Reentry and Integration Division
Treating prisoners with dignity and respect has consequences
A Heritage and a Hope
Tuesday, May 18, 2010 4:58 PM CDT
Wharton Journal Spectator
By Peter Johnston
(Peter Johnston, an East Bernard resident, earned a history degree from Cornell University
and is a former high school history teacher.)
Ideas have consequences.
Even in prisons.
Ask Greg Baines, Founder of Just Do It Now, Inc. a faith-based counseling and recovery center based in Wharton. Greg grew up in Wharton, but did time in the Texas state prison system. From the experiences that led him into prison and subsequent prison time he knows that bad ideas have bad consequences.
As he and I spoke last week, he explained that the code of the prison was “complete distrust ... You didn’t trust anybody ... Everything that prisoners lived outside they brought inside. If they robbed, they robbed inside. If they were murderers, they would try to murder inside. You figured out how to survive.”
Greg, a repeat offender, thankfully, had a change of heart just prior to entering the state prison system his final time that has motivated him now to help others in the community where he grew up to plant faith-based seeds, good ideas, to avoid or overcome the pitfalls to which he fell prey. His insights from his experience in the state prison system offer a helpful backdrop to this final of three columns focusing on the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), the faith-based pre-release program operated since 1997 at the Carol Vance Texas Department of Corrections prison in Richmond.
According to an independent study done by the University of Pennsylvania, “IFI is a program different than other prison ministries in general ... in that it represents the first full-scale attempt to offer religious programs that connect inmate spiritual development with educational, vocational, and life skills training. Realistically, IFI is a ‘faith-saturated’ prison program whose stated mission is to ‘create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God’s law and rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners.’”
After touring IFI last December, having met with an IFI graduate contributing constructively to the Houston area in February, having attended a breakfast promoting IFI in April and having interviewed four current IFI prisoners and the chaplain last week, I support the IFI model as an idea whose time has come.
Take, for example Jon Louvier, age 29, who is currently in prison for a sentence of eight years, his second stint. Following his first term he returned to the people he knew before. The result: another prison sentence. To him, before IFI, prison consisted of chow hall, shower, and rec yard. To him prison was being “stuck in a hole with criminals” which “breeds hate and racism.” In his words “to an extent the state I was in was hopelessness ... at a loss for direction.”
As I interviewed him at the prison last week, I would not have guessed it. Jon was humble, poised and confident. He explained, “IFI has helped build my confidence. It has taught me what a man is and what a man’s responsibility is.” As a 29 year old father with a 14 year old daughter, he looks forward to using the skills he has received at IFI.
He explained, “I am an introvert by nature. My ideas have changed.”
As a part of IFI training, members learn public speaking. Jon, the introvert, joined and now is the current president of Soulwinner Gavel Club, the official Toastmasters Club in the Carol Vance Unit. “Toast masters”, he says, “taught me a lot.”
“I came as an 8th grade dropout, no communication skills, driven by my own selfish desires. Everything was about me.” In contrast he is “leaving with a new perspective ... with an education and above standard communication skills ... IFI breeds servant-leaders ... dedicated to something bigger than yourself ... We go out as leaders rather than criminals.”
Tracy Wilson, age 50, has been in prison four times for a total of 25 years, half his life. He began using drugs at age 12 and has been imprisoned for robbery and theft to support his drug habit.
His other prison experience in maximum security was “like being around animals.” He said wardens know you will fight. The warden, he shared, told prisoners that he knew they were going to fight, just cautioned them not to use a weapon. In his words, there is no trust among prisoners with no such thing as relationships, just “self-preservation and that is it.”
In a culture of despair, mistrust, and fear for 25 of his 50 years it would seem reasonable for Tracy, who has spent half of his life in state prison to be angry or despondent or both.
But during this fourth stint he has had the opportunity to participate in IFI. “If you want to prepare a man to go home I think every man should go through this.” In IFI he says you see men genuinely hugging each other and he learned to speak from the heart.
Tracy admits “I squandered my life” but currently wants his siblings, children and grandchildren “to have the same hope I have. Without the Lord, [there is] no hope.”
Ideas have consequences. IFI is an idea whose time has come.