Eighty-five Bible-toting inmates at a Texas prison are taking part in the nation's first faith-based prison pre-release program run 24 hours a day by an independent Christian organization.

The unusual experiment in church-state cooperation is the first time a state prison system has allowed a private Christian organization—Prison Fellowship International of Reston, Virginia—to take over an entire prison wing.

The goal of the round-the-clock volunteer program is to transform inmates spiritually and keep them from returning to prison.

"We want to change the inner man through the love of Jesus Christ," says pastor Don Bentley, a Prison Fellowship employee. "Until you do that, all you have is a polished-up convict."

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative—an intense blend of studying the Bible, teaching Christian values, and mentoring by church volunteers—is the first program of its kind in the United States. Houston-area church volunteers will work with inmates before and after they leave the minimum security Jester II Prison Unit between Sugar Land and Richmond southwest of Houston.

RIGOROUS SCHEDULE: Rising before dawn, the men make up their bunks inside their gray seven-foot-square cubicles. Each has a reading light. Some inmates display pictures of Jesus, crosses, or other religious symbols.

Encouraging signs are posted in different locations. "If It Is to Be, It's Up to Me," one message proclaims. Another states: "The Only Antidote to Pride Is the Grace of God."

At 5:30 a.m., inmates attend a mandatory worship service. Praying, hymnsinging, studying the Bible, learning life skills, and working at prison jobs follow. The day ends at 9 p.m.

Prison Fellowship, founded by Charles Colson, has allocated $1.2 million for the first two years to pay for programming of the pilot project and hiring of five full-time staff members. The Texas Department of Corrections is not out any extra expense, although the state provides the space, food, and guards.

Eventually, 200 inmates are to take part in the prerelease program. Groups are added in increments. Three sections have been received so far, and another group of 30 is due to join this month.

"Prison Fellowship wants to hike us up to 300 men, but the board will have to approve that," says Warden Fredrick Becker, a Methodist layman who has high hopes for the Christian effort.

The program makes efforts to teach basic virtues such as love, charity, self-sacrifice, honesty, and integrity. "Those things are just words to most of those inmates," Becker says. "They've never experienced them in their own families."

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UNLOCKING THE GOOD: On a recent morning, men dressed in prison whites and many carrying Bibles sang "Victory in Jesus," then listened intently as Pastor Bentley preached from a Bible spread before him.

"Many of you are here because of pride," Bentley said. "If you are a pompous and arrogant jackass, God is going to hold you accountable."

During a midmorning Lifeskills class, Jester II prison chaplain Jerry McCarty carried on the theme.

"This is a boot camp for getting into heaven," he said. "We want to unlock the good person potentially inside you."

Brandishing a Bible above his head, McCarty declared: "This is the owners' manual. Christianity is not just for old women and little children. It's for he-men, too."

Inmates who volunteer have committed a wide range of crimes, including murder, assault, drug-trafficking, embezzlement, and hot-check writing.

"If we had only altar boys and first-time offenders it wouldn't be a true test," Becker says. "I'm glad to say that the average man in the program is a third-time offender, and some are fourth- and fifth-time offenders."

Faith-based prison programs are gaining more acceptance across America, according to Reggie Wilkinson, president of the American Correctional Association.

"The Christian programs are more prominent in the Bible Belt," says Wilkinson, director of the Ohio prison system. "But prisons everywhere are letting faith groups in because of the need for the community to be involved in rehabilitating our prison population."

CHANGES EVIDENT: Some skeptics see the program as another version of "jailhouse religion," a term used to describe prisoners who seek easier prison time by embracing faith while behind bars, then toss their Bibles in the trash after they leave.

"A lot of people who have been in the prison system a long time just play games with religion," says Bentley. "They know what people want to hear and give it to them, but aren't really serious."

But the rigorous schedule of Christian activities weeds out those who are not serious, Bentley believes.

Patterned after methods that have sharply reduced recidivism in Brazil and Ecuador, the program aims to reduce the 48 percent return rate of convicts to Texas prisons. Statistical evidence on whether it is working will not be available for at least three years.

But the inmates, top prison officials, church volunteers of InnerChange, and veteran prison guards believe results are immediate.

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"I've already seen changes in their habits and attitudes," says Sgt. Levi Peterson, 47, a prison guard for 13 years, who is not a part of the InnerChange effort. "When you get a group of inmates of different cultures and backgrounds to study together and read the Bible together, it's going to make a difference."

McCarty, the prison chaplain, concurs.

"We are stuck with anecdotal evidence now," he says. "But we see the look on their faces, the spring in their step, and the brotherhood that is forming. We see very definite changes."

ROUGH BEGINNING: Walter Kasper, an inmate convicted of drug possession who became a part of the original group of inmates in InnerChange, says things have not always been harmonious among InnerChange participants.

"We had some real bad actors in our first group," he says. "We were a hodgepodge of 37 that stepped off the bus. Now our group is down to 20."

Many dropped out because they did not realize what a grueling schedule they would follow. Others were asked to leave because they could not adjust to the group environment and the rigid rules, Kasper says.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush strongly supports the program, one of several initiatives he has championed in which faith groups join with government agencies to help welfare reform, house the homeless, and help inmates after their release from prison.

Bush visited the Christian prison wing in October with Colson and joined the inmate choir in singing "Amazing Grace."

Ultimately, inmates will be asked to put the brotherly love they are taught into action. At the midpoint of training they will go out into the community, build houses for the poor, and try to apologize and make restitution to those they have committed crimes against.

NO ACLU OBJECTIONS: A few groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have objected to the Christian program, saying it violates constitutional principles. But Texas leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union are not concerned.

"It follows all guidelines, and we have no problem with it," says regional aclu director Diana Patrick of Dallas. "No one is coerced to be a part of it, and no special benefits are given."

Becker contends there is no violation because the program is entirely voluntary. Although Christian-based, it is open to all faiths. Two Muslims joined the first group, for example.

One Muslim, Joseph Williams, has converted to Christianity. But the other Muslim, Darryl Brown, continues to read the Qur'an and say Islamic prayers five times a day.

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"They respect my faith," Brown says. "There are a lot of guys here who are truly sincere; and they are walking the walk and talking the talk."

About 200 volunteers are working in the program, but 350 will eventually be needed. Semiretired Houston attorney Jack Allen spends about 20 hours a week meeting with 14 inmates to evaluate their progress.

"After they get out we will continue to work with them for six months, minimum," he says. "They can come to us for help."

Allen says he cannot predict whether the program will succeed.

"We are just starting down the road," he says. "It will take more than my ability to change these folks. But if the inmates work with those trying to help them, it could be effective."

Judy Indermuehle, a real-estate agent and member of Sugar Creek Baptist Church who volunteers as a phonics teacher, had misgivings at first.

"Now I look forward to it every day," she says. "This is the church's first opportunity to affect prison life. And it's a wonderful opportunity."

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