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Texas Gives $2 Million to Proselytizing Prison Program

by Matthew T. Clarke

The Texas Legislature appropriated an additional $1.5 million to expand the Interchange Freedom Initiative (IFI) to include prisoners who expect to be paroled to the DallasFort Worth area. Sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization founded by bornagain Christian and former Watergate coconspirator, Chuck Colson, IFI is based out of the Carroll Vance Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and is currently limited to prisoners who expect to be paroled to the Houston area.

IFI is a "controversial, Christ centered, Biblebased program" that seeks to "rehabilitate convicts by pumping them full of Jesus, 24_7." In 1997, then governor George W. Bush signed onto this first- ofitskind program and used it politically to help him define himself as a "compassionate conservative" who sought faithbased alternatives to government programs.

IFI already received a $500,000 annual operating budget from the legislature. Additionally, TDCJ paid for the food, housing, medical needs, and security of the prisoners in the program. With this funding, IFI provides an eighteen-month inprison program followed by a sixmonth outofprison aftercare program in which the parolee receives assistance in finding a job and mentoring. According to IFI official Phillip Dautrich, before being turned loose "every inmate is guaranteed a mentor, job leads and a home church." "Ninetyfive percent of the guys who leave here have a job waiting," Dautrich says.

There is no hard evidence that the program reduces recidivism. Indeed, this would be very difficult to prove considering the fact that the program is restricted to only those prisoners in the highest trusty levels and accepts few violent offenders and no sex offenders or security risks. The only available information is that, according to IFI, of the 85 prisoners who have completed the twentyfour month program, only five have returned to prison. IFI claims this is a great improvement over the 40% average recidivism rate in Texas. However, because recidivism is measured over a threeyear period and none of the graduates completed the program more than three years ago, that information cannot be compared with standard recidivism statistics. Furthermore, it is not nearly as good as the alreadyproven recidivism reducer, higher education.

Prisoners who received a Bachelor's degree while in TDCJ had a recidivism rate of 5.6 % while those receiving a Master's degree while in TDCJ had a 0.0 % recidivism rate. However, Bush's "compassionate conservativism," now carried on by Texas governor Rick Perry, does not extend to higher education for prisoners no matter how successful and costeffective it is. The higher education program in TDCJ has been under constant attack and has been severely reduced during the Bush/Perry years. Additionally, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, another Republican "compassionate conservative," struck a strong blow against prisoner education nationwide when she sponsored a bill to make prisoners ineligible for federal Pell education grants. Clearly success in reducing recidivism is not an important criteria in deciding whether to fund a Texas prison program.

It is also questionable whether public monies should be used to promote a decidedly fundamentalist Christian theology when there are no secular or other religion alternatives that offer prisoners the mentoring, family reconciliation classes, aftercare, or job opportunities upon parole that IFI offers. Of course, most Texans are not aware of the expenditure of their tax money to support a denominational program. That's because most of the newspapers reporting on the IFI have stated that it receives no funds from the State of Texas. The newspapers may have been deceived because the method used by the Texas lawmakers to appropriate the money foreclosed debate on the matter and passed it as an addendum to the $113 billion general state appropriations budget instead of making it part of the TDCJ budget. Thus, former TDCJ Executive Director Wayne Scott may not have been technically lying when he told reporters that there would be no appropriation for the IFI in the prison system's 2001 budget request and it is, after all, not his fault if most reporters took that to mean that there would be no public funding of IFI.

First Amendment activists are livid about IFI. "It's totally unbelievable," says Steve Benen, a spokesman for the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.based civil rights group. "It is one thing to accommodate this group by giving its inmates food or housing. But direct public funding of proselytizing with taxpayer dollars is another monster entirely." Benen noted that the Bush administration has promised that there would be no government subsidy of religion in its faithbased initiatives. "It's all right to pay for the soup in the soup kitchen but not the Bibles. If public monies are used for evangelizing, that certainly seems like a violation of the First Amendment," says Benen.

IFI highly touts the lack of violence in its program. In the four years of its operation, there have been only five fist fights among the IFI prisoners, no weapons have been found in their dormitories, neither tear gas nor pepper spray have been deployed against IFI prisoners, nor have any IFI prisoners assaulted guards. However, another reason may exist for this glowing report on IFI prisoner behavior _ IFI restricts itself to prisoners in the highest trusty classes within a few months of parole. Unlike other prisons, IFI forbids cursing, television and soft pornography. The IFI prisoners are not confronted with yellow lines in the hallways. IFI readily transfers to other prisons those who don't get with the program and has, in fact, banished seventy-two prisoners for that reason since the program began. Another twentyseven prisoners left voluntarily. Thus, more prisoners have left the program than have completed it.

Let's see how this works: (1) start with a highly motivated volunteer group of prisoners selected because they are wellbehaved and lowrisk to begin with and are near parole; (2) remove some of the factors that cause tensions in prisons; (3) treat them more like human beings by removing the yellow lines and relaxing the constant institutionalized degradation other prisoners face; (4) provide lots of funding for individual and group mentoring; and (5) immediately transfer any prisoners who cause any kind of trouble or who wish to be transferred. Seems like that might reduce violence in the prisons that house such a program, with or without a religious component.

Sources: "Pass the Plate", (61401); "Convict Heaven", San Antonio ExpressNews (9101, p. B_7); various outcome studies relating prison education to reducing recidivism reviewed by the Windham School Systems, Huntsville, Texas; Education as Crime Prevention, by the Center on Crime, Communities & Culture, New York.

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