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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.

PRISON FELLOWSHIP MINISTRIES, the group that runs InnerChange, was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson, the "evil genius" of the Nix- on administration; one of his unrealized dirty tricks was a proposal to firebomb the Brookings Institution. For his Watergate crimes, Colson served seven months. After being released, he remade himself as a poster boy for the redemptive power Christ can have on criminals and the government, and has since become one of "America's most powerful Christian conservatives," according to the Weekly Standard. Still chairman of PFM, Colson is also a prolific writer. In his column for Christianity Today or his daily radio address, Colson can be found criticizing PBS for "promoting" evolution, hawking a brochure called "Rick Santorum Is Right," or claiming that the real weapons of mass destruction "are not in Baghdad" but in "the hands of the sexual liberationist lobby." In Colson's first novel, Gideon's Torch, the National Institutes of Health plans to harvest brain tissue from partial-birth abortions to treat AIDS patients, a scheme funded by Hollywood galas. Colson even has his anti-abortionist heroes firebomb the NIH. Gideon's Torch, like much of Colson's writings, ultimately argues that government without faith is doomed to destruction and corruption

Colson also drums on the clash between Christianity and Islam, a religion, he told Fox TV, "dedicated toward hatred," but that can be defeated by aggressive evangelizing. Last year, he wrote several op-eds warning that Muslim inmates present a terrorist threat, a message that's trickled down to InnerChange. Raymond refused to participate in an interfaith conference at Ellsworth last year because he thought the Muslim organizers were trying "to recruit guys." Texas InnerChange inmates told me they watched an evangelical documentary on a Christian woman who'd been raped by Muslims.

Colson wrote several op-eds warning that Muslim inmates present a terrorist threat. Texas InnerChange inmates told me they watched an evangelical documentary on a Christian woman who'd been raped by Muslims.

At Ellsworth, Muslim inmates like Michael Patterson say that their practices have been restricted since InnerChange arrived. While InnerChange inmates and their families are treated to a Christmas dinner shared with prison staff, this year the Ramadan feast (which Muslim inmates must pay for and their families can't attend) was denied. InnerChange inmates engage in spontaneous prayer throughout the day, but Lakota, Muslim, and other inmates in the general population need approval to pray together. "If anyone but the Christians gets together for a prayer, security hits the panic button," Patterson said, adding that the prison's chaplain would not order Islamic texts and that an inmate who started studying Arabic was called into the warden's office. (The warden denies these reports.) To Patterson, this pattern suggests that "through a variety of avenues, the prison is trying to pressure inmates to join InnerChange to turn the whole prison into a Christian place."

That sounds paranoid, and Warden Ray Roberts (who's since become warden of another Kansas prison) said inmates are not pressured, implicitly or explicitly, to join InnerChange. But Roberts, his deputy warden, and the prison's security chief all told me they would like the entire prison turned over to InnerChange. While walking with Raymond, an inmate suggested airbrushing a giant mural of Jesus on the side of the prison. "The state won't let that fly," Raymond said ruefully. "Wait until we take the place over."


WARDEN ROBERTS previously served as director of the InnerChange unit in Texas, and he did his best to welcome the ministry to Ellsworth. Inmates in the program repair wheelchairs for an evangelical group that distributes them, and the gos- pel, in the Third World. When budget cuts affected state funding for InnerChange, Roberts allowed its inmates to hawk BBQ bacon cheeseburgers to the general population.

The prison's chapel is small, so Roberts raised money for a large "Spiritual Life Center" that he said will make it easier to put on "wholesome entertainment, like gospel concerts." Fundraising efforts included the sales of his wife's "mop angels" (don't laugh -- that's $23,000) and inmate art, a staff softball tournament, and a civilian-attended prison slumber party. Roberts said he didn't plan to undertake similar efforts to restore the drug-abuse or education programs cut this year or to subsidize the $150 that regular inmates must pay for computer training.

Cheeseburgers aren't the most substantial way Kansas' inmates fund perks for their born-again brethren. Although some state legislatures allocate money for InnerChange (Texas recently set aside $1.5 million), Kansas provides it with only about $200,000 out of the Inmate Benefit Fund (profits from prison canteens and exorbitant phone rates). Kansas' $4.3 million Inmate Benefit Fund typically buys library books and sports equipment, but Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said InnerChange is a fair allocation because it is voluntary and open to everyone. "Not everyone uses the basketball hoops," he added.

In Kansas, the Inmate Benefit Fund covers only about 40 percent of InnerChange's cost; PFM pays the rest, making it attractive to government officials not swayed by the promise of kingdom-building alone. Kansas pays up to $4,000 for each inmate who participates in a regular group-therapy program; InnerChange therapy costs the state only $1,086 per inmate. What's more, the state saves money when inmates fulfill their requirements for vocational training or substance-abuse counseling through Inner- Change. "I know we don't have any good long-term numbers on recidivism with the program," said Werholtz, "but I was willing to suspend judgment because it follows the form, if not the content, of a therapeutic program. I'm interested in any kind of resources we can employ that will be effective on a low-cost or no-cost basis."

Werholtz says, "If you turn down the volume, InnerChange looks like a therapeutic community program." He is right. In their biblically based therapy sessions, InnerChange inmates break into tears and hugs with a frequency that would exhaust Oprah. These aren't crocodile tears. Many men are reconciled with estranged family members; all can talk about whatever suffering, neglect, or poverty landed them in prison.

InnerChange's substance-abuse program is state accredited, although unlike in the regular state program, addiction isn't presented as a disease to be struggled with for life, but as a sin that can be permanently "cured" through Jesus. 

But lest anyone mistake an InnerChange session for group therapy, the program enumerates the differences in a handy page-long chart. For instance, while standard therapy "seeks gradual change of self," the transformation that InnerChange promises "happens through an instantaneous miracle."

InnerChange's substance-abuse program is state accredited, although unlike in the regular state program, addiction isn't presented as a disease to be struggled with for life, but as a sin that can be permanently "cured" through Jesus. This is typical of the faith-based substance-abuse programs, like Teen Challenge, that President Bush ardently supports. As governor, Bush defended Teen Challenge against charges that it violated state and health-department codes, saying, "I believe that conversion to religion, in this case Christianity, by its very na- ture promotes sobriety."

At Ellsworth, InnerChange staff use Teen Challenge materials whether or not inmates have a substance-abuse problem. "It's all about discipleship," program manager Larry Furnish explains. "The addiction part is just one component of the materials."

InnerChange is also eager to provide its own faith-based alternative to Kansas' sex-offender treatment program. Pastor Raymond doesn't think it would be that hard to develop. "It's all sin," he said, shrugging. Jerry Wilger, head of InnerChange, said the idea is currently under consideration.


I GOT A TASTE OF WHAT a faith-based sex-offender program might look like when I attended an InnerChange support group that Furnish said was "a little like AA for homosexuals." The group was led by Clint Price, 28, who Furnish said "had a reputation across the state for being a flaming homosexual," while the other two members were "former cross-dressers."

Serving out a sentence for burglary, Price showed me pictures of his pre-InnerChange days when he plucked his eyebrows and had long hair. "At one point, I had the Bloods and the Crips fighting over me," he said with a trace of pride.

Price joined InnerChange because he had "some bad relationships and got let down and hurt so much. I was sick of competing with other queens in the system. In the pris- on environment, people are just not faithful and I was taking a lot of abuse." At InnerChange, Price was encouraged to grow out his facial hair, lift weights, stop shaving his legs, and abandon "the lifestyle." The group Price leads—InnerChange plans to have him minister to those "in the lifestyle" when he's released—is supposed to affect a similar change in the others.

I entered the InnerChange library unattended by any guard or staff. Sitting in the darkened room with Price's group as he read evangelical texts on homosexuality off a slide projector in a Ben Stein monotone—"Start your life moving." Click. "In a new direction towards complete manhood." Click—was a profoundly unsettling experience. It quickly became clear that the other members, Terry Hoffman and James Gavin, were not simply "cross-dressers" but serious sex offenders; Hoffman said he'd attempted to sodomize a blind man, and Gavin had sodomized his four-year-old daughter. Hoffman attended InnerChange because he'd been thrown out of the state-run sex-offender program, which Gavin had completed. As Price shared the trials of growing up gay, Asian, and uncoordinated in "a town smaller than Ellsworth, where sports are everything," it was clear he was out of his depth.

Privately, Price acknowledged that he's "really not for sure on how to deal with someone who has a sex crime. Some of the things they bring up from their past—real, real dysfunctional things—go beyond my experience," he said uneasily. "I don't know what to say, so I just have us pray together."

Letting Christ-based programs "cure" sex offenders—exempting them from state programs that employ aversion therapy and normative counseling, and releasing them into society armed primarily with polemics about sin—seems risky, to say the least, but Furnish is confident the state will go for it. 

Letting Christ-based programs "cure" sex offenders—exempting them from state programs that employ aversion therapy and normative counseling, and releasing them into society armed primarily with polemics about sin—seems risky, to say the least, but Furnish is confident the state will go for it. "We already offer GED, substance-abuse, and pre-release programs. If we get sex-offender treatment, we'll have the whole ball of wax for the state at a bargain-basement price," he said.


INNERCHANGE is the sort of program President Bush is promoting with faith-based initiatives, appointments, exec-utive orders, and (so far failed) legislative attempts. The director of the White House Office for Faith-Based Initiatives says Bush has asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate using InnerChange in federal prisons. Former PFM officials also lead Dare Mighty Things, which, thanks to a $2.2 million grant by the Department of Health and Human Services, now serves as a clearinghouse for faith-based and community groups applying for federal money.

It was already possible for faith groups to receive government funding to work in prisons; they simply have to separate their charity from their sermons and are forbidden to proselytize. But Bush's faith-based initiatives promote a very different theology of social action—one that he and Colson have personally experienced—that claims religion itself is the cure for social ills. PFM can receive state funds because InnerChange members enroll voluntarily, though it's hard to see the program as entirely voluntary when lifestyle and parole benefits serve as both carrot and stick. Furthermore, lifers who graduate from the InnerChange "God pod" return to cellblocks as "disciples" and are encouraged to proselytize.

Bush's faith-based initiatives are also part of a larger effort to privatize social services. As Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says, "This is really about making dramatic changes in the structure of the social safety net." Boston's group is suing InnerChange in an effort to challenge faith-based initiatives on constitutional grounds.

Colson, in a recent radio address, said, "What's at stake [in the suit] is not just a prison program, but how we deal with social problems in our country. Do we do it through grassroots organizations or big government? We know what works."

In fact, there's no conclusive research about whether the treatments InnerChange is experimenting with do work. The Texas Freedom Network recently reported on how Bush's faith-based initiatives have fared in that state, where they've existed the longest. It documents rampant safety violations at deregulated faith-based child-care centers and alcohol-treatment programs. Data compiled by Texas' Criminal Justice Policy Council suggests InnerChange graduates have lower rates of recidivism. But as University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves notes, "Prison Fellowship claims amazing success rates, but in prisons where it exists, it's often the only rehab program. We don't have comparisons between PFM and secular programs; we have comparisons between PFM and nothing." 

There's no conclusive research about whether the treatments InnerChange is experimenting with do work. 

Faith-based programs have a synergetic relationship with government cutbacks; InnerChange derives its transformational force from the stark neediness of inmates. It's hard—even for Muslim inmates like Patterson -- to be overly critical of InnerChange, because the services its inmates receive are such an improvement on what is offered in regular prison. Amy Fettig of the ACLU National Prison Project says InnerChange is "potentially problematic," but "we haven't had any complaints from inmates. It may be that folks are just desperate to get any services with states cutting back their budgets so much." Meanwhile, she adds, "we have to focus on other conditions, like deprivation of food, crowding, and violence."


THOSE ARE SOME of the conditions that Rodney Woods, 31, said drove him to enroll in InnerChange. Previously, Woods was serving time in the Hutchinson, Kansas, maximum-security prison, where he shared a cell with four other men and was let out to exercise for an hour a day.

Woods, who has wide almond eyes and rows of neat braids knotted behind his ears, said he was angry all the time, frustrated, and scared of what he might do. "My homeboy got jumped and I knew when he got out of the hole we were going to take care of it. I was going to end up fighting, kill the guy if need be. I was going to do something I was gonna regret." When Raymond came to speak at Hutchinson about the faith-based prison wing, Woods said, "I was attracted to the aspect of change. I wanted to be around positive people with a message of love."


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