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Charles Colson's Jails for Jesus

The Prison Fellowship Ministries founded by Nixon's "evil genius" Chuck Colson eased life on the inside—but only for inmates willing to accept its ideology. Our 2003 investigation.

Pastor Don Raymond isn't trained in corrections and is not employed by the government, but he runs a new 140-person wing of the Ellsworth, Kansas, medium-security prison that draws inmates from throughout the state system.

In the phylum of prison staff, Raymond defies classification. He is not a tight-lipped warden, vindictive guard, or burnt-out social worker. In an industry that thrives on invisibility and resents the media, Raymond drives 140 miles, past newly seeded wheat fields and the rhythmically bowing heads of oil-well pumps, to pick me up from the airport, where he offers prayers of thanksgiving for my visit and "for the ministries of writing He has blessed Samantha with." In a building that hums with hostility, Raymond is attentive, unguarded, gentle. Prison staff are not permitted to share personal information with inmates, address them by their first names, or socialize in any way; if an inmate wants to speak privately with a counselor, he has to fill out a Form-9. But these restrictions do not apply to Raymond, who often puts in 14-hour days working the cellblocks of the state's prisons, recruiting men to transfer to his wing. In inmates' marked bodies, averted eyes, and bristling rage, Raymond sees the debts and wounds, not of poverty or addiction, but of sin alone. He believes there is only one cure—Jesus Christ—and that it is a perfect and complete cure.

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Once at the Ellsworth prison, Raymond and I quickly pass through the general population area, avoiding the acid attention of men slouched in front of bolted-down TVs, fingering the buttons of their state-issue work shirts. "I seeeeee you," an inmate coos at me through his window grate as we pass. "Don't think I can't see you." "I got to talk to you, girl! I got to talk to you right now!" another barks.

Raymond's wing, the faith-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative, is identical to the rest of the prison but feels like an entirely different place, an excessively well-lit church basement perhaps. Inmates have arranged their desks, stacked with Bibles and workbooks, in a tidy circle. One rushes to pull a chair out for me; others reach out for a double-handed shake or a shoulder clap poised to morph into a full-body hug. These inmates see plenty of women; Raymond keeps a steady flow of church volunteers, mentors, and teachers circulating throughout the wing. They don't behave toxicly, because the InnerChange staff doesn't treat them like they are murderers or rapists, even though some are.

Before Bible study starts, they want to ask me some questions: "Where are you from?" "Have you been saved?" "Do you know Jesus?" After class, perhaps unsatisfied with my answers—I'm Jewish—Raymond presents me with a pocket-size New Testament, "a gift from the guys." He then invites me to spend time alone with an inmate in his cell to peruse his extensive Scripture library more closely. A passing guard catches a glimpse of us crouched on the inmate's cot and turns purple. "Don't you know that no one is allowed in cells?" he bellows at Raymond. "Not even me, and I am a guard!"

The program represents the cutting edge of President Bush's faith-based initiatives, which fulfill two goals dear to many conservatives: bringing more people to Christ and shrinking government.

Raymond is undeterred. Later that evening, after most prison staff have left, he leads InnerChange inmates across grounds off-limits to them because they are outside the view of security cameras. They set up amplifiers and a drum kit for an evening revival in the mess hall. With a backup band of inmates chanting, "You are the air I breathe," Raymond preaches until the sun sets and goldfinches circle the indigo sky outside. By the end of the revival, Raymond has achieved his desired effect: The room is still with prayer; inmates are holding each other; some are crying. At 9:30, Raymond can be found in a cellblock, bent at the waist, his face pressed into the food slot of an inmate on lockdown. When he finally leaves the prison to eat a Dairy Queen dinner in the front seat of his pickup, the night is speckled with stars.

Aided by friends in high places—such as the White House—legislators in Kansas, Iowa, Texas, and Minnesota have, in the last six years, turned over portions of their prisons, and corrections budgets, to the politically powerful evangelical Christian group, Prison Fellowship Ministries, which pays Raymond's salary. The largest prison ministry in the world, PFM sends more than 50,000 volunteers into prisons in every state with the goal of "declaring the good news of Jesus Christ to those impacted by crime." The Ministries' "Angel Tree" program has presented more than 4 million children of inmates with Christmas presents and evangelistic materials. The goal is clear. As Mark Earley, who was attorney general of Virginia before becoming president of PFM in 2002, writes on its website, "I believe God is going to raise up the next generation of leaders for His Church from men and women now behind bars, and from their children."

In 1997, as part of a larger effort to increase funding for faith-based services in Texas, then-Governor George W. Bush gave PFM the chance to do more than just visit prisons; he allowed it to run a 24-hour "immersion" program in collaboration with the Department of Corrections. Three other states have since followed suit, and PFM plans to be in five more states by 2005 -- "God does amazing things!" enthuses InnerChange executive director Jerry Wilger. In June, President Bush held a press conference with InnerChange officials and inmates, touting a University of Pennsylvania study that he, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and the Wall Street Journal all claimed showed that InnerChange lowered recidivism. Critics later pointed out that the study actually indicated the opposite was true. In any case, InnerChange represents the cutting edge of Pres-ident Bush's faith-based initiatives, which seek to have religious groups take over social services once provided by state and federal agencies and, in so doing, fulfill two goals dear to many conservatives: bringing more people to Christ and shrinking government.

"The Christians do lots of stuff the state used to do, like vocational programs, but now they're only for believers."

In Kansas, most inmates two years away from possible parole are eligible to join InnerChange. Inmates who choose to live on its wing rise at 5 a.m. for morning prayers and bustle purposefully through a day packed with studying Scripture, practicing gospel music, learning life skills, and undergoing "biblically based" therapy designed to transform them through an "instantaneous miracle." Their study regimen includes les-sons in creationism and an option to "convert" out of homosexuality. When I asked Alexander Curls, on work release after three years of InnerChange, what he was taught about other faiths, he said emphatically, "I found out that a lot of good people are going straight to hell!"

Many inmates, however, don't join for the ideology. They do it to transfer from other parts of the prison system, and because completing InnerChange amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card with the Parole Board: "We have a very positive relationship with the board. Sometimes they just give our inmates a green light and say, 'See you at work release,'" said Larry Furnish, InnerChange program manager at Ellsworth. Kansas has only 298 coveted work-release positions for about 9,000 total inmates; InnerChange graduates are all but guaranteed a space as well as help finding a job and housing after they get out.

Meanwhile, joining InnerChange brings about a radical change in lifestyle. The movements of the general population are highly restricted. Those who share a snack or a book will likely be written up for "dealing and trading"; during visiting hours, hugs with family members are timed. But InnerChange "members" have good prison jobs and electric guitars. They are called by their first names, hugged and told they're loved, and, because the program emphasizes reconciliation with family members, are provided much greater visitation rights—their wives can join them for Bible study and picnics.

And then there is the pizza. When a new class of inmates joins InnerChange, the staff orders 100 large pies, a fact that all 800-plus inmates at Ellsworth appear to be intimately, obsessively, aware of. "We are stretching the local Pizza Hut to its absolute capacity," InnerChange office administrator Gale Soukup told me with a worried look, "and they're the only game in town."

Paid for in part by fees charged to the general population, InnerChange also offers substance-abuse treatment and free computer training, hot commodities in a time of budgetary woes. This year, the GED program Ellsworth offers regular prisoners was cut in half, the substance-abuse program eliminated. General-population inmates are still offered a computer class through the local community college, but as it costs $150, and men who are lucky enough to land a prison job make an average of 60 cents a day, the general population's six computers sit under dust covers most days. As Issac Jarowitz, an Ellsworth inmate who isn't in InnerChange, noted grudgingly, "The Christians do lots of stuff the state used to do, like vocational programs, but now they're only for believers."

"I tell them this is their ticket," Raymond said, gesturing to the InnerChange ID card that inmates wear on a "What Would Jesus Do?" neck chain, "to everything they need."

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