Prison Ministry Changing Lives, But Critics Persist
by: Jack Williams, November 5, 2007 5:11:00 am
In a narrow, dimly lit concourse, a large mural of the crucifixion painted on an old brick wall is the first indication this isn't a regular prison. Tommie Dorsett is the Program Director for the Innerchange Freedom Initiative in Texas and is about to give a tour of the minimum-security facility that's been home to the prison ministry since 1997.
"We'll start here inside what we call our day room."
Dorsett is clearly proud of the work he's done the past decade, using Christianity as the basis for changing inmates lives and getting them ready for life outside prison. Innerchange is a voluntary program for inmates near the end of their sentences.
"They've been to prison once or twice or maybe three times and they've tried all of the programs that the state has to offer and are really looking to try something different. That's one of the incentives for volunteering, to try to make a change in their life."
There are still tall fences with razor wire and heavy metal gates here, but rarely violence. Many inmates carry Bibles as they go from religious classes to courses on personal finance and how to improve credit scores. Assistant Warden Cynthia Tilley has been at the Vance Unit for one year.
"To see the number of offenders that actually go out and don't come back because the values that they are receiving here has been an impact. What they're getting to give back from themselves to give back to the community is what works."
Huge fans circulate air through a large open area where some of the inmates sleep. Tiny cubicles, almost like what you'd see in an office, are outfitted with beds and small lamps. Parrish Pierre, serving a 40-year sentence but due for release next year, is reading his Bible.
"I never understood it, but once I got here and they started breaking it down to us, I began to get a better understanding of it and it just started to be more and more that they thrive on us. It ain't that they thrive on us. The spirit thrive on us."
There are Innerchange prison ministry programs in six states, including Iowa, where Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently won a lawsuit that claimed the state was paying Innerchange to run the program. In Texas, the program is privately funded and the state simply provides the prison facility. Alex Luchenitser is an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and says claims the program produces lower recidivism rates are distorted.
"They cherry-pick the lowest risk inmates when they decide who to admit into their program, then they claim that they have lower rates of recidivism, but really that's not related to the program itself. What they're kind of doing is taking the cream of the crop."
You'll have a hard time convincing Bernard Veal the program doesn't work. He spent time at the Vance unit seven years ago.
"To those critics, I say look at my life, I'm a changed man. Some will say, well, you have that prison mentality. My response to that, anytime you're locked-up in sin, you have a prison mentality."
You can see pictures of the Vance unit and some of the people in this story through a link on our website, KUHF.org.