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Religion can show prisoners a way out

Embezzler James Peterson could have been released from his jam-packed Texas prison this year. He asked to stay in.

Not because the food is so tasty.

Not because the rooms are so homey.

But because of the new prison program called InnerChange.

"Believe me, there is nothing I want more than to be back in the outside world with my daughter Lucy _ to play with her and take her to the zoo," he wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. But if he left prison, he explained, he would not be able to finish the 18-month InnerChange program.

"Maybe my decision to stay here will help others see that God is real _ that he is the truth, and he changes people," he explained. "This is God's program. He's really moving in the prisons, and he's got me right in the middle of it. I feel it is an honor to stay here and complete the commitment I made when I signed up."

No wonder the world is watching the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. The faith-based program at the Jester II (prison) unit in Sugar Land, Texas, is the first of its kind in the country. It is only a year old, but already prison-heavy states like Florida and California have expressed an interest in starting something similar.

The volunteers _ robbers, murderers and drug dealers _ get up at 5:30 a.m. for devotionals. They spend the day working and attending classes on life skills. In the evenings, they attend discipleship seminars until lights out at 10 p.m.

The faith-based program gives the prisoners a positive alternative to gangs. The classes help the inmates deal with their pent-up anger. They learn the importance of redemption. That means they must acknowledge they did something wrong. They must admit they hurt somebody. And they must sincerely repent.

Peterson's soul-searching led him to write to his former employer. He apologized for embezzling thousands of dollars from the company, for deceiving his employer and betraying his trust. The employer now visits the prison monthly.

But such prison conversions may be the easy part. As Ellen Vaughn, a longtime Prison Fellowship staffer explains, "Prison is like being in a monastery. There is time to read the Bible and study. The trouble is that when they get out, they are not accustomed to freedom. They have no skills. They carry a stigma. What has been needed is a link between the prisoners and the communities _ and the church can provide that."

That's where InnerChange comes in. It matches inmates with community mentors. The Christian volunteers help the inmates find jobs and steer them to churches to ease their re-entry into the free world after parole. And as part of their training, the inmates must perform community service with Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and such.

A similar approach has been used by the Prison Fellowship program in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for two decades. By steeping the inmates in a moral alternative to prison life, the recidivism rate in the Sao Paolo unit has dropped from 75 percent to around 4 percent.

Estimates of the recidivism rate in Texas range from 50 percent to 75 percent. No wonder the state has the nation's largest prison system _ 132,000 inmates.

Credit Gov. George W. Bush with having the political courage to recognize that simply locking up people isn't working. He created a task force to find ways to apply faith-based programs to social problems. As a result, the Prison Fellowship organization was invited to operate a pilot program.

That made sense because Prison Fellowship, which has more than 45,000 volunteers worldwide, has the most experience in prison ministries.

There's no state money involved in InnerChange _ the non-profit Prison Fellowship is raising private money for the pilot program. A prison chapel is being constructed, thanks to grants from the Meadows Foundation. There have been no constitutional clashes over separation of church and state because the program is voluntary, and inmates of all faiths are welcome. Indeed, several Muslims are in the program now.

But is it working?

Yes and no. As you might expect, some inmates have dropped out. The bigger problem is that many of the participants are being paroled by the parole board before they complete even three months of the program. As usual, the Texas prisons are operating at full capacity, so the parole board is hurrying out those who qualify for parole, like James Peterson, even if it means they won't get the coaching they need to stay out.

But officials at the Texas Department of Corrections say they are pleased with the transformations so far. And Bryon Johnson, a Lamar University professor who is considered a national expert on criminal reform, said recently: "What I am seeing is good. I know prisoners. I study prisoners. I know how they respond to questions. It is evident the InnerChange participants are making serious changes in their lives."

Even if InnerChange reduces the vicious cycle only a small percentage over time, isn't it worth replicating? It hasn't really changed lives to have gyms and TVs and even acupuncture in prisons. Religion has been an underused factor. Maybe it's time to make more room for God behind the barbed wire.

Rena Pederson is the editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News.

Dallas Morning News