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Reasonable risks

Reasonable risks

InnerChange is a bold attempt to stop prison's revolving door

Practical Christian living is all about taking reasonable risks by trusting God but understanding man. For example, the New Testament teaches that we are to invite in strangers. It also teaches that those who do not work should not eat, and that churches should be careful in dispensing aid even to widows. It takes great discernment to be both warmhearted and tough-minded toward irresponsible men who come to church doors requesting aid.

Similar concerns underlie issues of prison reform. Liberals talk about rehabilitation but ignore holes in souls. Conservatives, emphasizing punishment and societal protection, go with lock-'em-up-bury-the-key strategies. Is there no place for a Christian approach that stresses the way God changes hearts, but does not underestimate the deceitfulness of those prisoners whose wills may still be in bondage?

There's one such place, located in Richmond, Texas, near Houston. The tell-tale indication, while heading south on S. 99, is when the roadside signs change from come-ons for model homes-"Texana planation estate homesites"-to "Do not pick up hitchhikers." Then comes the Jester II unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prison walls topped with razor wire-and within one set of walls, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative developed by Prison Fellowship, based on its successful experience in Brazilian prisons.

The plan is easy to define: a biblically based, prerelease program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the gospel. When visitors go inside, the outward changes are easy to perceive: One hundred prisoners in their white cotton shirts and trousers live in cubicles rather than cell blocks, but only a little thievery occurs. Inmates spend their non-work hours in classes and Bible studies rather than in front of a television. Civil tones rather than profanity dominate conversations, not just in front of visitors but (according to prison staff) just about all the time.

Only time will confirm, however, what has gone on in the heart of Donnie Gilmore, 28, who was in prison after breaking into houses, stealing cars, "doing anything I thought I could get away with." Mr. Gilmore volunteered for the program after his 4-year-old daughter asked him about Jesus and he realized he had never opened a Bible. He learned much about Christ and Christlike behavior through the 14 hours a day of work, Bible study, classes, prayer, discussions, and community service that make up the program.

Time will tell whether inmate Donald Osage is "a new man in Christ," permanently freed from a $300-per-day heroin addiction and all the crimes he committed to feed his habit. He entered InnerChange after concluding that when he left prison he would once again "stick something in my arm" unless he changed his thinking.

The 18-month program began only in April, 1997, so the first graduates have been out less than a year. It's too early to tell if InnerChange's main selling point to the State of Texas-reduce the percentage (now 60 percent) of released inmates who return to prison-will justify expanding the program within the state and to states such as Iowa, Kansas, and Florida that are scrutinizing this Prison on a Hill. But a thorough reading on program success in stopping the revolving door will be possible, since InnerChange alumni (who on the average have had three prison terms) will be compared with a control group of inmates with similar backgrounds.

Texas Gov. George Bush was willing to give the program a try because his "compassionate conservatism" is committed to faith-based efforts among the poor and the troubled. State officials kept the ACLU at bay by giving all organizations, religious or atheistic, the opportunity to propose values-based prerelease programs. Several non-Christian groups inquired, but only Prison Fellowship went all the way. The state undergoes no expense, since PF supplies the staff and picks up other costs as well. Prisoners from any religion are allowed to join (and a couple of Muslims have), so there is no discrimination for or against any religious group.

God's grace and man's mentoring is key. Some prisoners reenter "the free world" with good intentions but quickly fall into old ways. (Sometimes a prisoner's dad is kind enough to bring him back into the family dope business.) But as Gov. Bush puts it, InnerChange "encourages people to stay involved with prisoners, changing one life at a time." A Christian volunteer assigned to each prisoner meets with him one night each week at the prison for 2-3 hours, helps him find a job and a church home following release, and does six months of post-prison mentoring.

InnerChange is a reasonable risk-if we have faith in the possibility of real change, rather than acceptance of the warehousing of souls.