and shelters. But they have generally avoided collaborating with groups that proselytize explicitly. The innovation of the faith-based movement, especially as Bush explains it, is to support religious groups while preserving their central, evangelizing mission.
The movement promotes the idea that religious groups can work miracles where others failed because they rely on the "transforming power of faith," as Bush said in a speech in July.
Bush acknowledged there is little empirical evidence that religious programs work more effectively than government ones. "My answer to that is, 'Let's try,' " he said. "The old way in most cases, in a lot of cases, has not done a good job of meeting societal goals."
Dozens of interviews with inmates and guards at the Carol Vance Unit revealed a clear difference in those prisoners participating in Inner Change: They seemed calmer, happier and more hopeful about their future. But it was also clear the program teaches that the only path to this better future is a fundamentalist Christian conversion, to the exclusion of other faiths. And ultimately, it's too soon to judge the impact of the transformation: Guards say Inner Change inmates have as many discipline problems as other inmates, and many of those who graduate from the program find life on the outside no less hard.
Like a Tent Revival
Inner Change embodies all the potential of the faith-based movement, as well as its complications. From its name to every class it sponsors, the program is explicit about its proselytizing mission. One inmate after another tells the powerful story of when he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, and how it profoundly transformed his life.
These stories have traveled far in prison reform circles. Iowa and Kansas are now establishing larger versions of the Texas model, and several other states are considering following suit. Their enthusiasm is based mostly on early and anecdotal evidence, long before any solid numbers show whether inmates who graduate from the program are less likely than others to commit crimes after their release.
Prison Fellowship Ministries pays for the program's staff, about $500,000 a year. The state of Texas provides facilities, guards, utilities and other operational needs, about 87 percent of the total cost of $41 a day per prisoner. State officials are considering picking up even more administrative costs in the future, such as computer training, something Iowa and Kansas have already agreed to do.
Bush and other state officials justify government support for the program by pointing out that it is voluntary and open to anyone of any religion. But because the program is suffused with fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christianity, non-Christians in the program feel marginalized.
The volunteers who teach the classes and mentor prisoners all sign a statement saying they believe that "Jesus Christ, God's Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit," that "the Bible is God's authoritative and inspired Word and without error in all its teachings" and that "Jesus Christ will personally and visibly return to glory to raise the dead and bring salvation and judgment to completion."
A tent revival atmosphere animates the classes and the dorms. Even the standard life skills course is about "applying biblical principles to everyday life." Are you excessively shy? asks one day's curriculum. Learn from the life of King Saul, or find solace in Samuel I.
During the midday break, inmates rush back to the dorms to break out guitars and sing hymns they have written, or work on their spiritual poetry. The prisoners aren't allowed to watch TV, unless it's Christian programming. One man tells the class he rises at 4 a.m. because "it's the only time I can study my Bible peacefully."
'Feeling of Total Peace'
On this chilly morning under the tent, it's inmate Rudy Cook's turn to give the devotional. His subject is an Inner Change classic: "Rehabilitation Is Fiction, Transformation Is Fact."
Cook has spent 13 of his 38 years in prison; this time he's in for dealing drugs. He came to the program in May, he says, "a convict in every respect." During his five stints in prison, he had seen his share of "jail-house religion," where "inmates talk Jesus as long as they're incarcerated, then leave the Bible in the trash can," he notes.
To his own surprise, on the morning of July 2, Cook became a Christian under this same hallelujah tent.
As part of the program's outreach to victims, a woman had come to tell the gathered prisoners that she was dedicating a flag to her murdered son. "I mean, you're talking about a lady whose son was murdered, and she's standing under a tent with a bunch of inmates," recalls Cook. "I saw free-world people hugging and praying and laughing with inmates and I thought, 'This don't happen.' It gave me a feeling of total peace."
In May, Cook had been planning his next hustle. Now, he and three friends from Inner Change are putting together their own prison ministry. Once they're paroled, they plan to travel to juvenile detention facilities showing videotaped testimonies of Inner Change graduates.
Cook's story is low on drama by Inner Change standards. The program has already created a handful of local celebrities: Ron Flowers, who was "adopted" by the mother of the young woman he killed; James Peterson, who turned down an early parole to finish his 18 months in the program.
Testimonies such as these have softened the skeptics. Warden Fred Becker, who oversees the Carol Vance Unit, is open-minded by Texas prison standards, but he's not one to "hug a thug" either. In his office he keeps a framed picture of "Old Sparky," the Texas electric chair. But he too is moved by the program.
"I'm 60 years old, and I've been in this business 39 years," he said. "I've seen homicides, rapes and worse, and if anyone has a reason to have a jaded view of this program, I do. But I believe this could be the next revolution in prison reform."
The statistics are "terrifying," he added. In 15 years, the state's prison population has more than tripled, from 40,000 to 150,000, making it the second largest in the country, after California's.
So far, no program has managed to dent the state's 50 percent recidivism rate. But Inner Change makes him hopeful. "I've really seen how important God is in everyday life, how God is all powerful and loving," he said. "It's amazing, how it rubs off on you."
Muslim Feels Rejected
Inner Change's blunt proselytizing has yet to provoke any constitutional challenges arguing that it uses federal funds to promote a sectarian Christian vision. But the few non-Christians in the program say the avowed equal treatment exists only on paper.
Tony Williams, 40, is one of five Muslims to have entered the program; their ranks were recently reduced to four when one converted to Christianity. At first, Williams would get up and offer testimonials along with the other prisoners. But he felt the other inmates "strongly rejected" his Islamic message, so he stopped.
He says he's grateful to be around people of faith, but he feels stifled. Under the tent or in class, preachers brought in by the program often hammer away at some version of "It's not Buddha, it's not Mohammed, it's Jesus," and Williams feels they're speaking directly to him.
Although he has been there a full year, Williams is the only one in his class without a mentor. Program directors have offered him fundamentalist Christians connected to a local church, but "that doesn't fit with me," he said.
"To be honest, I feel rejected," he added. "I really don't feel I have a lot to offer. The program really just neglects us."
Change in Demeanor
Ultimately, the program will be judged by whether it reduces recidivism, the proportion of inmates who are released and wind up in prison again. Its one precedent is a sort of statistical miracle. Inner Change is loosely modeled after a program in the Humaita Prison in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where officials claim that in 25 years they reduced recidivism from the national average of 75 percent to just 4 percent.
Byron Johnson, a criminologist at Lamar University who is monitoring Inner Change graduates, concedes that those numbers "sound cooked." Still, he has great faith in the method. "People like me are banking my career that this is going to have a huge effect," he told a Christian magazine.
That confidence is based on very early results. The program is only two years old, and most states measure recidivism after three years. So far, 95 inmates have left Inner Change; 16 have been rearrested.
Because the program is so new, many judge its success by the atmosphere of the unit. Visitors are struck by how much calmer and happier the inmates are, how they easily chat and express affection. Ask them for signs that they have changed, and most inmates will point to their prison demeanor.
"In the past, if someone looked at me wrong, it would be a reason to fight," said Casey Percic, 20, who transferred from a rougher unit. "Here people can hug me and say 'I love you' and it's all right. There, you know, I would kill them."
But the anecdotes don't necessarily add up to anything concrete. Four guards who watch the unit but are not part of the program said the Inner Change inmates commit just as many disciplinary violations as the general population in the unit, which is mostly made up of low security-risk inmates and has few violent incidents.
A few guards came to the unit because they thought the Christian program would make it calmer, but were disappointed, they said. The Inner Change inmates were generally more polite, but otherwise just as unruly. "To be honest, I see no difference between the ones just coming through the gate and the ones leaving the program," said one guard. Each of the guards could name several participants with convincing Christian testimonies who had just been disciplined with extra work duty for refusing to follow orders. Guards, and some inmates as well, said they had seen drugs in the Inner Change dorms.
And once the inmates leave prison and the rigid structure of Inner Change, their testimonies often falter. Some stick to a straight path, finding jobs, meeting with their appointed Inner Change mentors and joining churches. Others travel a rockier road.
One night, about a dozen men show up for a support group at a downtown Houston parole office, a drab building decorated with uplifting signs. Here, the talk is no longer about vague dreams of a future prison ministry but about how God tests you, about girlfriends and wives who leave and old street-corner friends who won't. They make frequent reference to the Book of Job.
In prison, the clock was tight. Out in the free world, loose hours lead to temptation. Almost all the men talk about the seduction of drugs.
Michael Price, 40, is one Inner Change graduate who has found himself on the wrong side of the statistics. At first he was doing well, with two jobs, one at a dry cleaner, the other at Church's Fried Chicken. Between them, he made $350 a week, enough to afford a whole town house in a decent section of town.
But things fell apart. His girlfriend left him for a man she had taken up with while Price was in prison. He lost one job and had to scale down, moving into a single room in a rooming house for $80 a month.
Still, he was doing fine, Price said, until he was picked up on a drug charge. Because the case is pending, he won't get into the details. But the most important detail is where he's sitting right now, in Harris County jail, wearing an orange jumpsuit with INMATE printed on the leg.
Coming back is a blow, he said, because "I was one of the guys who took the program more seriously." By the last of his nine months there, Price was running orientation for newcomers.
"I left with a lot of peers looking up to me," he said. "It hurts me to be back here. . . . I know they'll be watching."
CAPTION: Inside the confines of Carol Vance Unit prison near Houston, inmates devote themselves to the Bible from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day in a radical experiment in rehabilitation.
CAPTION: Inmate Jack Whittington, left, is congratulated for reading an apology at end of 13-week "Inner Change" program.