A long-awaited University of Pennsylvania study gives high marks to Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Texas.

The study was unveiled at a meeting yesterday with President George W. Bush, who sponsored the program as Governor of Texas. During the roundtable meeting, the president made a beeline to hug Robert Sutton, a convicted murderer who is now working for InnerChange. The then-governor and the inmate made controversial headlines in Texas with their first hug. In praising the prisoner program, the president showed no bashfulness from that experience. Sutton exclaimed, "It is amazing to me that President Bush kissed me on the cheek."

According to the PF-funded study, only 8 percent of the inmates who complete the full 22-month program of religious instruction, mentoring, and vocational training return to prison within two years of their release. A comparison group without the program had a 20 percent recidivism rate.

Criminologist Byron Johnson directed the six-year study. "The results are incredibly positive," Johnson told CT. The researcher also pointed out that the interviews indicated a progressive strengthening of the inmates spirituality and outlook on life that was particularly strengthened by the involvement by InnerChange mentors.

Bernard Veal, an ex-inmate now living in Houston, Texas, said that InnerChange "is more than a program—it is a way of life. There in prison, I got up for 5:30 a.m. prayer. Today, there is 5:30 a.m. prayer in my life."

However, the study notes that InnerChange—like many demanding inmate rehab programs—experiences a high dropout rate: 58 percent. Still, other criminologists told CT InnerChange's recidivism rate for prisoners who finished the program is impressive.

InnerChange came to Texas in 1997. PF also operates it in Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota.

The program receives some state funds for its nonreligious elements. In February, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed two federal lawsuits against the Iowa program. AU says it unconstitutionally indoctrinates participants in religion, discriminates in hiring, and coerces participation through offering special privileges to enrollees.

Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice told CT an adverse ruling could lead to similar challenges in other states. He said the U.S. Supreme Court might even take up the case.

Mark Earley, PF's president, says the program is purely voluntary and thus permissible.

John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute told CT, "If an adverse ruling was sustained by the Supreme Court, it would stop Bush's faith-based initiative dead in its tracks."

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Bush emphasized his continuing support of the program despite opposition. "The president feels an urgency as part of his compassion agenda to reach out to these communities," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

At a federal level, however, the Bureau of Prisons has insisted that InnerChange subordinate its programs to a federally-run program that has different religious tracks. Towey said that the program would have to accommodate people of all faiths and no faiths rather than being explicitly Christian. As a result, InnerChange has no site in the federal prisons.

Related Elsewhere

Media coverage of the study and yesterday's White House meeting includes:

Convicted Watergate figure, Bush meet | Colson praised Bush for allowing InnerChange Freedom Initiative to start (Associated Press)
Jesus saves | How George Bush found himself giving a convicted murder a hug in the White House (Editorial, The Wall Street Journal)
Study touts faith-based prison rehabilitation program (Religion News Service)
Shutting the revolving door | A new study released this week shows that Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative is making a big difference. (Mark Earley, Breakpoint)
Ministry for former inmates has cloudy future | One of the Hope Mission's top administrators, James Heckman, is a fugitive from justice who misled community leaders about his past (Sarasota Herald Tribune, Fla.)
Faith-based prison dorms strive to give inmates hope | Unlike some faith-based programs whose constitutionality has been challenged, Men of Character does not promote any one religion (Sarasota Herald Tribune, Fla.)

For more information, see the websites for the Prison Fellowship and Innerchange Freedom Initiative.

The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council has posted the "Initial Process and Outcome Evaluation of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative" online.

Previous CT coverage of InnerChange, Prison Fellowship, and prison ministry includes:

Suing Success | Prison Fellowship says its Inner Change program is clearly constitutional. (March 18, 2003)
Weblog: Christian Prison Program Sued (Feb. 13, 2003)
The Legacy of Prisoner 23226 | Twenty-six years after leaving prison, Charles Colson has become one of America's most significant social reformers. (June 29, 2001)
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The Changing Face of Prison Fellowship | Organization says closing 20 offices and eliminating 100 staff positions are part of attempt to involve churches and volunteers more directly in prison ministry. (Sept. 28, 2000)
A Healthy 'Cult' | A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God's power transforms culture. (June 12, 2000)
Setting Captives Free | It takes more than getting a woman inmate out of jail to turn her life around (Jan. 10, 2000)
Prison Alpha Helps Women Recover Their Lost Hopes (Oct. 4, 1999)
Go Directly to Jail (Sept. 6, 1999)
Redeeming the Prisoners | Prison ministers embrace restorative justice methods. (Mar. 1, 1999)
Unique Prison Program Serves as Boot Camp for Heaven (Feb. 9, 1998)
Maximum Security Unlikely Setting for Model Church (Sept. 16, 1996)