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Let me stimulate letters to the editor by starting out with something that sounds theoretical, but has enormous practical implications. The concept is this: Christianity is both pessimistic and optimistic. Bible-based churches teach that our natural tendency is to go astray and that once we go wrong we are likely to keep going wrong unless God graciously puts us on the right path. The good news, however, is that through Christ we can break out of our traps and quickly reverse the downward course of our lives.

That realistic faith underlies what is shaping up as the next big movement in prison reform. For years liberals have talked about rehabilitation but ignored holes in souls. Conservatives, meanwhile, have emphasized punishment and societal protection by advocating lock-'em-up-bury- the-key strategies. But imagine something else: 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.

Only one place in the United States emphasizes that approach now, and it is in Richmond, near Houston. The tell-tale indication while heading south is when the roadside signs change from come-ons for model homes—“Texana plantation estate homesites”—to “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” Then comes the Jester II unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its 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 Bible-based, 18-month, pre-release program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the gospel.

When I went inside at Christmastime last year, the outward changes were 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 spent their non-work hours in classes and Bible studies rather than in front of a television. Civil tones rather than profanity dominated conversations in front of visitors but also, according to prison officials, just about all the time.

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 re-enter “the free world” with good intentions but quickly fall into old ways. (Sometimes a prisoner's dad brings 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.

The average InnerChange participant has had three prison terms. One inmate I met with, Donnie Gilmore, had a typical background: late 20s, history of breaking into houses, stealing cars, “doing anything I thought I could get away with.” Gilmore's interest in the program was piqued after his 4-year-old daughter asked him about Jesus and he realized he had never opened a Bible. Another participant, Donald Osage, had reflected on his former heroin addiction and the crimes he committed to support his $300-a-day habit. He realized he had to change his thinking or else he would be shooting up again as soon as he left prison.

Currently, 60 percent of released inmates nationwide return to prison. Both Gilmore and Osage, however, talked about their conversion to Christ and how much they had learned through the 14 hours a day of work, Bible study, classes, prayer, discussions and community service that make up the program. Would that be enough to keep them and their peers from falling back into old patterns once they were no longer regimented? Many liberals prefer psychological approaches and many secular conservatives scoff at such hope, but my sense is that InnerChange is a reasonable risk—if we have faith in the possibility of real change, through God's grace.

Olasky is a professor at the University of Texas and a senior fellow of the Acton Institute.

Copyright © 1999, The Austin American-Statesman