- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

A faith-based prison program with headquarters in Virginia soon will expand its operation into five states, aiming to prepare more than 1,100 state inmates for their transition to the outside world through intensive Bible study and follow-up mentoring.

“We want to give the individual prisoner the opportunity to change through spiritual transformation,” said Norman Cox, the national director for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which has its headquarters in Lansdowne. “Once that occurs, you’re dealing with an entirely new person, and they’re eager to have a new value system.”

The group started in 1997 in Sugarland, Texas, at the urging of then-Gov. George W. Bush and as an initiative of Prison Fellowship, the worldwide ministry founded by convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson.

The nonprofit group operates programs in three other states — Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota — and will open its fifth program July 1 at the Wrightsville Unit near Little Rock, Ark, with its first attempt at a program for female prisoners.

Inmates who volunteer to participate in the program move to a separate housing unit about 18 months before their release. They begin each day with devotions at 6:30 a.m. and spend hours each day in Bible study.

Six months before the inmates are release, they are assigned a mentor from a church in the community. They are expected to maintain contact with the mentor for up to a year afterward. The program also attempts to connect inmates with a church upon their release and offers substance-abuse counseling, vocational training and marital and parenting classes.

“It’s a holistic program in that it not only deals with the spiritual needs of an individual,” Mr. Cox said. “It also deals with practical things [prisoners] need when they get out. Persons of all faiths or no faith are welcomed, but everybody is notified up front that the program is Christ-centered and Bible-based.”

The group has a contract with Prison Fellowship for staff members, which number about seven to 10 for each state program. About 200 volunteers help at each location.

Mr. Cox said about $1.7 million over three years is needed to start each program from scratch. Money comes largely from direct-mail solicitation and private donors. Mr. Cox said a small amount of state money soon will be phased out of the organization’s budget.

The program, which Mr. Cox said does not restrict enrollment based on a prisoner’s crime, faces some opposition. The Americans for the Separation of Church and State group filed two lawsuits against it in 2003, contending the program is unconstitutional and that enrolled prisoners are given preferential treatment. In response, group officials point to statistical successes.

For example, a study by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council published in 2003 showed inmates who completed program at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas had an 8 percent rate of re-incarceration after two years, but inmates who did not participate had about a 20 percent recidivism rate.

“About 25 percent of those that enroll drop out,” Mr. Cox said. “Either it’s not for them, or they’re just not ready, but the majority obviously come to the program because they want to change and they’re looking to change.”

Greg Deese, 39, spent eight years in prison for burglary and joined the program in Sugarland in 1999. He now owns his own business, Honey-Do Handyman, which has grossed $3.5 million since its inception in 2002.

“What the program [did] was take the prison mentality out of me before I got out of prison,” Mr. Deese said. “It made a big difference.”

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