Prison Ministries News


    March 30

    Good Friday is a time to consider what the death penalty is doing to our souls

    Word spread quickly. The crime was unspeakable. The reward for his capture was great. The government was desperate to get him off the streets. Nobody knew what he was capable of next. Considering him to be exceedingly dangerous, law enforcement planned carefully. For some time, they'd practiced and discussed the take. When the moment arrived, one of the fugitive's confidantes revealed his location. As authorities made the arrest, those closest to him pushed back.

    It was no use. It was as if he knew his fate.

    Government officials repeatedly declared that a monster had been taken off the streets. Everyone wanted justice. Believing some level of due process was necessary to keep from giving their power over to the mob, local officials restrained themselves. Everyone knew that this was a big one.

    Insult after insult flew. Then, the time came.

    When the doors opened, he immediately became aware of how public his case was.

    Though he'd seen reports and heard rumblings, he just wasn't aware of the magnitude of the hate. The weight of it all was almost too much to carry.

    Weak in the knees, he determined to keep moving. The people kept calling him a monster. The words were painful. However, it was more painful to realize that they were calling everyone he loved monsters, too. When the walk didn't seem like it could get any longer, he was there.

    There was no question what everyone wanted. Death was in the air. The authorities gave him a chance to save his life, but he didn't take it.

    Nobody could believe it. Who wouldn't take the opportunity to save his own life? He was subjected to further punishment and then offered the chance at life again.

    He declined. Death it was.

    The path was long between the place of judgment and the place of execution.

    At every step, the cries of monster overwhelmed his brain. The religious people seemed to be the ones shouting the loudest. In the midst of it all, he stumbled a few times. I guess that's the nature of all difficult paths.

    As the place of execution approached, the governor had one last chance. Citing his faith, the governor let the killing continue. Waiting for death, the man prayed. Slowly, he was strapped in. His great crime was raised up for all of the world to see. God felt so far away. How could he have been so forsaken?

    His final words echoed in the beings of all who heard them, "Into your hands I commend my spirit." Death came with a rush. In great agony, he took his last breath. It was finished.

    The accounts of Jesus' sacrifice and death always move me deeply. But this narrative is not about Jesus. This is a narrative of Rosendo Rodriguez, convicted of killing 2 women and stuffing their bodies into suitcases.

    Texas executed him last Tuesday.

    God was there and so was I.

    Under the rain, I watched.

    While I cannot say what Rodriguez' crimes meant for his soul, I can say what his execution means for ours.

    The message of God died on that gurney. We killed our neighbor. We damned our persecutor. Surely God hates what we have done. Like it or not, our death penalty makes killers of us all. How are we any different than he?

    Only abolition can save us. The offer of life is on the table. Will we take the deal?

    (Source: Opinion; Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor and author----Dallas Morning News)

    Feb. 27th

    Texas Bishop says Catholics are shrinking away from Death Penalty Support

    Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth believes Catholic bishops in Texas are slowly gaining momentum in reducing Catholic support for the death penalty in a state that is widely considered ground zero for the use of capital punishment in the U.S.

    His remarks came in an interview with Crux just days after Governor Greg Abbott granted clemency to Thomas Whitaker less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed - a decision praised by the state's Catholic bishops.

    Whitaker will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole as punishment for assisting in the 2003 murder of his mother and brother, and the attempted murder of his father, Kent. His father was the leading petitioner for clemency, leading the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to make a unanimous recommendation to the governor to grant the request.

    The board said Kent Whitaker maintained that he "would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member."

    Abbott, who is Catholic, has been a long-time defender of the death penalty - a position maintained by an overwhelming majority of Texans. Recent joint polling from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 73 % of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported the death penalty and only 21 % opposed the practice.

    Despite such strong public support, Olson says he believes this decision by Abbott is an encouraging sign that Catholics are beginning to shift in their support on the issue - though he cautions that there is much work to be done.

    "I think at least we're making headway in fostering greater awareness among our people about the ineffectiveness of the death penalty to curtail crime and to fulfill even the classical understanding of its permissibility," he told Crux.

    "Our recent letter as Texas Bishops also talked about how its use is a failure to witness to the greater truths about the dignity of human life," he added.

    Olson said that the issue of capital punishment, however, isn't the only issue where Catholic opinions on public policy fail to line-up with the Church, and he lamented the fact that too often views are informed by secular influences rather than Church teaching.

    "The big challenge we face as the Church and as bishops entrusted with the authentic teaching mission, is that Catholics tend to identify not so differently from the secular mainstream populace," said Olson.

    He continued: "They do this not just exclusively on this issue, but on other issues involving the common good, such as immigration and refugees. That's the challenge we have as a state conference and as a local church."

    One demographic Olson believes is leading the shift in this debate is young people.

    "I see a greater attentiveness to this issue of capital punishment as a part of our Catholic pro-life witness, especially with the younger people," he told Crux.

    Olson - who has become an active Twitter user since being named bishop of Fort Worth in January 2014 - used the medium both to raise awareness of the Whitaker case and also to express his gratitude to Abbott for his decision to grant clemency.

    As far as its overall value, he renders a mixed verdict, but says to the extent that social media is being used to welcome people into the Church and at times alter public perception of it, then that should be welcomed.

    "It's a contemporary tool but it's deceptively very limited," said Olson. "It has a high impact, but as part of a means for providing the substance of Catholic teaching, social media is always going to limp. I think it's good at creating intentional communities but these communities are without a high degree of commitment for belonging. And at times social media can form not a community, but a mob, a violent mob.

    "As long as we use social media to invite people back into the communion formed by the Eucharist within the mission of the Church, it's a valuable tool," he concluded.

    For several decades now, internal debates have swirled over how the Church should engage pro-life issues ranging from abortion to euthanasia to capital punishment.

    Olson told Crux that the "seamless garment of life" philosophy can often be applied without making critical distinctions, and that approach is not identical to a "consistent ethic of life" which he champions.

    "The consistent ethic of life has to do with recognizing the inherent dignity of each and every human person," said Olson. "As St. Pope John Paul II always reminded us, it's important for Catholics to know our anthropology. We understand and flourish as human persons in the context of human society."

    "One can understand the importance of life issues, such as abortion, contraception, married life, euthanasia, assisted suicide, the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means, but we also have to learn to make critical distinctions in light of our belonging to society as more than abstract individuals," he added.

    Helping Catholics learn how to make these distinctions - while at the same time offering a consistent and more compelling vision of human society seems to be Olson's main priority in speaking out on these issues at the moment.

    "The first society to which we belong is the family," he concluded.


    Feb. 3

    Former Death Row Minister reflects on service

    He stood inside the execution chamber at the Huntsville Unit 43 times as a prison chaplain.

    Today, he's 74, preaching at the First United Methodist Church in Refugio.

    But the Rev. Ken Houston still recalls the tight, sterile space vividly, where it was once his job to stand near a gurney and lay hands on death row inmates as they were administered lethal injections.

    "Most of the time, I didn't know why they were being executed until afterward.

    I didn't want to know because I was afraid it might influence the way I ministered to them," said Houston, who formerly prayed and shared the Gospel with some of Texas' most violent and murderous offenders. "They may not have deserved to ever get out of prison and walk amongst us again, but every man has the right to salvation."

    Houston spent three years of his life working as Huntsville's prison chaplain, ministering to the general population, performing more than 300 funerals for inmates who died while incarcerated and praying alongside the inmates at the Polunsky Unit, Huntsville's death row residence.

    "Most of them would talk with me just like you and me are talking now," he said. "I'm a big guy, so I was never afraid or intimidated. I would sometimes reach inside their bars and hold their hands while we prayed. A few of them I baptized out of a Styrofoam cup."

    On the day of an execution, they were taken from Polunsky to a room at the Huntsville prison, also called "Walls Unit," 8 steps from the execution chamber, Houston said. For the next few hours, Houston met with the family and the inmate, administered final prayers and assisted with any last requests, including final meals.

    "One inmate wanted chitterlings; one wanted a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Some wanted a steak. Most of the time, they wanted a hamburger; that was the most requested," said Houston, who helped the inmates obtain any final meal items not provided by the prison. "A lot of them wouldn't eat it. They'd pick at it and look at it. But it's a tough day. I mean, who can eat at a time like that, anyway?"

    When it was time, he walked eight steps to the execution chamber with the inmate and helped them get ready to die.

    "The chaplain stands at his feet, the warden at his head, and the warden asks if they have any final words, which some did and some didn't," Houston said, mentioning he and the warden always wore nice suits, cowboy boots and sometimes cowboy hats to show respect for both the families and the inmates.

    "I always put my hand on their leg to provide them some comfort."

    A few moments later, the warden would adjust his glasses or give a signal to the doctors behind the glass it was time to administer the chemicals.

    Inside the room, only a few feet separated the inmate from one-sided glass windows of onlookers, where the family of the inmate, family of the victims and doctors administering the lethal injection chemicals looked on.

    "Everyone I worked with during that time was highly professional," he said. "No one ever acted like, 'We got you now, sucker,' and neither did any of the crew."

    It wasn't an easy job, recalls Houston, who admitted the secondary psychological and spiritual messiness of ministering to the men - who ranged from what he describes as pure evil to those who made mistakes grave enough to land them on death row - was something he had to reconcile daily.

    "Sometimes, after (an execution), I would go home at night and I wouldn't even turn the lights on. I would sit there and think about what has taken place," Houston remembered, mentioning he lived in a state house behind the prison.

    "The sheer nonsense of people who had thrown their life away because of the crimes they committed, it troubled me."

    Serving as a chaplain at Huntsville, Texas' oldest prison, was a job he accepted during a ministerial transition phase in his life, from 1999 to 2001, a period of three years that taught him more about God and the need for sharing the Gospel than any other long stint he has performed in church ministry since.

    "It gave me a deeper understanding of God's grace and how God could possibly forgive people for sins against Christ," he said. "You have to be able to love a person regardless of what they've done. It's an agape (altruistic) kind of love, the kind God has for us, the kind that says, 'I don't care what you've done; I love you anyway.'"

    At the time, Houston was 42 years old and a newly divorced Southern Baptist preacher. He knew after the divorce it was possible that finding a new church assignment with the Southern Baptist denomination could be difficult.

    That's ultimately what led him to transition into Methodism with the help of his second wife, Lynn Houston, a practicing Methodist who met her husband while leading a large prison ministry through her church in Corpus Christi at the time. She was also a prison lay minister and helped send 400 letters to prisoners each month.

    When she decided to cross over into ministering on death row, she reached out to the prison chaplains at Huntsville, where she would eventually meet her husband.

    The 2 bonded over their passion for prisoners. And on the night they married, Houston and the warden allowed her to tour the death row facilities.

    "He had such a big heart for them," she said. "He knew some of those guys did horrible, horrible things, but he knew they needed God."

    Some of the men Houston ministered to on death row included Jason Massey, who was executed in 2001 for fatally shooting 2 siblings, Christina Benjamin, 13 and stepbrother James King, 14. Massey also severed the girl's hands and feet, and there was evidence of sexual crimes.

    Houston was there as Massey was executed. Massey used his final moments to apologize a final time to the victims' family, utter a prayer and admit to police where he left the girl's remains - in the Trinity River.

    "That's heavy stuff to take home each night," he recalled, remembering how calm Massey was on the day of his execution.

    But Houston said Massey was a unique turnaround in prison and one of the few he believes truly accepted Christ while in prison. He even wrote an emphatic prayer in Houston's Bible before he died, which he said some of the death row inmates would do after a period of time to show their appreciation for Houston's time with them.

    "Some of them were very hostile when I tried to talk with them about Christ, but a lot of them were very sorrowful for what they had done," he said, acknowledging the job required a strong countenance on his part and constant time in prayer with the Lord to sort out the balance between performing his job, maintaining order and rules of the prison and practicing non-judgment.

    "Even now, I have people who ask me how I could minister to these men. They can't understand forgiveness in this context, how anybody could kill 2 or 3 children and a mom and a dad and possibly go to heaven," he said. "But knowing what the Bible says, I use scripture to explain it. When Christ went to the cross, he died for all men, not just the good ones."

    Houston said he still hasn't formed a solid opinion about whether he accepts the death penalty as just or needed. He admits it's more cost-efficient to house the inmates for life rather than execute them. He recognizes the irony of those who are executed and what's written on their death certificates as a cause of death: "Homicide by lethal injection."

    He also realizes few have cares for death row prisoners housed at the Polunsky Unit at Huntsville, where they spend their days in a small enclosure with no windows to the outside world and an hour a day in an outdoor caged space for recreation.

    "It's very inhumane. It's hotter than the hubs of hell in there. Those cells are cold in the winter and hot in the summer," he said.

    But he does recognize the need for prison chaplaincy. And has seen the positive effect it has had on men and women's lives, evidenced by the few who show up after they're paroled.

    Only a few months ago, after the ravage of Hurricane Harvey, a previous prisoner he and his wife ministered to while in prison showed up in Refugio with a truckload of supplies and food.

    "It was as if he was trying to repay us somehow for what we could do for him while in prison," Lynn Houston said.

    It's been 17 years since his last execution, but Houston is forever changed by what he learned as a Huntsville chaplain. And he still gives sermons on grace and forgiveness, teaching lessons he learned about the salvation of murderers.

    "I wouldn't change anything about that time in my life because the lessons I learned about God I wouldn't have learned otherwise," he said. "I've truly been in the trenches of ministry."

    (Source: Victoria Advocate)


      Oct. 11

      Texas Bishops call for Abolition of Death Penalty

      "Capital punishment vitiates our hearts' capacity for mercy and love," the Texas bishops said in a statement released by the Texas Catholic Conference in Austin. "The death penalty not only does not correspond to the common good, it actually does great harm to it."

      The Catholic bishops of Texas Oct. 10 called for the abolition of the death penalty, denouncing its effects not only on victims and others immediately affected, but also on society.

      "Capital punishment vitiates our hearts' capacity for mercy and love," the bishops said in a statement released by the Texas Catholic Conference in Austin. "The death penalty not only does not correspond to the common good, it actually does great harm to it."

      The statement, released on the World Day Against the Death Penalty, comes at a time when support of the death penalty among Americans - including Texans - is declining.

      Survey results released Sept. 29 by the Pew Research Center showed that Americans' support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in more than 4 decades. It said only 49 % of Americans currently favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. That's a drop from 56 % who said in March 2015 that they supported it. The new survey shows 42 % of Americans now oppose the death penalty.

      In Texas in 2015, 56 % of people surveyed said they supported the death penalty for convicted murderers, down from 75 % in 1993.

      The bishops' statement also served as their annual address to Texas Catholics during Respect Life Month, observed by the U.S. Catholic Church every October.

      The month offers Catholics an opportunity to "reflect on the precious gift of life and recommit ourselves to working toward a culture that truly welcomes and protects human life in our society," the Texas bishops wrote.

      "This year we bishops draw particular attention to our consistent call for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas, as we recognize this is undeniably a pro-life issue," they said.

      In their statement, the bishops cited several ways they said carrying out the death penalty inflicts harm:

      -- Capital punishment "is used disproportionately on the poor, minorities and people with mental disabilities.

      -- Costs involved in capital punishment cases "are 3 times" that of cases in which the convicted are sentenced to life imprisonment.

      -- The "finality of death" does not allow for rehabilitation of prisoners, nor does it provide "consolation for victims' families."

      -- Studies have shown that states have executed innocent people and that crime rates are not affected by a state's use of the death penalty.

      "The death penalty negatively influences our children's moral formation and our culture as it fails to allow for mercy and redemption," the bishops said.

      "Our call to abolish the death penalty is not a call to deny justice," they wrote. "On the contrary, it is a call to the whole community to recognize that the death penalty does not fulfill justice, nor does it console the inconsolable."

      A news release said the Texas Catholic Conference, which is the bishops' public policy arm, will be working in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature to improve the rights of jurors serving in death penalty sentencing cases.

      According to Jennifer Carr Allmon, the conference's executive director, Texas law "is intentionally misleading as it requires judges and attorneys to lie to jurors about the level of unanimity required for a death sentence."

      "While we will continue our efforts to end the use of the death penalty in Texas, this legislation will at least improve the fairness of the current system," she said in a statement.

      Fewer Texas juries are giving death sentences than at any time in the past 2 decades, the Catholic conference said. Texas's highest court for criminal cases - the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals - has granted a high number of reprieves over the past 2 years, it said, because of concerns "about the fairness and accuracy of death penalty convictions."

      Texas has the highest rate of executions of any state. This year, the state will carry out its lowest number of executions since 1996.


      Feb. 24

      Pope tells Austin bishop not to 'give up fight' against death penalty

      During his trip to the U.S.-Mexico border last week, Pope Francis told Austin bishops to "not lose heart or give up the fight" against the death penalty, auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia said Tuesday.

      Garcia was one of several people with the diocese who traveled to the border city of Ju1rez to see the pope on Feb. 17 at the end of his 6-day tour through Mexico. The diocese's delegation shared details of its trip in a press conference Tuesday.

      On Sunday, Francis issued a call to all world leaders to put up a moratorium on the death penalty until November. Garcia said the pope brought up the issue with him last week when he told Francis he lived in Texas.

      "His comment to me was very direct," Garcia said. "He said, 'Do not lose heart or give up the fight in fighting against the death penalty. Do not lose heart, do not lose hope. I know it's difficult, it's an uphill challenge, but we have to continue to bring people hope.'"

      "He was very much encouraging. He wasn't angry when he said it, he wasn't trying to create turmoil," Garcia added. "He was just saying that as pastors, as shepherds, we have to be the voice of the people - oftentimes for the voices that are not heard."

      Garcia said he didn't say much to the pope.

      "I just basically listened," he said, laughing.

      Pope Francis visited a prison in Juarez and spent time with the inmates while he was there.

      Another person affiliated with the Diocese of Austin - Gerardo Ramos, the director of music at St. William Church in Round Rock, who grew up in Juarez - traveled to border for the papal visit as well. He sang in the choir during the Mass that Francis celebrated and had the chance to perform a solo.

      Performing during the Mass was "a moment of peace," Ramos said.

      "When I started singing, it was this moment of joy," he said. "It's something that's very indescribable."

      Jorge Nunez, case manager for the Austin Diocese's Office of Canonical Tribunal Services, also traveled to Ju???rez to see the pope and said he was touched to hear Francis address the city's history of drug violence during Mass.

      "It really hit home for me because I have family in Mexico who were severely affected by the violence there," Nunez said.

      (source: Austin American-Statesman)


      Abolish Texas Death Penalty

      More than 550 Faith Leaders sign Statement

      March 16, 2015

      AUSTIN, Texas — Representatives of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) and Texas Impact gathered March 9 at the State Capitol with faith leaders from across the state to release an Interfaith Statement of Opposition to the Death Penalty and a Texas Rabbis’ & Cantors’ Statement of Opposition to the Death Penalty.

      More than 550 religious and spiritual leaders statewide have endorsed the Interfaith Statement. The signatories include all active and retired bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas, and 265 United Methodist clergy from across the state.

      The signatories represent 25 different faith traditions, including Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reform Judaism, and United Church of Christ.

      More than 20 Jewish leaders in Texas endorsed the Rabbis' Statement.

      Affirm Sanctity Of Life

      Affirming the sanctity of human life and human capacity for redemption, the statements reflect both moral and practical concerns about the death penalty rooted in diverse religious traditions. The endorsing faith leaders call on Gov. Greg Abbott, members of the 84th Texas Legislature, and other elected officials to take a closer look at the reality of capital punishment in Texas.

      The statements urge them to seek alternative ways to achieve healing and justice for all those who suffer in the wake of violent crimes.

      The interfaith leaders declare in their statement: “We should do all we can to make sure our state’s resources are directed towards the improvement of life, not its destruction.”

      United Methodist Statement

      The United Methodist Church first adopted a statement opposing the death penalty in 1956.

      “According to our Social Principles, the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings,” said Bishop Joe Wilson, who served as episcopal leader of the United Methodist Central Texas Conference, headquartered in Fort Worth, from 1992 to 2000. He was also Bishop-in-Residence at Southwestern University in Georgetown from 2001 to 2013.

      “The Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life,” Wilson emphasized.

      Declining Use Of Death Penalty

      These statements come at a time of declining use of the death penalty both nationally and in Texas. New death sentences have dropped 80% in Texas over the past 15 years and remain isolated to just a few jurisdictions statewide, according to TCADP. Last year the state carried out its fewest executions in nearly two decades.

      To date this year, three individuals have been put to death and three have received stays of execution. Texas used one of its two remaining doses of a lethal drug to execute Manuel Vasquez, a Mexican Mafia hitman, March 11.

      The Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood of Denton, who last year conducted a 200-mile pilgrimage from death row in Livingston to the State Capitol in Austin, said, “It is my hope this Interfaith Statement will ignite the moral imagination of all people of faith in Texas so that we might rise up together with one courageous voice and declare the death penalty to be no more.”

      Rabbi Susan Lippe of Austin said: “As Jewish leaders, we have grave concerns about the racist and arbitrary application of the death penalty and the possibility of executing an innocent person. With these statements, we declare no more executions in our name.”

      Bill Would Repeal Death Penalty

      The release of the Interfaith Statement occurred in conjunction with the first-ever Texas Faith Leader Advocacy Day on the Death Penalty.

      Participants met with legislators to deliver copies of the statement and voice their support for House Bill 1527, sponsored by State Rep. Jessica Farrar (District 148, Houston). Farrar’s bill would repeal the death penalty in Texas.

      Faith leaders urged the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to hold a hearing on the bill. Farrar filed HB 1527 Febr. 17, and has sponsored similar legislation in every session since 2007.

      “Texas Impact is proud to stand in partnership with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to heighten the visibility of faith-based opposition to the death penalty and persuade more elected officials and the public at large to embrace alternatives to its use,” said the Rev. Tom Heger, a retired Presbyterian pastor from San Antonio who is a Texas Impact board member. “As the state’s oldest and largest statewide interfaith network, we believe faith communities play a critical role in public discussions about the future of capital punishment in our state.”

      Editor's note: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) is a statewide, grassroots membership organization working to end the death penalty in Texas. TCADP engages in outreach, education, and advocacy aimed at raising awareness of issues related to the death penalty and mobilizing the citizens of Texas and their elected officials to support abolition.

      Texas Impact, is a statewide religious grassroots network whose members include individuals, congregations and governing bodies of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Texas Impact exists to advance state public policies consistent with universally held social principles of the Abrahamic traditions. Texas Impact accomplishes its mission by developing grassroots networks in local communities and mobilizing them to advocate with their legislators on specific issues.

      Interfaith Statement of Opposition to the Death Penalty and full list of signatories, organized by region.

      Rabbis’ & Cantors’ Statement of Opposition to the Death Penalty

      Abolish Texas Death Penalty


      July 26

      MK From Mexico Ministers To Death-Row Inmates

      In the 6 years Dorothy Ruelas has visited death-row inmates at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in West Livingston, only 1 thing shocked her.

      "I was surprised and shocked to find out most Baptists support the death penalty," said Ruelas, a member of Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Sugar Land.

      That's contrary to the example her parents set. Wyatt and Beth Lee served 36 years as Southern Baptist missionaries in Mexico, where she was born and spent most of her life. As a teenager, she frequently accompanied her mother to a prison in Guadalajara where they visited inmates and led a Bible study.

      "It kind of got it my blood," Ruelas said.

      She recalled how her parents opened their home to ex-offenders in the days immediately after their release, until the men could travel from Guadalajara to wherever their families lived.

      Even after her parents retired and moved to Woodville, they continued ministry to prisoners at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility near their home.

      So, after she heard the Christian testimony of a father whose son was on death row at the Polunsky Unit, it seemed natural for her to start writing the young prisoner.

      A Surprising Discovery

      The inmate expressed appreciation in a letter to her, and he registered his surprise, since he understood most Baptists support capital punishment. At first, she didn't believe it.

      "We live under grace, not Old Testament law. Only God has the right to take a life," she said. "Besides, if you kill a prisoner, how will he ever have the opportunity to get to know Christ? How will he have the chance to show people how God can change a life?"

      Her ongoing correspondence with one Anglo inmate led to contact with eight other death-row inmates, all Spanish-speaking. After about a year of letter-writing, she began personally visiting the inmates on a regular basis, often accompanied by her husband, Juan Jose Ruelas.

      "The men really enjoy when my husband goes with me, because he is a big jokester and makes them laugh a lot," she said.

      Profesions of Faith

      2 of the 9 inmates she befriended were Christians before she initiated contact with them. Several had some religious background or were in the process of moving toward faith in Christ. A couple professed faith in Christ directly as a result of her ministry.

      "Seeing the spiritual growth, the changes, peace and joy in these men is the greatest joy in my life," she said.

      "I never in my life thought I would live in the United States, but I believe God brought me up here because of this. It's not something I chose to do. God put it on my heart." 2 of her 9 death-row friends have been executed. In both instances, she traveled to Huntsville to be with their families at the Hospitality House - a ministry launched by Texas Baptists - before and after the execution.

      Execution scheduled in October

      One other inmate, Miguel Angel Paredes, is scheduled for execution Oct. 28, and she plans to be present as a witness.

      "Until about 2 years ago, when he began growing spiritually in gigantic steps, ...he had a lot of hatred and anger in him," Ruelas said.

      Since he committed his life to Christ, Paredes has been transformed.

      "His testimony has given him open doors to been able to reach inmates who were unreachable by chaplains and other Christians in the free world, because they knew how he was years back and can visibly see the changes in him now," she said. "He knows how to talk to them and how to get to their hearts. He has impacted the life of many on death row - and even his own family, who have begun visiting him again."

      Ministry to inmates on death row has grown to become a consuming passion for Ruelas.

      "The men on death row are still human beings, created by God. And God also wants us to reach out to them with his love," she said.

      (Source: The Baptist Standard)

      July 3

      Retired Pastor Saw 'Destiny' In Self-Immolation

      A retired United Methodist pastor fatally set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot in his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, on June 23.

      His death was a final act of protest against social injustice, according to family members and the notes the pastor left behind.

      The Rev. Charles R. Moore, 79, lived in Allen, Texas, near Dallas, but apparently drove himself to Grand Saline, in east Texas, on June 23.

      At about 5:30 p.m., he parked his car and walked to the parking lot, where he doused himself with gasoline and started the blaze, said Chief Larry Compton of the Grand Saline police.

      Initially, Moore survived, thanks to bystanders who retrieved a store fire extinguisher and put out the blaze.

      He was taken by helicopter to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and died there late that night, Compton said.

      Moore was a longtime elder in the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference, where in addition to serving churches he advocated for the abolition of the death penalty and for gay rights within The United Methodist Church.

      No Indication Toward Suicide

      Family members said he clearly remained deeply concerned about those issues and others, including race relations, but gave no indication that he was contemplating suicide in any form.

      Church Teachings on Suicide

      The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, says the following about suicide.

      We believe that suicide is not the way a human life should end. Often suicide is the result of untreated depression, or untreated pain and suffering. The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide. We encourage the church to provide education to address the biblical, theological, social, and ethical issues related to death and dying, including suicide. United Methodist theological seminary courses should also focus on issues of death and dying, including suicide.

      A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

      Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends.

      We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching. We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide. The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

      "It was a complete shock," said the Rev. Bill Renfro, also a retired United Methodist pastor and a relative of Moore's by marriage.

      The Tyler (Tex.) Morning Telegraph obtained from the Grand Saline police a copy of a note Moore left on his car. In it, Moore laments past racism in Grand Saline and beyond. He calls on the community to repent and says he's "giving my body to be burned, with love in my heart" for lynching victims, for those who lynched and for Grand Saline citizens, in hopes they will address current racial issues.

      Renfro provided United Methodist News Service with copies of other explanatory statements Moore left, apparently written in the weeks before his suicide. Family members found the notes in the study of the Allen home Moore shared with his wife, Barbara, Renfro said.

      The typed notes relay Moore's frustration over The United Methodist Church's positions on homosexuality, over the death penalty, and over Southern Methodist University's successful bid to be home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

      In one note, hand dated June 16, 2014, Moore wrote: "This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer's insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family."

      In another note, Moore said his mental and physical health was good, that he was enjoying life and adored his wife, but that he also felt he was a "paralyzed soul," unable to bring to fruition the social change he felt was urgent. He declared it his "destiny" to give his life for a cause.

      One note makes clear that Moore, who had degrees from SMU and SMU's Perkins School of Theology, planned to do the self-immolation on the SMU campus, on Juneteenth - the annual June 19 commemoration of the 1865 announcement to slaves within Texas that they had been freed.

      In another, much shorter note, dated June 20, Moore says "my courage failed" in regard to the Juneteenth plan. In yet another, dated June 22, Moore clearly still planned to take his life at SMU. "I know that some will judge me insane," he wrote, adding that he loved the school and felt his self-immolation there would move people to care more about gay rights, the death penalty and better treatment for African-Americans.

      "He changed his mind at the last," Renfro said. "He couldn't bring himself to do it at SMU. It meant so much to him."

      'He Had Done Plenty'

      Renfro said the family struggled with whether to release the notes and seek news coverage of Moore's act. He said the family is grieving the loss of a loved one, experiencing a range of emotions over the way Moore chose to end his life, and feeling sorrow for those who witnessed the self-immolation.

      But the family ultimately concluded that Moore's long commitment to social justice should be recognized, and that his act should be seen as an extension of that.

      "Basically, we've decided that the word needs to get out as to why he did it because it's more than deciding to take your life to get out of a bad situation or out of depression," Renfro said.

      In the notes, Moore sometimes criticizes himself harshly for not acting earlier and more decisively on civil rights issues and other social justice matters.

      "It would have been nice to have had some sort of counseling, somebody to point out that his life had mattered, that he hadn't failed," Renfro said. "He had done plenty."

      Moore helped organize the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He also went on a hunger strike in 1995, hoping to persuade the Council of Bishops, which was meeting in Austin, to push for changing the Book of Discipline's language on homosexuality. He did mission work in Chicago and India.

      Andy Smith of Dallas was active at Grace United Methodist Church in Austin, which Moore served from 1990 to 2000. Smith recalled Moore as a consistently strong advocate for LGBT causes, as well as a stirring preacher.

      "His sermon about Lazarus coming out of the tomb has stayed with me for more than 20 years and remains the single best sermon I've ever heard," Smith said. "Charles was a good man who played a prominent role in my life. I'm sorry that he didn't feel that he made a difference, because he did."

      A Hometown Church's Prayers

      Moore is survived by his wife; his sons, Guy Moore and Steve Moore, and 2 grandchildren. A memorial service is to be held July 12 at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin.

      In the note left on his car, Moore was critical of the First United Methodist Church in Grand Saline, saying members had ostracized him in the 1950s when he openly supported school desegregation, and had not reached out to him over the years.

      The church devoted its regular Wednesday Holy Communion service on July 2 to prayers for Moore's family and the Grand Saline community, said the Rev. Don Brown, pastor.

      Brown said he had not known Moore, but had been impressed in learning recently about his social justice work. Brown said he would have been glad to have invited Moore to speak at the church, to hear his witness and give him a forum that might have prevented the suicide.

      "I would have been real happy to have introduced him to a socially active and community-involved congregation, but it wasn't to be," he said.


      July 2

      2 Dozen People Gathered Outside Dallas County Courts Building Wednesday Morning To Protest Death Penalty

      Carrying signs such as "Texans against state killing" and "Thou shalt not kill," about 24 members of different Christian denominations gathered in front of the Frank Crowley Courts building Wednesday morning to express opposition to the death penalty.

      The event coincided with the 38th anniversary of Gregg v. Georgia, a landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty can be used as a form of retribution in murder cases.

      Proponents of the death penalty have argued that it is justified in severe crimes and can help deter future crimes.

      Protesters said Wednesday they also hope to bring attention to the botched execution that occurred in April in Oklahoma, setting off a 7-week stay on executions.

      "We thought lethal execution was a humane way to execute, but we're learning that it can constitute cruel and unusual punishment as seen in the [Oklahoma] case," said Hadi Jawad, who has been a human rights activist for more than 30 decades.

      Leaders representing 8 churches from across North Texas read statements Wednesday about the death penalty from their congregations.

      "The Ten Commandments teach, 'Thou shalt not kill,' placing a profound respect for human life at the center of Jewish and Christian teachings," said Rev. Ed Middleton, reading from the United Church of Christ's "Call for the Abolition of the Death Penalty."

      (Source: Dallas Morning News)

      June 18

      Marching Through The Desert To End The Death Penalty

      Jeff Hood is walking 200 miles across the state.
      What would compel somebody to do that?
      He wants to end the death penalty… and he is not alone.

      It's 93 degrees in Texas today. And Rev. Jeff Hood is walking 200 miles across the state. What would compel somebody to do that? He wants to end the death penalty... and he is not alone.

      Rev. Jeff Hood is a Southern Baptist pastor, deeply troubled by his denomination's stance on capital punishment. And he is troubled because he lives in the most lethal state in the US. Texas has had 515 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 - the next state in line is Oklahoma with 111. That means Texas is responsible for 37% of the executions in the US. Jeff has been a long-time organizer and Board member for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a movement that is gaining some serious momentum these days.

      A growing number of Texans - and Americans in general - are questioning the death penalty. A recent ABC poll shows we are over the tipping point, with more than half of Americans being against the death penalty and in favor of life in prison, putting death penalty support at a new low. For some it is the racial bias - in Texas it is not uncommon for an African-American to be found guilty by an all white jury. In fact, in considering "future dangerousness", a criteria necessary for execution in Texas, state "experts" have argued that race is a contributing factor, essentially that someone is more likely to be violent because they are black - prompting articles like the headline story in the NYTimes about Duane Buck: "Condemned to Die Because He is Black".

      For others, the issue is more of an economic one - often the decisive factor on execution is not guilt or innocence but whether one is rich or poor... whoever doesn't have the capital gets the punishment as the old adage goes. And for others still, it is the Constitutional part, the cruel and unusual element - as equal justice under the law should mean you get the same punishment for a crime done in Connecticut as in Texas which is clearly not the case, with over 80% of executions coming from 2% of the counties in the US. And more and more folks are feeling the cruelty of it all, wasting so much energy and resources on how to kill people to show that killing is wrong. In fact there has not been an execution since the botched Oklahoma execution over a month ago, which left a man writhing in pain for 45 minutes before he died of a heart attack. It's not just liberals anymore, but all sorts of reasonable people (including conservatives and faith leaders) who are convinced that we can do better than this as a country... and we must.

      For Rev. Jeff Hood it is his faith that drives him. As he likes to say: "The death penalty makes us both killers and victims. Only love can heal us." He began his journey by meeting with the men on death row, for whom he is a spiritual advisor. As he left the prison he said, "The wind of God is at my back" and set out on the 200 mile journey through the desert.

      I got to talk with him today, and he emphasized how his faith has shaped his views on the death penalty. We discussed the victims of violence, the heroic families like Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and Journey of Hope, folks who are further traumatized by the 10 years of trials and millions of wasted dollars that go toward each execution, and especially the fact that taking another person's life does not bring back their lost loved ones.

      Jeff and I also talked about Jesus, the lens through which we read the Bible and the world around us. He is haunted by the way Christianity has been misrepresented when it comes to execution. "There is a cross on top of the execution chamber in Huntsville," he said sadly. It's a contradiction that not enough Christians recognize - Jesus was a victim of the death penalty, not a proponent of it. Jeff described his hope that if more and more Christians embraced Jesus's life and teaching we would end the death penalty in America, for it's strongest pillars are in the heart of the Bible belt. He is hopeful, and so am I.

      As we ended the call he described all the gracious hospitality he has received - folks bringing him gifts, water, food, and smiles. One of the congregations hosting him are the United Methodists, whose church policy prohibits the death penalty: "We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings." Amen.

      One of his favorite stories was an encounter with one passer-by who stopped to talk with him, not entirely convinced of where she stood on the issue. He explained how Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself and to love your enemies makes it difficult to execute, and she responded: "Damn, that makes a lot of sense." Indeed it does.

      The Gospel is good news. The merciful will be shown mercy. March on, brother Jeff. I hope with every step you take, every mile you walk, we get a little closer to the abolition of the death penalty in Texas, in the USA, and in the world. March on, brother, march on to the promised land.

      (Source: Shane Claiborne is an author and activist, currently working on a book on the death penalty----Huffington Post)

      June 16

      Man Trekking Across Texas To Protest The Death Penalty

      Rev. Jeff Hood said he hasn't been keeping track of the miles he's traveled - he just knows he's been walking for "3 days straight."

      The purpose of his trek, he says, is to bring an end to the death penalty in the Lone Star state.

      Hood's walk began at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston where Texas death row inmates are jailed, and will conclude at the Capitol in Austin.

      Along the way, Hood is seeking shelter from friends and acquaintances. He didn't train for the nearly weeklong walk, but said he runs on a regular basis.

      Sunday, Hood made it to Bryan by 6 p.m., falling a few miles short of his intended destination, which was the Brazos County courthouse.

      It would have been hard to miss Hood for those traveling on Texas 30 early in the afternoon and, later, Boonville Road. The bearded man with a shaved head was dressed in a white abbot, a blue stole and was carrying a walking stick.

      "There's no denying I'm here," Hood said of his appearance.

      In addition to being a 30-year-old husband and father to twin 2-year-olds and a 6-month-old baby, Hood is working on his doctorate in theology at Texas Christian University and is an ordained minister who graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

      He's also a member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and director of the Center for Theological Activism; he lives with his family in Denton where his wife is a professor at the University of North Texas.

      While he's never been in favor of execution as punishment, Hood said his commitment to abolishing the death penalty was solidified in 2011 when Georgia executed Troy Davis, a man who maintained his innocence in the killing of a Burger King security guard up until his death.

      Hood and his wife were among the hundreds of people who showed up to protest Davis' execution.

      "I remember going home and praying to God, 'Why?'" Hood asked.

      At that point, Hood said, he received a clear response from God, who told him: "I didn't kill Troy Davis, you did."

      "In that moment, I went from a compassionate observer to an activist because I realized my complicity in the system," Hood said.

      The walk from Livingston to Austin is about giving his body to the struggle, he said.

      "You can't love your neighbor until their struggle is your struggle," Hood said.

      Hood's feet were dressed in bandages clearly visible underneath the Chaco sandals he chose for his 200-mile trip.

      Since starting his journey Friday, Hood said he's had some interesting encounters, the majority of which have ended on a positive note.

      A woman on the outskirts of Livingston pulled over to inquire about his walk, and he told her what he was doing and asked her: "How can you love your neighbor and want to execute them?"

      She said that made sense to her, and moments later the 2 parted.

      Hood said he also had a discussion about his walk with some bar customers outside of Huntsville at a joint where he stopped to use the restroom. The men told Hood they disagreed with his position, but they appreciated what he was doing and wished him the best.

      Through his walk, he said, he's hoping to bring awareness to the issue through unplanned encounters and media coverage.

      Brazos County District Attorney Jarvis Parsons said he was unaware Hood was in town, but was familiar with his message. Parsons has tried 3 death penalty cases, two of which concluded in a death sentence and the third in a life sentence.

      He's currently in the pre-trial stages on his 4th death penalty case, that of Gabriel Hall, who's set for trial in February.

      "Reasonable minds can differ on whether the Bible authorizes the death penalty and I believe it does," he said. "But I don't think it's my job to delve into what is right or wrong. My job is to uphold the law in the state of Texas and act in the best interest of society."

      While Parsons said he can't relate to Hood's trek, he also wouldn't try to discourage Hood from spreading his message.

      Monday, members of Santa Teresa Catholic Church are meeting Hood at 10 a.m. at the corner of Texas Avenue and Harvey Road and from there they will walk to the church, which is 6 miles away at 1212 Lucky St. in Bryan.

      Once there, Hood plans to speak to those in attendance about his walk and beliefs.

      His intention is to make it to Austin by 5 p.m. Monday when he plans to hold a press conference on the steps of the south entrance of the State Capitol.

      (Source: The Eagle)

      Feb. 23

      Fighting Death, One Step At A Time

      They Believe They Are Winning.

      In the state that has used the death penalty more than any other in the nation, three abolitionists walked from Dallas to Fort Worth to compel members of the faith community to be more vocal in calling for the death of the death penalty in Texas.

      All the arguments against the death penalty - the exonerations, the flawed convictions - have slowly turned public opinion in their favor, according to Lynn Walters, Jeff Hood and Wes Magruder, the three making the 35-mile walk.

      The marchers started their day in Dallas, where they delivered a letter to Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. They then held a news conference before beginning their walk toward Cowtown.

      They arrived in Fort Worth on Friday evening.

      Walters, executive director of the Dallas-based advocacy group Hope for Peace and Justice, said that like many others she once supported the death penalty. Over the course of a decade she changed her mind, Walters said.

      Walters said she senses a new willingness among death-penalty supporters to listen to other options. Some people, she said, do not realize that life in prison without the possibility for parole is a sentencing alternative being rapidly deployed in the state.

      "There is no justification for the death penalty," Walters said. "As a Christian, I believe in redemption and resurrection. The death penalty does not allow for any of that. I think you have to give God a chance to do whatever work needs to be done with that person."

      The walk coincides with an anti-death-penalty conference that will be held Saturday at University Christian Church in Fort Worth. Sponsored by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, more than than 100 people are expected to attend, said Kristin Houle, TCADP executive director.

      Wes Magruder, a Methodist minister, said the majority of United Methodist church members have historically supported the abolition of the death penalty but have been remarkably unenthusiastic about voicing their opposition.

      "I think if all the Methodists spoke with one voice, the death-penalty policy would change in Texas," he said.

      The other marcher, the Rev. Jeff Hood, a member of the TCADP board of directors, said faith leadership needs to be more active on this issue.

      "We are trying to get the leaders of these churches to offer their opinion and push," Hood said. "If anyone can move the needle on this issue, it will be faith leaders. On some level, I think pastors are the last, great hope for moving this issue forward."

      According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 55% of Americans said they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, compared to 78% in 1996.

      Meanwhile, the percentage of those opposing the death penalty has risen from 18 % in 1996 to 37% in 2013.

      The trio entered downtown Fort Worth around 9:15 p.m. According to Hood, they were tired and their feet were blistered, but they were confident that they gained "a lot of traction, not just on our soles, but getting our message out."

      (Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)


      If the Sun Salutation Has to Fit Into a Cell

      By Brandi Grissom
      December 13, 2013

      PALESTINE — Quiet is hard to find in prison. But in the Powledge Unit gym on Tuesday afternoon, the silence was interrupted only by the sounds of breathing, toes squishing on sticky yoga mats and the occasional moans from nine men in white uniforms as they sank deeper into pigeon pose.

      “It hurts in a good way,” said Stephen Vinez, who is serving a 20-year sentence for a manslaughter conviction.

      The class was the fourth that Jim Freeman, a lawyer turned yogi and the founder of Conviction Yoga, has led at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Powledge Unit in East Texas. For the inmates, the weekly two-hour sessions offer a reprieve from their cells and the boredom of prison life, along with physical and mental health benefits. And the Powledge chaplain said corrections officers saw better behavior from inmates who took part in spiritual programs that teach morals and gave them a chance to exercise.

      Freeman, 48, who started the volunteer yoga classes this summer, hopes to expand the program to all 109 Texas prison units.

      But there are financial and administrative challenges. Freeman spends about $300 a week driving to four rural prisons from his Austin home. And the criminal justice department classifies yoga as a religious offering, he said, so at some prison units, only inmates who identify themselves as practitioners of Eastern religions like Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism are allowed to attend.

      Photo by: Laura Buckman
      Inmates during a yoga class at the Powledge prison unit in Palestine on Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

      Freeman said he was determined to bring the transformative value he had found in yoga to as many prisoners as possible.

      “I just see them as men,” he said of the inmates, “and men that are starving for something.”

      Tuesday’s session was Bobby Husband’s first experience with yoga. Husband, who is serving 15 years for aggravated assault, grimaced as he moved through what Freeman called a “sun cellutation,” a version of the traditional series of poses modified for a narrow cell.

      As Husband struggled to move from downward-facing-dog to a lunging pose, Freeman offered encouragement.

      “That was perfect,” he said, leading the men in applause as Husband nailed the lunging pose. “I’m excited you did that. It’s tough.”

      Sweat beaded on Freeman’s bald head as he urged the inmates to connect their breath and movements and to focus on the sensations of the stretching. Freeman, whose broad frame cuts an imposing figure, has been told that he looks more like an inmate than a yoga instructor. That could be one reason the men respond so positively; at most of the units, he said, participation is growing.

      Freeman, who struggled with addiction in the past, said yoga changed his life after he used it for post-surgical rehabilitation in 2011. For the first time, he said, he felt true compassion. He later came to realize that little separated him from the inmates. It could have easily been him in one of those white uniforms, he said, had a bar fight gone wrong or a drunken accident turned deadly.

      “The reality is, they are just human beings like me and you,” he said.

      Yoga in prison is a growing trend, and more than a dozen correctional facilities offer classes through the California-based Prison Yoga Project. Freeman started Conviction Yoga after attending a seminar hosted by James Fox, the founder of the California program.

      Photo by: Laura Buckman
      Inmates during a yoga class at the Powledge prison unit in Palestine on Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

      Denise Veres, a clinical researcher and yoga instructor, is founder and executive director of the Shanthi Project, a prison yoga program in Pennsylvania. The program began more than three years ago in youth detention centers, where Veres gathered data about the boys’ responses.

      “They felt calmer, less stressed, less anxious,” she said.

      Freeman said he hopes that if Texas prison officials recognize those benefits, he will be able to offer more classes. He also aims to raise funds to hire more instructors and envisions offering yoga at all prisons, and even on Texas’ death row.

      “I hope to be 70 years old in prison teaching yoga,” he said.

      Photo by: Laura Buckman
      Inmates during a yoga class at the Powledge prison unit in Palestine on Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

      If the Sun Salutation Has to Fit Into a Cell

      Nov. 3, 2013

      All Souls' Day Brings Flowers, Prayers For Inmates Buried In Huntsville

      To the state of Texas, the men and women buried at the Capt. Joe Byrd Cemetery were murderers, rapists, robbers and thieves. But to the religious activists who observed All Souls' Day Saturday by placing carnations on thousands of graves, they are children of God, worthy but flawed human beings.

      All Souls' Day traditionally is a day of prayer on behalf of souls not quite ready for heaven. Saturday's event, which began with an ecumenical church service, marked the 1st time, prison officials said, that anyone has collectively honored the roughly 3,000 inmates interred at what is known as "Peckerwood Hill."

      "A very wise teacher once said, 'Do what you must to another person, but never ever put him out of your heart,'" the Rev. Cheryl Smith, pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, told about 30 people gathered for the service.

      Earlier, she explained, "My faith tradition causes me to believe that all people have inherent worth, not because of an external factor, including their behavior, but by nature of being created beings of worth to us and God."

      The Rev. Caroll Pickett told the group that grave markers bearing an "X" meant the occupant had been executed.

      "They would be executed, killed by the state of Texas, at midnight and buried at 8:30 a.m. the next morning," said Pickett, who was Walls Unit chaplain for 16 years and is now active in the anti-death penalty movement.

      He recalled days on which he presided at as many as five inmate burials. Many, he said, had families with whom they were close. On one occasion, he recalled, a friend of an executed inmate returned to the grave annually on the killer's birthday to leave a cake.

      Saturday's event was sponsored by the Austin-based Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy and its sister organization, Texas Impact. Texas Interfaith's policy director Cindy Eigler said the dead inmates "were just written off and forgotten. All Souls' Day seemed like an appropriate time to remember those who died while serving time in prisons."

      Prayer For Victims

      Organizers of the event said they did not condone the crimes committed by the inmates, and a prayer for victims of crime was included in the day's activities.

      Joe Byrd Cemetery, encompassing 22 acres at the edge of Sam Houston State University, has been in operation since the mid-19th century.

      Among those placing flowers on the graves Saturday was Carol Hayes, chairwoman of the restorative ministry program at Huntsville's First United Methodist Church. "I was a bit skeptical at first," she said, noting that the $1,600 spent on flowers might have better benefited families of current inmates. The morning's church service, though, convinced her that the cemetery memorial was worthwhile.

      "I was impressed that these were souls just like us," she said.

      'Profound Experience'

      Brown, a Jacksonville mental health consultant in the juvenile justice system, called Saturday's event "a profound experience."

      He found "a lot of truth" in the argument that buried inmates had invited a sad end by breaking laws.

      But, he added, "I'd ask people to reflect honestly on their own lives. Have they ever committed a felony they weren't caught for? Have they ever driven drunk more than three times? If so, why aren't they here?"

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Oct. 10, 2013

      Retired Chaplain Campaigns Against Death Penalty

      A number of U.S. states have taken steps to limit the death penalty over fears that innocent people may have already been executed. But not Texas, which has put to death more than 500 people since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1982. The former chaplain of the Huntsville state prison, the busiest execution chamber in the country, has some strong thoughts on the situation.

      "Okay, nobody's been in here before, but this is part of the tapes," said Reverend Carroll Pickett.

      There are ghosts in Pickett's closet. 95 to be exact.

      That's the number of inmates put to death while he was chaplain at the Texas state execution chamber in Huntsville.

      "I made the tapes the next day, or the next night, to get it all out," he said. "He admitted he was nervous, and it showed in many ways that he was scared."

      Change Of Heart

      Pickett keeps a scrapbook of the 1974 prison siege that killed 2 employees who belonged to his church. He was a Presbyterian minister and was already a prison chaplain when Texas reinstated executions in 1982. He favored the death penalty until execution number 33, Carlos DeLuna.

      "He had big eyes. Big brown eyes. He was innocent. I knew he was innocent. I knew by talking to him and listening to him," said Pickett.

      DeLuna was convicted for the fatal stabbing of a gas station attendant.

      But Pickett believes it was a case of mistaken identity. And while he promised DeLuna his death would be painless, it was far from that.

      "It was horrible. I couldn't sleep for days and days," he said.

      Pickett came out against the death penalty after retiring in 1995. He is now a powerful voice in the movement to abolish it.

      Protesters, like Gloria Rubac and relatives of a convict being put to death here, wait outside the Huntsville death house where Pickett worked.

      The clock shows the wrong time, but inside, the execution is being carried out like clockwork.

      This video provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows the execution chamber where a condemned inmate is strapped down. At 6 p.m., if there's no last-minute injunction, a lethal injection is administered.

      Petitioning For Change

      There were massive protests right here in front of the death house, back when Pickett attended his first execution. Now the death of number 505 Arturo Diaz draws only a committed core of anti-death penalty activists, including a group from a local Catholic church.

      "When we execute, we take away the possibility of redemption," said Kelly Epstein, a Catholic protester.

      The Rev. Fred Valone of St. Thomas Catholic Church believes change is coming.

      "Well you know I think, state by state, people are realizing that the death penalty is against our moral fiber," he said.

      But not Texas Governor Rick Perry. He supports the death penalty and says Texas has never executed an innocent person.

      Pickett disagrees. "I was a witness to a murder in the name of the state."

      "The family has just come out of the death house and Texas has another notch on their belt," said one woman, talking on her mobile phone.

      After it's over, everyone goes home. This is a town, however, that's defined by what just happened.

      A local restaurant sells what it calls a Killer Burger.

      And across town, at the prison museum, the implements of death are on display.

      Huntsville resident Richie Harris said he's familiar with the moral arguments against capital punishment.

      "I agree that 'who are we to judge' and I understand that. But it's also important to understand that if you kill a man, and it's proven that you have killed him, he deserves the death sentence in the state of Texas," said Harris.

      Harris and his family are a few blocks from the death house. They came to see a high school parade.

      It has only been about an hour since the execution, and this could be virtually any town in America - if it weren't its death penalty capital.

      (Source: Voice of America)

      Seminary Prison Program Changes Inmate Culture

      The third class of students began undergraduate studies
      in Darrington prison Aug. 26, bringing the total number
      of students to 114. (Photo/Matt Miller)

      September 23, 2013

      ROSHARON— At 7 p.m. every Tuesday, a buzz fills living quarters at the Darrington prison unit—a maximum-security unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—as more than 200 inmates discuss the Bible and pray for one another.

      Started by students in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Darrington extension program, these Bible studies contain both Southwestern students as well as inmates from the general population.

      Darrington inmates enrolled in Southwestern Seminary's undergraduate program study in the prison’s theological
      library. (Photo/Matt Miller)

      They represent a growing culture change within the Texas penal system anticipated by seminary administrators, program organizers, correctional system leaders and lawmakers. These leaders gathered with inmate students at a recent chapel service to celebrate the start of a new semester and welcome the third class of students into a program that already is changing lives.

      “This is a true partnership and one that we value tremendously,” TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston said at the chapel service. “We already have a lot of success behind us, and I know we have future success in front of us as well.”

      Launched in 2011

      In 2011, Southwestern Seminary launched undergraduate classes in Darrington, offering a bachelor of science in biblical studies program for 40 inmates. An additional class of students has been added each year since, and the current number of enrolled students stands at 114, with the first class expected to graduate in May 2015.

      “Very clearly, it’s a program designed to change lives so that offenders who one day are released do not come back,” Livingston said. “In addition to that, the real unique component to this is so that they can minister to other offenders while they’re here within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It’s a fascinating and unique program not found in many other places, and we are committed to it.”

      The privately funded program was modeled after a similar one led by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

      Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, visited Angola four years ago and was impressed by the impact the program had on inmates and the culture within the prison. He returned to Austin convinced the program could be duplicated in Texas.

      Whitmire addressed students during the recent chapel service, challenging them to continue to work hard.

      Darrington students assemble for chapel. (Photo/Matt Miller)

      Go out and minister

      “Juniors, guess what—we are already talking about when you graduate in the class of 2015, the plan is for you to go and minister to other inmates, often younger inmates who will be released sooner than later,” he said.

      “You know when you got into this program that it is largely not to minister to the free world; you’re assignment—and you’re already doing it, I understand, in your cell blocks—you’re going to change the culture of this system. It’s already happening in Darrington.


      “Gentleman, I need your help. The other inmates, approximately 150,000 at 109 locations this afternoon, need your help. They’re looking to you for leadership.

      “We are out of space already. We met earlier this afternoon about how we can turn the gymnasium into classrooms. We are ready to receive approximately 40 more students. The Lord is going to use you to carry his message and change the whole penal system of the state of Texas.”

      Seminary Prison Program Changes Inmate Culture

      August 28, 2013

      Texas Prison Seminary Program Faces Growing Pains

      Officials working to place convict ministers in prisons when first graduates come out in 2015

      By Mike Ward
      Austin American-Statesman

      ROSHARON, Texas — Tattooed across Brandon Brewer’s fingers are his cry for help, from a violent past when he shot his mother to death in 2004 in Kingsland: L-O-S-T H-O-P-E.

      “I felt hatred toward God because I was in prison,” said Brewer, now 25, explaining why he got the tattoos after he was locked away for 60 years, starting at age 16.

      On Monday, wearing a cross with his prison whites, Brewer was enthusiastically praising that same God in song at a convocation ceremony at the maximum-security Darrington Unit near Houston, where the boyish-faced felon is studying to become a minister.

      When the first students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in spring 2015 from the only in-prison seminary in Texas, they will fan out to other Texas prisons to minister to and convert other felons to God. The program is privately funded and non-denominational.

      But as graduation day nears, prison officials are just beginning to grapple with how to organize the special ministries. In a prison world where convicts are never trusted with any responsibility, wardens will be asked to let the newly minted ministers do the Lord’s work in some of the state’s toughest cell blocks. To do so, they must have some freedom of movement — something generally forbidden to convicts in a world where control and security are everything. Their special status as ministers also could be problematic if it is used to manipulate guards or inmates for special privileges, as can happen in prison.

      In addition, officials must contend with a lack of space to accommodate the program’s success. Because classroom space is now full, they are considering converting part of a gym at Darrington into additional classrooms — and perhaps even using portable military buildings from Afghanistan — to admit even more convicts into the seminary.

      “They’re going to be the agents of changing a criminal culture, changing the environment, changing lives,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, who along with Houston Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, persuaded prison officials to open the seminary at Darrington, one of the state’s oldest prisons and one of its most troubled.

      “The next step is a big one — putting these prison ministers out on units to do good. That may be the biggest hurdle. But we’ve seen miracles so far in this program, and I expect we’ll see more,” Whitmire said. Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a supporter of the program, echoed the sentiment: “The next step will be a logistical challenge, yes, but we will be able to make it work. The program has had a tremendous positive impact here already.”

      Instead of high rates of assaults and contraband smuggling, Darrington now has many fewer problems, officials said. Guards who were initially skeptical, even derisive, about its chances of success are now singing the program’s praises. Some use the word “miracle” to describe it.

      In an old-style prison like Darrington, where taunting curses and the slamming of steel-barred doors are the norm in cell blocks, the seminary classrooms are a quiet, almost contemplative place where convicts sit at tables studying Bibles, praying and learning how to witness for a God that most of them once never knew.

      To be eligible for the program, each must have a long sentence, and they must be years from becoming eligible for parole once they complete the program.

      For the 40 slots in the new class that was formally brought into the program on Monday, more than 600 inmates applied. The average age: about 35. The average sentence: 50 years. The convicts’ grades? Maybe better than “free world” students, because they are more focused on their work, seminary officials hint with a smile.

      Most of the 160 convicts in the program are Christians, including five Roman Catholics. Five are Muslims.

      “God likes to work in ways that we sometimes don’t expect, and this program is an example of that,” said Paige Patterson, a nationally recognized pastor who is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which runs the prison seminary.

      “The Lord is going to use these students to carry his message and change the prison system,” Patterson said.

      When he finishes, Brewer will be the youngest graduate. The oldest is Larry Leroy Youngblood, 66, a self-professed former drug addict and career criminal who is serving 60 years for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in Dallas — “a simple robbery gone bad,” as he explains it.

      “I wasn’t a nice fellow for most of my life, let’s put it that way,” he said. “My first crime was at 9, when I stole 27 bicycles. I got sent to juvenile homes … and have been (in Texas prisons) five times. I don’t expect I’ll ever get out.

      My goal is to graduate and to minister to ad seg” — administrative segregation, where the most violent convicts and gang members are housed.

      He will be eligible for parole when he is 78, for release when he is 108.

      Youngblood, who started going by his middle name instead of his first name after becoming a Christian more than 13 years ago at an East Texas prison, had a background in prison ministries at another lockup. Because of that, officials said he was one of the first convicts admitted into the prison seminary that opened two years ago.

      For Brewer, who explains his crime only as “shooting a 46-year-old woman” — a Google search later revealed it was his mother — parole eligibility won’t come for an additional 21 years, when he is in his late 40s. “If God is ready then, I’ll be ready,” he said.

      As top prison officials work to figure out the logistics of the convict missionary work, correctional officers and victims’ groups caution that there must be some measure of whether the white-uniformed ministers are truly changed.

      Can they be part of a credible rehabilitation process for other convicts, rather than part of the game-playing that temporary religious conversions have been associated with behind bars?

      Prison officials said they are considering whether to assign the ministers in pairs to cell blocks or in groups assigned to a prison. Brandon Warren, an administrative associate who oversees the seminary inside the Darrington prison, said the ministers will be sent to lockups where wardens want them.

      “The culture change where current inmates can be part of (rehabilitation and treatment) programming, a part of the solution, will probably be one of the biggest hurdles we’ll have to get over,” Whitmire said. “That’s not how things have worked in Texas in the past.

      “But this is not the past anymore.”

      McClatchy-Tribune News Service

      Texas Prison Seminary Program Faces Growing Pains

      Proclaiming Redemption behind Bars

      By Prison Fellowship
      Posted July 17, 2013

      As we enter a new fiscal year, we look back on one of the biggest moments of 2013 – God’s miraculous work behind bars at Easter!

      Prison Fellowship President Garland
      Hunt prays with an inmate on Easter Sunday.

      Over Easter weekend, Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske and Prison Fellowship President Garland Hunt shared the Gospel with prisoners in Florida and Texas.

      They delivered a message of hope and prayed with prisoners in the yard, in the infirmary, and in segregation, which is like solitary confinement.

      “Segregated from the population,” says Garland Hunt. “But not segregated from God.”

      In the solitude of his Texas prison cell, Marcus was studying the Bible on Easter Sunday.

      Garland approached the bars to let him know that even in prison, the Lord cares about him. “Do you know the Lord?” Garland asked.

      “Yes! And I’ve been studying a lot,” Marcus replied. He’s determined to make the most of his time in solitary confinement. And to prove it, he has a notebook filled with certificates from the Bible courses he’s taken.

      As they talked, breakfast came on a beaten-up tray that was passed to Marcus through a small hole. Marcus set the food aside, more interested in talking with Garland than eating. Reaching through the bars, he grabbed ahold of Garland to pray.

      Later, more than a hundred men gathered in the gym to hear Garland speak.

      All around the room, the prisoners heard and responded to the message. Volunteers and chaplains prayed with men who confessed their sins and made decisions for Christ.

      Johnny is a prisoner who is afraid of parole and afraid of former friends, worried he’ll end up back in prison. “Pray with me,” Johnny asked a volunteer.

      Another prisoner, Jeff, had already given his life to Christ, but grieves over lost years with his little girl. Jeff’s prayer was to see his daughter again. He hadn’t seen her since she was 18 months old and she is now six. He embraced the hopeful message of the Resurrection — there will be life for him after prison.

      In Sanders Estes Correctional Center and at a federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, 41 decisions for Christ were made on Easter Sunday.

      Jim Liske visited prisoners in the infirmary of the Central Florida Reception, a large Florida prison camp with different wings for prisoners needing hospice and others who are too young to be housed with the general population.

      “The youthful offenders are just kids,” Jim said.

      In the chapel, Jim preached about Timothy, who grew up without a father, and told the young men, “No one is disqualified from God’s grace.”

      Jim visited prisoners in solitary confinement, speaking to them through a crack in the door. The youngest was just 15. One young man asked for a Spanish Bible.

      In the infirmary, seriously injured and terminally ill prisoners serve out their sentences. Jason is one of those who faces death behind bars. Over 90 percent of his body was burned in a fire that resulted from a fight that landed him in prison. He’s had a tracheotomy and is in so much pain that he tries not to move his limbs. But he met Jesus in prison and you could see it in his eyes in spite of his pain.

      Another prisoner, Michael, wore a helmet to prevent further injury to his brain.

      Weighted down by unthinkable pain of guilt, he was serving 40 years for a drunk driving accident that killed his best friend.

      Easter was the first time he’d been outside since he arrived in prison.

      Overwhelmed by Jim’s message of God’s love, he broke down in tears. “I’m the one who should be dead,” he cried. Jim explained that the Lord has a purpose for keeping him alive and, as he prayed with Michael, he told him that God offers him forgiveness.

      What an amazing discovery: Michael realized God still loved him despite his past!

      Thank you for delivering the powerful message of redemption through Christ to prisoners desperate for hope.

      Proclaiming Redemption behind Bars


      Appeals Court Rules Jewish Inmate's Rights Infringed When Denied Kosher Meals

      By Erin Mulvaney
      December 30, 2012

      A Houston man in jail for murder should be served kosher meals, a federal appeals court ruled.

      The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed a lower court's judgement, stating that Max Moussazadeh has a sincere religious belief as an Orthodox Jew in keeping a kosher diet and that Texas infringed upon his beliefs by denying him free kosher meals, according to court records filed on Dec. 21.

      Moussazadeh, now 35, was convicted in connection with a 1993 murder in Harris County for serving as a lookout while his three co-defendants shot a man to death during a Houston robbery. He is in the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, which does not provide free kosher meals, his attorneys said.

      In 2005, Moussazadeh sued after the state denied his request for a kosher meal plan to accommodate his religious beliefs. His case centers around the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids the government from restricting religious rights of an institutionalized person.

      "I feel that I am going against my beliefs and that I will be punished by God for not practicing my religion correctly," he wrote in the 2005 complaint.

      Kosher meals are based on the Jewish teaching in the Torah that forbidden foods taint not only the body but the soul. A kosher diet is complex, but allows all non-animal products, certain typical or poultry and fish that have fins and scales but forbids pork and any mixing of dairy products and meat. To keep kosher, a meal must be prepared in containers that are untainted by any non-kosher food.

      A lower, district court dismissed Moussazadeh's case, ruling the inmate's commitment to a kosher diet was insincere and that all remedies had not been exhausted. That summary judgement has now been reversed.

      In 35 Prison Systems

      Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent Moussazadeh, said in a statement that the latest decision was a great victory for human rights and religious liberty.

      "Even prisoners retain their human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience," Goodrich said.

      In the U.S., 35 prison systems provide kosher diets for Jewish prisoners, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

      The state's prison system provides inmates with a choice between pork-free, meat-free and regular diet trays at most units, none of which is considered kosher. In 2007, Texas established a "kosher kitchen" at one of its prison facilities at the Stringfellow Unit in Rosharon, where it provides a free kosher diet to inmates. The state estimates that the cost of feeding all observant Jewish inmates in its prison system would be less than 0.02 percent of its annual food budget, according to the Becket Fund.

      Moussazadeh was transferred to the Stringfellow Unit for a few years and the case was ruled moot. He was later transferred to the Stiles Unit, which offers basic kosher products for purchase, because of disciplinary infractions.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice attorneys argued that the inmate chose in some instances to go through the regular line at Stringfellow Unit, even when he had the option for a kosher meal.

      Appeals court rules Jewish inmate's rights infringed when denied kosher meals

      Texas Inmate Demands Kosher Food

      • By Maurice Chammah
      • September 28, 2012

      There are 884 Jewish inmates in the Texas prison system, and 29 of them self-identify as "Orthodox," according to state officials. One Jewish inmate, Max Moussazadeh, is demanding that the prison where he is housed in solitary confinement provide him with kosher food.

      On Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will hear oral arguments in the case of Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The court will decide whether the Jewish inmate has a right to be provided a kosher diet. His lawyers say the change would cost TDCJ between $1,000 and $3,000 per year, or an extra 0.02 percent of the agency's annual budget.

      In conjunction with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, Moussazadeh's lawyers argue that offering kosher meals should be required under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2000. It “prohibits a state or local government from substantially burdening the religious exercise of such an institutionalized person.”

      Moussazadeh, 35, is serving a 75-year sentence for a 1993 murder in Harris County. He was 16 at the time of the crime and served as a lookout while three co-defendants shot a man during a robbery in Houston. "He cares deeply about maintaining his kosher diet,” said Luke Goodrich, his lawyer. “He was born and raised in a kosher household, and often when people get in trouble with the law, they return to their religious roots."

      Following a kosher Jewish diet generally means abstaining from pork and certain seafood and not mixing meat and dairy products in a single meal. Chicken, beef and other animals must be slaughtered by a butcher trained in Jewish dietary law. A kosher kitchen must also use separate utensils for meat and dairy products.

      Pork is commonly served in the Texas prison system, "in all its infinite varieties,” wrote former inmate Jorge Antonio Renaud in his published guide to life in Texas prisons: “chops, ham cutlets, fatty ribs (once or twice a year), pressed ham, and the ever present ‘links’ (steamed, baked, or barbecued).” The Michael Packing Plant in Tennessee Colony is run by the department and produces and ships to Texas prisons more than 9 million pounds of pork products every year, according to TDCJ.

      When Moussazadeh filed his lawsuit in 2005, Goodrich said, TDCJ “mostly capitulated” and set up a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit, in Rosharon.

      Now, at Stringfellow, said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark, a Jewish rabbi conducts services and there is a kosher kitchen at the prison. "Offenders have the ability to purchase kosher entrees and other kosher products through the unit commissary," Clark said.

      But Moussazadeh was caught with a "prohibited substance" on three occasions, Clark said, though he could not say what the substance was. Moussazadeh was moved to the Stiles Unit, where he is housed in "administrative segregation," Texas’ most restrictive security classification. The Stiles Unit does not provide kosher meals.

      Goodrich said every prison unit should offer kosher meals, in the same way they would offer meals for prisoners with specific medical needs. "Wherever they're transferred, they're given a medical diet,” he said. "It's really just bureaucratic stubbornness.”

      TDCJ argued that Moussazadeh's demands should not be heard by the courts because he has not "exhausted his administrative remedies," arguing that he did not complain at the Stiles Unit before filing the claim, and could have bought pre-packaged kosher meals at the unit's commissary. Moussazadeh, in his reply, said that would have been expensive.

      The lower court dismissed Moussazadeh's claim because it found him to be "insincere." In response, the American Jewish Committee submitted an amicus brief, arguing that "under Jewish law, it is understood that even believers striving to mend their ways will backslide and fail to observe commandments like the dietary rules on occasion."

      The Becket Fund is pursuing a similar case in Florida, and earlier this year the Indiana Department of Corrections was forced by a court to provide kosher food for Jewish inmates.

      TDCJ declined to comment on the pending litigation but said it is the agency's policy is "to extend to all offenders as much freedom and opportunity as possible for pursuing individual beliefs and practices, consistent with security, safety and orderly operations of the institution."

      Texas Inmate Demands Kosher Food

      Facility would house prison visitors overnight

      CINDY V. CULP, Waco Tribune-Herald
      September 15, 2012

      Texas Department of Criminal Justice Wallace Nelson, Chaplain III Region VI looks over the Children's room of the current
      Central Texas Hospitality House in Gatesville, Texas
      Photo: Waco Tribune Herald, Jerry Larson / AP

      Charles Wise walks past the current Central Texas Hospitality House in Gatesville
      Photo: Jerry Larson, Waco Tribune Herald / AP

      WACO, Texas (AP) — Every weekend, volunteers at Central Texas Hospitality House in Gatesville see how crimes committed by one person can strain an entire family.

      As people come to the small Coryell County town to take advantage of visiting hours at the six prison units there, the house serves as a welcoming outpost for inmates' loved ones. Most are drained, both in spirit and in cash.

      Volunteers do what they can to help — giving them snacks, providing clothes that meet the prison dress code or just listening without judgment.

      But one thing volunteers haven't been able to offer is a place for visitors to stay overnight. As a result, countless people who can't afford a hotel room sleep in their cars in store parking lots or camp out at parks.

      Cases of aging grandparents traveling with young children are particularly heart-wrenching, they said.

      A fundraising campaign launched by the house last week aims to fill that gap. The group hopes to raise $850,000 to build a new center with 19 private bedrooms and other facilities needed to host visitors overnight.

      "We have people coming from all over the state, all over the nation," said Charles Wise, director of development for the house. "Most have the same core values as us. But they're thrown into an unempowered situation because of (a loved one's) stupid choices or criminal activity. They are victims, too."

      More than 8,200 inmates are housed in Gatesville, including women on death row.

      They receive about 80,000 visitors per year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      Those statistics alone show the need for a ministry like the hospitality house, Wise said.

      But its vision also is to serve people visiting prisons in nearby areas — namely Marlin, Burnet and San Saba.

      The group knows the capital campaign will be a challenge, especially since some people bristle at the idea of even indirectly helping prisoners. But part of the strategy is to emphasize to churches — the most likely contributors — that the house's services are in line with biblical teachings, Wise said.

      Verses from Matthew Chapter 25 serve as a motto for the group.

      "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in," the passage reads. "I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . . The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

      The group also is motivated by growing research that shows the positive ripple effects of prison visitation.

      Not only are inmates more likely to stay out of trouble after their release, but their children are less likely to be locked up later in life.

      That's good for families and society as a whole, said Tim Randolph, who helped start the house about a decade ago with area Baptists and now serves as director of the Waco Regional Baptist Association.

      "There's an economic reason why churches and families should really be invested in these families and the offenders themselves," Randolph said. "I think you can argue that every dollar invested (at the house) will be multiplied."

      Wallace Nelson, a state-employed prison chaplain who oversees the region that includes Gatesville, agreed.

      Prisons offer a variety of programs aimed at rehabilitation and restoration, including marriage seminars and family days.

      But far too many families don't attend such events because they can't afford to, he said.

      "We recognize the days of just locking them up and throwing away the key are gone," Nelson said. "We have to prepare people to be useful citizens. One of the things we have really recognized is that offenders who have relationships with family or friends in the free world are most likely to make it. Everybody needs a support system."

      Right now, the house is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Volunteers from about a dozen Gatesville churches, plus various other Central Texans, sign up for shifts, chairman Bill Lewis said.

      The house is filled with chairs and couches. The kitchen is stocked with snacks, and one of the bedrooms has been transformed into a children's play area.

      Another bedroom serves as a clothes closet. Filled with pants and shirts sorted by gender and size, it comes to the rescue of visitors who arrive in town wearing clothes not compliant with prison dress code. People can't wear shorts into the lockups, for example.

      During a typical weekend, 20 to 30 people visit the house, said the group's secretary, Mary Alice Wise, Charles Wise's wife.

      Quite a few of the visitors are from Waco, Mary Alice Wise said.

      Although Gatesville is only a 45-minute drive, people may need a place to wait before a visit, leave children or other family members during a visit or recharge after, she said.

      Some visitors simply relish the chance to talk with others in a similar situation, Charles Wise said. They may be too ashamed to talk about a loved one's incarceration with people in their daily lives, he said.

      "The family takes on a stigma almost like the prisoner, unfortunately," Charles Wise said. "It's hard for people to separate."

      Plans for the new facility call for it to be 8,000 square feet with 19 private bedrooms. Each would be able to sleep up to four people.

      The center also would have a large kitchen and dining area, indoor and outdoor children's areas and laundry facilities.

      In addition, there would be an apartment for a caretaker who would live at the facility full time, as well as a room for a social work intern.

      Debra McCammon, executive director of Hospitality House in Huntsville, urged people from across Central Texas to donate.

      Because towns like Huntsville and Gatesville are so dominated by the prison system, it can be difficult to raise money for such charitable efforts there.

      People get burnt out on the topic, she said.

      The Huntsville center opened 26 years ago and was the first hospitality house in the state to offer overnight lodging.

      Its 16 rooms are perpetually full, with a waiting list of six to eight families each weekend, McCammon said. She predicted the Gatesville center would be just as busy.

      "We often don't think about these families affected (by incarceration), the children affected by it," McCammon said. "We kind of have blinders on. But 1 of every 5 families in Texas is touched by this."

      Read more: Facility would house prison visitors overnight

      Inmates a receptive audience to Apostle Paul's Epistles

      By Sharayah Colter, Southwestern Seminary
      Published: January 20, 2012

      HOUSTON (BP)—In a cinderblock room with a concrete floor and metal bunk bed, no phones or computers ping or ding with text or Tweet alerts. Instead, amid the unmuffled clang of heavy metal doors and routine pat-downs and shakedowns, letter writing thrives among prisoners as it did in the first century.

      An inmate makes notes during a class in Southwestern Seminary's
      new undergraduate extension program in the Texas Department
      of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit.
      (BP PHOTO/Ben Peacock/SWBTS

      Stephen Presley, who teaches a biblical interpretation class at a maximum-security prison near Houston, said the inmates' familiarity with letter writing has given them a unique perspective on the epistles that comprise a large portion of the New Testament.

      "I think that (for) those of us who live in a world that's dominated by e-mail and controlled by other forms of technology, sometimes it's hard for us to understand the genre of letter writing—the genre of the epistles," Presley said.

      "But for those who live in this world (behind bars), it was so easy for them to comprehend and to almost identify with the early church in the way they would have felt receiving these letters from Paul and how they would have treated the letter, perhaps, even in ways we don't, in terms of reading it from start to finish, reading it closely and observing every word."

      Presley, assistant professor of biblical interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Havard campus in Houston, said he had not anticipated the connection inmates in a new seminary extension at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit would find with the apostle's epistles. But he saw the spark in their eyes as he began to discuss the letters the apostle wrote to the first-century churches.

      "Their faces lit up ... (when) they felt a sense of connection to the way that the early church communicated in ways that those of us who live in the free world don't understand or don't necessarily appreciate," Presley said.

      For the inmates, a letter is far more than a greeting or piece of paper or even the message written on the page, Presley said. Prisoners read and re-read their letters to extract every single bit of information they can. They pay attention to what the writer said and to what the'writer left unsaid.

      "When we read (Paul's) letters, sometimes we start in the middle; we go to Philippians, chapter three, and begin reading," Presley says.

      "They read beginning to end many times over, and they spend time reading slowly. They don't just read the letter quickly and try to move on to application. No, they spend time soaking up every single word, every single sentence, every phrase.

      "It's to the point where many of them would almost drive themselves crazy be-cause they'd spend so much time thinking about the letter, they'd start to wonder what was happening back home.

      "In fact, many of them even carry (the letters) in their pockets almost as badges of honor."

      The inmates' perspective opened a new line of thought for Presley in his study of the epistles that he otherwise might have missed in the hubbub of a text message- and email-driven world.

      Their connection to the epistles substantiated the importance of studying genre in the Scriptures and understanding the context in which the authors wrote the Bible under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, Presley said.

      "I think in the end it will kind of shape the way I teach writing in the future, because it's such a great example," he said.

      Inmates a receptive audience to Apostle Paul's Epistles


      Seminary program seeks to transform prison inmates

      December 10, 2011

      The reading list for Professor Benjamin Phillips' class on Virtues of Godly Character is typical for a seminary: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, St. Augustine'sEnchiridion on Faith Hope and Charity and, of course, the Holy Bible.

      But Phillips' students are anything but typical: All are inmates serving lengthy sentences in state prison. They are the first participants in a new four-year seminary program taught behind bars at the maximum security Darrington Unit in Rosharon.

      The seminary program is sponsored by donations from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and the Heart of Texas Foundation.

      "It's really an honor," said Tommy Quinones, 31, who is attending the seminary while serving a life sentence for a 1998 murder in Houston. "At the same time, it's kind of scary because the wardens and officers are trusting us on influencing the other inmates. It's a real narrow path we have to walk."

      At the end of their first full semester this month, the 39 inmates in the program prepared for final exams in the virtues course and four other subjects: English, rhetoric and argument, Western civilization, health science and Bible study.

      When not in class, they read donated books in the seminary's library, quiz each other in study groups, or work on term papers in a computer lab. With no access to the Internet, frat parties, or other distractions of ordinary campus life, the inmates have demonstrated impressive focus, said Phillips, director of the seminary at Darrington.

      "One of my faculty members, our history professor, he had taught in the public schools and private schools back in Virginia, and his comment after his first week of teaching was, 'This is the best experience I've ever had in 10 years of teaching,'" Phillips said.

      "These guys, they're excited about being there," he said. "They know what a unique opportunity this is. They value it, and they get after it. ... They're certainly, on average, working harder than my students who are taking that very same class in our undergraduate program on our Houston campus." Most of the prisoners are earning A's and B's in his class, Phillips said.

      'There is a better way'

      Early Thursday morning, inmates clad in white jumpsuits paid rapt attention to Phillips as he reviewed the difference between deontological and teleological ethics.

      "When you talk about going after moral transformation and trying to help people become who they're capable of being, do you do that by loading on rules, by telling people what you can and can't do, or does in happen from the inside out?" Phillips asked.

      "Power, authority, rules and all that still don't work," he said, as the inmates nodded, and some scribbled notes. "All you end up doing is containing the mayhem. There is a better way: God can take anyone and transform them and make them flourish."

      At the end of the three-hour class, the inmates stood with bowed heads and hands clasped as Phillips led a prayer.

      "We pray that you will be glorified in what we have been able to accomplish and that no one will be able to look at what has gone on in this class and this unit and say that it has done anything other than prove God is awesome," he said. "In Jesus' name -"

      "Amen," the inmates chorused.

      More than 700 inmates from the state have applied to attend the seminary.


      To qualify, they have to have high school diplomas or GED credentials, clean behavioral records for at least a year, a minimum of 10 years remaining until they're eligible for parole and a desire to serve other inmates.

      They will earn bachelor's of science degrees in biblical studies and go on to minister to inmates at other prisons.

      Organizers describe the program as nondenominational, and there are no requirements to be Baptist or to convert to participate or graduate. But civil liberty groups have raised concerns that it could violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice countered by pointing out that the seminary program is voluntary and consistent with TDCJ's mission of promoting positive change in offender behavior.

      "The men who complete this four-year program will be a powerful voice to other inmates seeking to get their lives back on track, and will aid us in successfully reintegrating these inmates back into society," said TDCJ spokesmanJason Clark.

      Already life at Darrington is starting to change, said inmate and seminary student David Ludwick.

      Killers, crooks, thugs

      Ludwick, 37, said he and some of his classmates started a Bible study group that has grown to more than 100 members in just five weeks.

      "Everybody talks about it like a miracle," Ludwick said. "You see gangsters, thugs, perverts, everybody coming together to study the Bible. That never happened in Darrington before. When God moves, he moves very, very fast. It's taken us by surprise."

      Ludwick is serving a life sentence for capital murder in the death of John Davis Cavness Jr., in Austin in January 1998. Ludwick was convicted of killing the 43-year-old Cavness during a robbery by hitting him at least 10 times on the head with a hammer and slashing his throat.

      Even after incarceration, Ludwick continued his criminal activities for years. He joined a gang, rose through the ranks, and sold drugs and cell phones to other inmates. "The whole time I feel like God is calling me, but I'm resisting," he said.

      One day, Ludwick said, he became overwhelmed by the desire to pray.

      "Finally I got on my knees and started crying and said, 'If You have a purpose for my life, show it to me.' Just a real simple prayer like that." Soon after, a prison chaplain told Ludwick about the seminary program, and suggested he apply. Ludwick thinks the seminary is an answer to his prayer.

      "When I had first become a Christian, I still had doubt that God forgave me for what I did," Ludwick said. "What I did was so terrible. How could he forgive me? Now I know he has forgiven me. I don't expect the loved ones of the victim ever to forgive me."

      No longer depressed

      Haunted by guilt and the thought that he would die in prison, Ludwick once became so depressed that he couldn't get out of bed. Not anymore.

      "It crosses my mind from time to time, but honestly I think I can get a lot more accomplished inside these walls than on the outside," he said. "I have so much purpose in my life now."

      Phillips understands that some people don't think Ludwick and other criminals convicted of serious and violent crimes deserve a free college degree, but he thinks investing in these men will demonstrate that God can take the worst of sinners and turn them into the greatest of saints.

      "There's not public sympathy for these guys, and for heaven sakes, that's entirely understandable," Phillips said, "but what Christianity has always held is that the highest expression of a life transformed by the Gospel, by Jesus Christ, is ministry to those that society thinks are worthless, and not just worthless but irredeemable."

      Seminary program seeks to transform prison inmates

      Joel Osteen on CNN: Texas Pastor Appears Torn on Death Penalty Issue

      Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church, America's largest Christian church, was accused by Piers Morgan Tuesday of "sitting on the fence" on the issue of the death penalty after the Texas minister said he believes in second chances and has faith in the justice system.

      During the "Piers Morgan Tonight" show, Morgan asked Osteen what his view was on state executions, especially in the context of the recent execution of Troy Davis. In that case, Morgan said, the prosecution could not have been 100 % sure that Davis committed the crime.

      Osteen attempted to avoid the answer by pointing out both sides of the argument.

      "It's a complicated issue, Piers. I haven't thought a whole lot about it, but of course I'm for second chances and mercy," he said. “Yet the flip side is: there's consequences for what we've done. I don't know what my total stand is."

      Morgan pressed, "A life for a life?"

      "I don’t know," Osteen answered.

      Morgan interrupted and attacked the pastor for not taking a clearly defined standing on the death penalty, noting that Osteen is seen as an influential spiritual leader.

      "I don't think that you can say that …," the TV host said. "You can't be the man who influences millions of people and sits on the fence on key moral issues like that."

      Osteen ended up not giving a precise answer during the show.

      "I think the thing is that we have a justice system and I believe in our system of justice," he replied to Morgan.

      The Houston preacher added that there is a "merciful" part of him that wishes to give "everybody a chance," but there is also so another side that agrees with the law, he implied.

      "It's hard for me to say 'Yeah, let's just kill this person because he's so bad.' They can be redeemed, they can be forgiven; but they may still have to be put to death. That's hard for me-I don't know what the right thing is. I mean, there's people smarter than me that make all the laws," the pastor said.

      Troy Davis was convicted of killing a police officer and executed in Georgia on Sep. 21. His supporters claim that race-based testimony tainted Davis' trial, and protested his execution.

      Osteen's ministry reportedly reaches over 7 million broadcast media viewers weekly in over 100 nations around the world.

      The Osteen and his wife, Victoria, appeared on the Piers Morgan show to promote the pastor's latest book, Every Day a Friday, which this week hit Number 1 on the New York Times Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous Hardcover best seller list.

      (source: Christian Post)

      SEPTEMBER 05, 2011

      Does meditation promote prisoners' rehabilitation?

      The Houston Chronicle on Sunday published a feature on a Buddhist prison ministry teaching meditation to Texas inmates at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont for the last eight years. The story opens:
      Barefooted, eyes closed in reverie, bodies folded into lotus position, the men in white chanted the ancient Seven Line Supplication to Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.

      As their voices swelled, their leader, Galveston artist Terry Conrad, swayed with the cadence. Pe ma gey sar dong pol la. Yam Tsen chog gi ngo drub nyey.

      This could have been a scene from a 1960's love-in, with college-age acolytes - decked out in exotic garb - paying fervid homage to the wisdom of the East. But these men were not students, and their attire was anything but exotic.

      They are inmates at Beaumont's Mark Stiles state prison; their duds, functional prison whites. And, under Conrad's gentle guidance, they were here to meditate.

      Now in its eighth year, the weekly program offered through the prison chaplain's office, is designed to help prisoners, some guilty of the most heinous offenses, achieve "natural awareness."

      Reacting to the story, Doug Berman asks "Should all prison inmates be offered meditation classes?" but IMO that question is premature. Like many privately run programs by religious groups in Texas prisons, the problem is nobody has kept data on participants' recidivism or disciplinary records, compared them to outcomes from a control group, etc.. Past research on meditation in prison appears promising but the cost-benefit claims seem overstated and too good to be true. While it may seem intuitively like a good idea, there's no way to tell definitively whether the meditation program at Stiles "works" to rehabilitate offenders.

      That's why I'd like to see the Texas program studied - particularly since it's been going eight years and so has a substantial pool of participants to analyze. Until that social science work is done, programs like this will remain oddities and outliers in the system. It's one thing to implement a program aiming to help prisoners, and quite another to produce documentation proving that outcomes improved. The former motivation is enough to inspire such work by do-gooder prison ministry types, but to justify scaling up the idea on an institutional level, you'd need hard data to show substantive, real-world improvements in recidivism and/or in-prison behavior. It's not enough to try out-of-the-box ideas; the results must be measured and tested for such thinking ever to spread beyond the fringes of the corrections system.


      AUGUST 28, 2011

      Four year theology degree to be offered at TDCJ while vocational ed slashed to the bone

      Given that the state slashed funding for vocational and traditional education in Texas prisons this year, it seems counter-intuitive that a new religious seminary will open Monday in the Darrington Unit giving four-year religious degrees (from my preacher-brother's alma mater at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, no less), but that's what's happening according to this item in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
      Texas' newest seminary will launch Monday -- inside a Texas prison.

      It starts with 40 inmates who will be trained at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit in Rosharon, about 300 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

      Fort Worth's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will play a big role in the seminary, as will the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation, as co-sponsors of the nondenominational program.

      After inmates finish the 125-credit-hour program over four years, they receive bachelor's degrees in biblical studies and are sent to other Texas prisons, where they "minister to their fellow offenders," according to a release.

      "The opportunity to provide education and growth for those in a prison unit .. is the opportunity to enable these inmates to discover a significant new way that through study will change life, perspective and hope for hundreds," said Paige Patterson, president of the Fort Worth seminary.

      A Statesman story on the initiative by Mike Ward declared:
      prison officials and supporters say that by making the program voluntary and without a denominational focus — much like another faith-based rehabilitation program operated for prisoners for more than a decade and now highly acclaimed at another nearby prison — any such issues have been avoided.

      In fact, Texas offers religious programs at all of its 111 state prisons and has faith-based programs and initiatives involving more than 2,700 convicts at 24 of them.

      Ward points out an interesting distinction between the seminary idea from other rehabilitation programs: "Unlike most current prison rehabilitation programs, the initiative is not designed for convicts who are about to be released or paroled. Instead, its participants are serving long sentences, most for violent crimes, and most will be behind bars for many additional years — if not the rest of their lives." Ward adds that "The cost to taxpayers: zero. Private grants and donations will pay all expenses of the seminary, which is patterned after a highly acclaimed minister-training program in Louisiana, officials said."

      On one hand I can understand the impetus. Since the invention of the penitentiary religious reformers have believed prisons should actively seek to promote spiritual transformation. On the other, I'm not sure there's evidence religious education benefits prisoners more than the educational initiatives recently gutted at the Windham School District in TDCJ, and clearly there's nobody out there beating the bushes for "private grants and donations" to keep those programs running.

      Another thing: Though the stories say the program will be non-denominational, the Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth was the site of a major fight between fundamentalist Baptist factions and less dogmatic religious scholars including Russel Dilday, the moderate president who was ousted by fundamentalists in 1994 for not toeing the hardest possible theological line. He even wrote a book (really a collection of columns) about the incident, titled "Glimpses of a seminary under assault." Can we really expect the trustees of an institution still ruled by the same faction that ousted Dilday to hew to a non-denominational, non-fundamentalist doctrine? For how long?

      Relatedly, I wonder if the same deference would be granted when some Muslim sheikhs from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan show up and want to start a madrasah in TDCJ at no "cost to the taxpayer." If that happened, I'm guessing, the enthusiasm level among state officials wouldn't be nearly so high.



      Effort to eliminate prison chaplains met with criticism

      Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
      March 4, 2011

      Members of the state's religious community are fighting to save a $4.8 million program that sends chaplains into Texas prisons, saying volunteers and prison guards can't handle the job.

      "Chaplaincy is the heart and soul of the prison system," said Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, who oversees services and other programs for Jewish prisoners. "A body without a soul is a piece of dead meat."

      Goldstein testified before the Senate Finance Committee last week, part of the outcry after the proposed budget in the House of Representatives killed the program to help address a shortfall of at least $15 billion. The Senate version would cut but not abolish the program.

      Even prisoners have weighed in.

      "Our chapel classes and chaplains are vital ... in our recovery and rehabilitation of sin and bad choices," said a letter signed by 30 female inmates at the Plane State Jail in Dayton. "I fear the end result if this were to happen."

      State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and chairman of the criminal justice committee, suggested it will come down to money.

      "I'd rather not cut the chaplains," he said. "But if you've got to choose between chaplains and corrections officers, you don't have much choice."

      Ultimately, he said, a compromise may be possible.

      The threat to prison chaplains is only one issue on the religious agenda during the legislative session.

      Other issues of faith

      Some groups support legislation to restrict abortion services, including a proposal to require women to view a sonogram before having an abortion. Most are working together on budget, immigration and social issues.

      "There's nothing more integral to what people of faith care about than the budget," said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith organization. "It has to do with education and jobs, health and the well-being of children and the elderly and people who are sick."

      Advocates for the program say it helps to prevent more expensive problems.

      Emmett Solomon, a former director of the chaplaincy program who runs the Restorative Justice Ministries Network in Huntsville, said chaplains ease prison tensions and reduce the risk that an inmate will commit additional crimes after release.

      The prison system has 121 chaplains, paid to serve the 114 prisons and jails, a practice that dates back at least to 1915.

      "They're obviously a very valuable part of the prison system," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      A chaplain is assigned to each prison unit and expected to ensure inmates have a reasonable opportunity to pursue their faith. That may mean contacting clergy from a particular tradition, in addition to helping inmates of all faiths.

      Goldstein is responsible for Jewish prisoners, most of whom are assigned to one of five units.

      Chaplains act as counselors to both prisoners and prison staff and serve on the warden's executive management team, according to the TDCJ Offender Orientation Handbook.

      Goldstein said chaplains are involved in emotional crises, helping inmates place calls to dying family members, or breaking the news when a relative has died.

      "I don't see how the state is going to train a guard to do that," he said.

      But chaplains also focus on the future.

      "People think we go around with a Bible, singing Amazing Grace," said Father Ron Cloutier, director of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

      But most inmates are eventually released, and chaplains spend a lot of time helping them prepare for freedom.

      "If they have no job skills, no place to live, no one to help them, they're going to come knocking on your door when they come out," Cloutier said.

      'State has a role, too'

      Jennifer Carr Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said some legislators believe volunteers can fill the void.

      "Yes, the church provides many services for free," she said. "That's part of our role. But the state has a role, too."

      And the 18,000 volunteers who work in Texas prisons, most of them from churches and other religious organizations, can't be turned loose without oversight, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Budget Christian Life Commission.

      "Somebody has to screen the volunteers, to make sure they're bona fide, they're trained, and that they know what they're supposed to do and not do," she said.

      Training and supervising volunteers is especially important when protecting religious liberties for inmates whose faith differs from the volunteer's, she said.

      "It takes a highly skilled person to negotiate those constitutional boundaries," Paynter said. "You might get a great volunteer, but there are no guarantees on that."

      Effort to eliminate prison chaplains met with criticism

      Actress pushes churches to reach out to prisoners

      By Rebecca Cusey, Religion News Service Published: January 14, 2011

      WASHINGTON (RNS)—Jesus left his followers with precious few commands: love thy neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner among them. So why do so many churches have such a hard time with that last one?

      Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, for one, is waiting for a good answer.

      In her recent movie, Conviction, Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a real-life high school dropout whose 18-year quest to free her brother from a wrongful murder conviction led her from GED to the bar exam.

      “As we’re sitting here speaking right now, someone is in prison for a crime they didn’t commit,” Swank said at a recent screening of the film at a historic black church in Alexandria, Va. “And that’s not OK.”

      Waters’ brother, Kenny Waters, was the 83rd prisoner exonerated and freed as a result of DNA testing, forced by the persistence of the New York-based Innocence Project. To date, 261 prisoners have seen their wrongful convictions overturned.

      “I think we always have to have hope and faith that eventually the right thing will happen,” Swank said. “I don’t know how it will be solved, but I think in talking about it, we shine a bright light.”

      Prison Fellowship, the nation’s best-known church-based outreach to inmates, is teaming with Swank and her film to help show congregations prisoners’ needs, and lobby to reduce wrongful convictions, end prison rape and halt the shackling of female inmates during childbirth.

      “I think it’s hard to convince people these things are happening,” said Kimberly Alleyne, spokeswoman for Prison Fellowship. “Who wants to believe that these women are being shackled and held down while they’re giving birth to babies? It’s almost unconscionable.”

      While Swank’s movie highlights the problem of wrongful conviction, U.S. prisons are full of people who admit to being guilty. In 2008, the last year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics data was available, 7.3 million people—one in every 31 American adults—were in jail, prison, on probation or on parole.

      “I think some struggle with the issue of helping prisoners because, by and large, many of the people who are serving sentences are guilty,” Alleyne said. “Our approach is whether they’re guilty or not—particularly if they are guilty—they still need to be embraced by the love of God. This is not a judgmental work.”

      Pat Nolan, a Prison Fellowship vice president who served 29 months in federal custody after pleading guilty to corruption charges as a California state legislator, knows what it’s like. He maintained his innocence and said he accepted a plea deal to avoid the possibility of a long imprisonment.

      “When you’re in prison, it’s like you’re an amputee,” Nolan said. “You’re cut off from your family, you’re cut off from your job, from your community, from your church.”

      At the screening, Nolan’s voice broke with emotion as he said: “I still have every letter that was sent to me (in prison). Within each of your churches are people who have sons, brothers, wives, sisters in prison. They suffer alone.”

      Prison Fellowship, founded by Watergate ex-con Chuck Colson, currently partners with about 8,000 U.S. churches, but says it needs more. Some churches are reluctant to join prison work because it involves “stepping out of your comfort zone and going to a place you haven’t been to before,” Alleyne said.

      But she said it’s not just about hardened criminals inside the walls, but what happens to them when and if they rejoin society on the outside.

      “The local church is the backbone of our re-entry process,” Alleyne said. “People from the churches and the community are there waiting on the outside so that when a prisoner comes out, he or she has somewhere to go for clothing, to get housing, to get help with jobs.”

      It’s what happens at Shiloh Baptist Church, which hosted the film screening. Because inmates often serve sentences far from home, Shiloh runs a teleconferencing ministry to allow families to talk to incarcerated loved ones.

      “I’ve done teleconferencing with prisoners who haven’t seen their family in 16 years,” said volunteer Lionel O. Smith, a 30-year veteran of the federal prison system. “They have just an emotional period of about 10 to 15 minutes where they’re just so emotional they can’t even speak.”

      Shiloh’s pastor, Lee A. Earl, said serving prisoners and their families is part of the church’s mandate to address all aspects of human need.

      “Like Miss Swank said, it’s a tremendous love story. This is about love. That’s what Christ was about, that’s what he died for—receiving people that proper … folk didn’t think he ought to be receiving. If we’re not careful, we’ll get into that same kind of religion.”

      Actress pushes churches to reach out to prisoners


      Chaplain faces firing for smuggling inmate letters

      Associated Press
      Sept. 11, 2009

      HOUSTON — A death row chaplain is facing dismissal after he acknowledged smuggling out letters for a condemned inmate who has posted Internet messages threatening a state lawmaker and that man’s family, Texas prison officials said Friday.

      It’s not known if the letters mailed by the chaplain, Richard Anderson, for death row prisoner Richard Tabler are the ones that ended up on a Web site dedicated to condemned inmates and their cases, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said.

      The chaplain’s actions thwarted rules that require monitoring of nearly all inmate mail.

      “We’ve yet to confirm these are the same letters ultimately posted on the Internet,” Lyons said. “Regardless, it’s a serious infraction and consequently he’s been recommended for termination.

      “You don’t carry out letters for inmates. You don’t carry letters out for death row inmates. You especially don’t carry out letters for Richard Tabler, who already has shown a propensity for threatening people outside his prison cell.”

      Tabler’s threatening call last year to Sen. John Whitmire, using a cell phone smuggled into the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston, was the impetus for a crackdown on illegal cell phones and other contraband throughout the nation’s second-largest prison system.

      Tabler then became the focus of an investigation after an Internet posting from him on a Web site dedicated to death row inmates and their cases again threatened Whitmire and his family.

      Prisoners have no access to computers and all of Tabler’s incoming and outgoing mail is read except for mail pertaining to his court case. The prison system’s Office of the Inspector General has been investigating how Tabler was able to get such a letter to someone else to post.

      “We developed some information that we may have had an employee involvement in carrying out communications, some letters from him that circumvented the security that was in place,” Inspector General John Moriarty said Friday. “We ended up developing evidence that a chaplain carried some information out.”

      Anderson, 51, has worked as a chaplain at the Polunsky Unit, which includes death row, since March 2008. He could not be reached Friday.

      His firing, recommended Thursday, would be a matter for administrators at the prison, Lyons said.

      Moriarty said at least for now, it didn’t appear Anderson would face criminal charges.

      “Carrying stuff outside usually is a policy violation,” he said. “Bringing stuff in is a criminal violation.

      “If the investigation develops that he was a known participant and knew what he was carrying out as far as threats, that would change the dynamics. At this point, we don’t have that affirmative link to that case.”

      Moriarty said it was not immediately certain who received the letters the chaplain mailed.

      “We’ve got some information that indicates it was the letters we’re looking for, but we can’t prove that,” he said.

      Tabler told investigators about the chaplain’s role in accepting and mailing the letters and the chaplain then confirmed it, prison officials said.

      “It raises questions about security as it relates to prison employees,” said Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, the Texas Senate’s longest-serving member and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “In this instance, a chaplain is a little alarming. If a chaplain thinks he’s serving his flock by taking unauthorized letters in and out, what else would he be doing?”

      Tabler, 40, was condemned for the slayings of two men in 2004. He does not have an execution date. He is set for arraignment in December on additional charges stemming from the cell phone use. The Tulare, Calif., native also has a record in that state, where he was sentenced to three years for burglary, assault an officer and escape.

      His mother and sister also face arraignment next month on charges of possessing contraband in a state prison related to the cell phone use.

      Chaplain faces firing for smuggling inmate letters

      August 27, 2009

      At TDCJ, Wiccan is 'non-denominational'

      Some readers may be interested in discussing the debate over an inmate in South Texas who sued claiming he's being denied the right to perform Wiccan religious services. Reported the Brownsville Herald:

      Charles Roberts, 28, of Brownsville, alleges he has asked several times for religious books, pentagrams and a person to lead Wiccan services at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Lopez Unit but has received no assistance from the prison’s chaplain.

      Under current prison policy, there must be three inmates of the same faith in a given facility before employees will allow them to meet for worship services. An outside volunteer is also required to lead the sessions.

      The department has established Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and non-denominational Christian services at all of their prisons. Wiccan volunteers also lead worship sessions at two TDCJ facilities outside of Houston, department spokesman Jason Clark said.

      But Roberts – a Brownsville native incarcerated for a 2004 conviction on aggravated assault charges — claims that prison officials failed to even note his religion correctly on his inmate intake forms.

      When he told him practiced Wicca – a neo-pagan, nature based religion — an intake officer classified him as "non-denominational," his lawsuit states.

      "The fact that my religious preference is said to be non-denominational goes to show that nothing is being done," he wrote.

      A number of Texas inmates from various faiths have challenged the prison’s religious policies on similar grounds over the past several years. In nearly every case, federal judges and appeals court justices have found that the department’s guidelines does not put undo restraints on inmates’ ability to practice their faith.

      I don't find the policy particularly unreasonable that there must be three inmates of a given faith in a unit to justify holding a worship service, but if they offer Wiccan services at other units I don't see why TDCJ doesn't just offer to transfer the fellow to one of them. It sounds like the failure to provide books and other religious materials may stem from the simple misidentification of religious preference on the intake form.

      I did get a little laugh out of the quaintly hilarious notion of TDCJ categorizing Wiccans as "non-denominational," not to mention the thought of the befuddled intake officer filling out religious preference on the form - "Uh, you said 'Wik-kun'? ... what is that, some kind of Mormon or something? ... None of the boxes on here start with 'w'."

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

      Labels: Religion and Politics, TDCJ

      Chaplain Banned from Cameron County Jail for Criticizing Injustice

      Posted on March 13, 2009
      By Nick Braune

      The South Texas Civil Rights Project sent out a press release this week on a lawsuit filed against Cameron County. The suit contends that the county has retaliated against Gail Hanson, a minister and former volunteer chaplain at the county jail, after she spoke publicly about the conditions women prisoners face at the jail.

      The suit contends that her free speech rights have been violated.

      Hanson, through her church, became an official volunteer chaplain in 2000, and had visited with and prayed with prisoners weekly up until February of 2008, but her visits were stopped after she made the public comments about the jail and criticized the sheriff.

      “Preventing someone from volunteering their time to help rehabilitate prisoners because she was critical of the County is outrageous,” said Mrs. Hanson’s attorney, Scott Medlock, quoted in the press release.

      Medlock is Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Prisoners’ Rights Program. “Mrs. Hanson should be commended for her dedication to ministering to the women held in the jail, not punished for speaking the truth about what she saw behind prison bars,” he said.

      The press release explains that in February 2008, “Mrs. Hanson criticized conditions in the jail at a candidate forum in advance of the Democratic Party primary. Prisoners told her they were denied sanitary napkins, forced to sleep on the floor, given adulterated food with hair and gnats in it, and held for long periods of time without being brought to court for trial.”

      The suit is not asking for money but for the simple restoration of Hanson’s access to the jail so she can continue her ministerial visits.

      These complaints against the Brownsville facility are not the first. There have been many complaints over the recent years about the county jail there. The press release quotes Hanson, “I just want to make sure these women’s voices are heard. I never thought the County would prevent me from praying with them for speaking about what I saw in the jail.”

      I contacted Corinna Spencer-Scheurich from the Texas Civil Rights Project for a quick comment.

      Braune: I read a previous article on the Texas Jail Project website, and it sounds to me that the Cameron County Jail is improperly run and is a stressful place for women to be held, particularly stressful for the pre-trial detainees. Do you think what your client has said publicly has hit some nerve? And do you think they revoked her privilege to visit the women in the jail as a message to others to be quiet too?

      Spencer-Scheurich: Clearly what Gail Hanson said hit a nerve. And, it is also clear that banning her from the jail was calculated to chill free speech on the issue of jail conditions. One of the purposes of the 1st Amendment is to protect exactly what Mrs. Hanson did -- speaking out about injustice that she witnessed or heard about first hand. While there is reason to believe that things have gotten better in the jail lately, protecting Mrs. Hanson's right to talk about the conditions is almost as important as improving the conditions themselves. Otherwise, the women in the jail would have no one to advocate for them, no one to tell their stories. What kind of society would we be if we isolated these women to the point that they suffer atrocities without us knowing?

      Chaplain Banned from Cameron County Jail for Criticizing Injustice


        Economy hurting Waco program that gets presents for children with parent in prison

        December 11, 2008
        By Cindy V. Culp
        Tribune-Herald staff writer

        A program that tries to make Christmas merrier for the children of prisoners is coming up short on gifts this year, especially when it comes to teenagers.

        The Central Texas Angel Tree program is extending its campaign until Dec. 20, five days longer than normal, because of a lack of donations, said local director Sharon Eads.

        Although some residents have generously bought gifts requested by the children, many wishes remain unfulfilled, Eads said. The bulk of those are from teenagers, most of whom want clothes and shoes, she said.

        “We just can’t seem to get the big kids done,” Eads said, noting that the program serves children up to age 16 who have at least one parent in prison.

        Each year, the program sets up a Christmas tree at Richland Mall. On it are paper angels, each with a child’s wish list.

        This year, the program is trying to arrange gifts for some 3,000 children living in McLennan County, Eads said. The children are signed up by their incarcerated parent via a prison chaplain, she said.

        Presents donated through the program are given in the parent’s name, and that can make a monumental difference to a child who may feel forgotten or abandoned by that parent, Eads said.

        “It’s a big self-esteem thing,” said Eads, a former prison chaplain. “They need that. It does matter if they know someone loves them.”

        Eads said she suspects the weak economy is to blame for the dip in donations this year. Some people who have visited the program’s display at the mall have donated small amounts of money rather than purchasing a gift from the tree, saying they couldn’t afford to buy an entire present, she said.

        Such donations are welcome and will be used to fill requests, Eads said.

        People can find out more about the program by going by the mall display, located near J.C. Penney. They also can call Eads at 753-1377 or go online to www.project

        Donations can be mailed to;
        Angel Tree
        P.O. Box 8596
        Waco, TX 76714

        Economy hurting Waco program that gets presents for children with parent in prison

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        Ministry questions jail policy on Bible studies

        By Sara McDonald
        The Daily News
        Published July 8, 2008

        GALVESTON — A Texas prison ministry is questioning a Galveston County jail policy that doesn’t allow inmates to take their Bible studies to bed.

        Write Way Prison Ministries, a Garland-based Christian organization that provides Bible correspondence courses to more than 8,000 Texas and Louisiana inmates, has about 40 Galveston County inmates enrolled in its classes.

        Rodger Turley, the organization’s vice president, said he started getting letters about a month ago from Galveston County inmates complaining they weren’t getting their course work.

        “We’ve never had a problem like this before,” he said. “It seems unusual.”

        He said when he called the jail, someone told him the course work had been banned because storing it in cells was a fire hazard.

        County Jail Cmdr. Capt. Mike Henson told The Daily News that inmates can take the classes, but the ministry has to follow the jail’s guidelines.

        That policy prohibits inmates from keeping the course work in their cells. If inmates want to take a class from the ministry, they have to submit a written request and are then allowed one to two hours in the jail’s law library to study the material.

        The library is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, Henson said.

        “I’ve explained the policy to them,” Henson said. “We don’t deny any religious service. We just control what comes in and out of the jail.”

        Inmates are allowed to have a Bible, Koran or torah and a “reasonable amount” of personal mail in their cell.

        The policy isn’t new, Henson said.

        Other nearby county jails don’t have the same rules.

        In the Brazoria County jail, inmates can have whatever materials or books they want as long as they aren’t hardback books or pornographic magazines, Capt. Rex McCall said.

        Likewise, inmates at the Chambers County jail can have any reading material that fits in their cell as long as it’s not a hardback book, Capt. Larry Cook said.

        Galveston County’s problem with the Bible studies is that too many papers can create problems in jail cells, Galveston County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo said.

        “What ends up happening is that papers like that become a bit unmanageable and become somewhere to hide contraband,” he said.

        Before, inmates have stopped up toilets and made papers weapons when they have “excessive” amounts of paper in their cells, Tuttoilmondo said.

        “They (the ministries) don’t want to follow the procedures,” he said. “We have to follow the rules here.”

        Ministry questions jail policy on Bible

        Texas governor honors Beaumont man for prison ministry service

        The Enterprise

        John Roy Vaughn of Beaumont was presented the Governor's 2008 Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award today for his work ministering to inmates incarcerated within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, according to a corrections department press release.

        Vaughn has served as a corrections department volunteer for the last decade, leading a team of men into the prisons to minister to offenders. The work is part of Vaughn's service as an associate minister of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church of Port Arthur, according to the release.

        The award was presented by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Oliver Bell, Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston during a ceremony held in Austin.

        Vaughn is among 15 individuals and four organizations from across the state recognized for their efforts to help inmates and those who are on parole or probation.

        Read more in Beaumont Enterprise
        Texas governor honors Beaumont man for prison ministry service

        Tangled path leads man from criminal to chaplain

        AMARILLO, Texas -- All Michael Kelly wanted were some chocolate chip cookies to take back to his Clements Unit cell. He didn't care about any religion or Jesus or God. That was a sign of weakness, of foolishness. And Kelly was neither weak nor a fool. He was a survivor, calculating and cunning. He was one bad man in one bad world.

        If he had to, Michael Kelly would kill you. And you. And you. Whatever he had to do, he did. He could kill a man at 11:45 a.m. and wonder what was for lunch 15 minutes later. His life was drained of emotion. Pity, remorse and certainly love were not part of it.

        "To me, he had a frightening appearance," said Rick Barkley, a Gruver farmer who was part of a Kairos prison ministry team that weekend. "He just sent chills in me. He was tall and thin with tattoos all over him. He was real cocky and had a bouncy strut. He just scared me, so to speak."

        Kelly, serving three 40-year terms, was sent to Clements in 1990 from another Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility. Active in a prison gang, he needed to be separated. He was among the most feared inmates.

        In those days, when the Kairos prison ministry came for its weekend retreat, the warden would pick out the roughest prisoners to send. Kelly always enjoyed the show, ate some good food and made fun of the men under his breath. He'd seen it all before.

        The retreat was in its second of three days. It was March 21, 1994. Kelly remembers that date as easily as his birthday, as easily as Americans recall Sept. 11, 2001. There were goodie bags available that March 21 and all Kelly wanted was some homemade cookies.

        And there in his bag was a note on a piece of paper. He read it. Then read it again. Read it one more time. There was a thickness in his throat. He felt the tenseness leave his shoulders. In a way, he finally felt released even though he was going to be in prison for many more years.

        He folded the note and put it in his pocket. It was from an anonymous 11-year-old girl. She had written with a crayon, a purple crayon:

        "I don't care if you're in prison for killing someone like me. I still want you to know I love you and Jesus loves you too."

        'I want to change lives'

        It's early Thursday evening 14 years later, and Michael Kelly is speaking from the heart.

        Thirty-eight people are in the Faith City Ministries chapel, and Kelly is walking down the aisle, patting one on the shoulder, shaking an outreached hand of another, spreading the word. A small, worn Bible was in his hands. A few tears went down his cheek.

        "I've been in some dark places, man, dark places," he tells them. "Places where there was no hope, no way out. I didn't know what to do until I knew Jesus loved me ... He picked the most unlikely character like me to tell you he loves you."

        After 29 minutes, Kelly was finished. He prayed, and the congregation left for a supper of meat loaf and potatoes.

        Kelly is just more than a month into the first real job he's ever had. He's the chaplain of Faith City Ministries in downtown Amarillo. Denied three times, Kelly was paroled last July to end 17 1/2 years at Clements. He was sent to Faith City as a condition of his parole and spent six months in its prison release program.

        He could have found some other job, some better-paying job. But the day after he graduated, he started on staff at Faith City as chaplain. One recent afternoon, Kelly, trim and fit, was at Faith City dressed in a crisp long-sleeved gray shirt and matching tie. The only remnants of his past life are the fading tattoos on the backs of his hands.

        His problem is that there isn't enough hours in the day, even if it begins at 3:30 a.m. and doesn't end until after 7 p.m. He talks almost as fast as others think, his conversation bubbling with gratitude, excitement and joy.

        "I want to help change lives," Kelly said. "I want people to know what I know.

        I want to be successful. And success is being able to lay your head down at night knowing that you did something good for someone else, that God used you that day to change someone else's life."

        Kelly holds three chapel services a day _ early morning, noon and early evening. He also shares and encourages those in the successful Hope for Men program and prison release program.

        In the afternoon or the evening, he will go to Tyler Street Resource Center, Salvation Army, the bus station to run errands for the homeless, pray with them, invite them to Faith City for chapel service.

        "I truly think he is a gifted man and God is going to use him," said Richie Fletcher of Gruver, who mentored Kelly for years prior to his release. "I would tell him that God has a plan for him, and I don't know when you're going to get out of these walls, but that day is going to come."

        To understand where Kelly, 50, is now is to understand where he's been and what he has endured.

        A criminal robot

        At age 9, Kelly's father left him on the streets of Washington, D.C. He slept in a laundromat and survived however he could. At age 13, he was headed for destruction.

        His first murder conviction was at age 16, and he was by then into full-blown gang activity.

        Assault, robbery, you name it. He was becoming a virtual criminal robot.

        "Everyone should have been afraid of me," he said. "Anybody in the world would have been afraid of me. You would have been stupid not to be."

        A wild scheme brought Kelly to Texas from Florida in 1980. Involved with the Texas mafia, he brought an East Coast crew of six with the idea of knocking off a Six Flags amusement park.

        That robbery never happened, but another did.

        Kelly was arrested many times. He spent most of his adult life in Texas prisons. In 1987, he was charged and convicted of aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, attempted murder and theft. He was sentenced to three 40-year terms.

        He joined a prison gang inmates respected and some feared.

        "The crazy thing about a person's life in prison is that if you're not afraid of dying or killing someone, most people will leave you alone," Kelly said. "I didn't care. I had nothing to live for, nobody I loved.

        "I used to laugh when they called someone down to the chapel because their mother died. I was like, who cares? I'd spit in a chaplain's face if he told me something like that. I didn't care. I was filled with hate. That's just the way it was."

        No turning back

        Until March 21, 1994, when Kelly read the note. His heart was filled with something beyond hate.

        At the closing of the Kairos weekend there was an invitation. He was torn. He pulled out the note, read it again.

        "I knew it was real," Kelly said. "I knew for the first time that someone loved me, that God loved me. I had to make a choice. I could accept it or turn away and go back to my life. I wasn't going back. I was going to Jesus."

        His decision cost him what was left of his family and very nearly his life. He wrote his mother to tell her he'd been saved, and she wrote the warden back to tell him she didn't want any more correspondence from her son.

        Inmates saw an immediate change in him. A few thought him vulnerable. Killing Michael Kelly would be good street cred.

        "A guy wanted me to talk to another guy, and when I walked over to him, he had a shank. A couple of others had a shank, too," Kelly said. "They said, 'You know what this is, don't you?'

        "I said, 'Yeah, I understand. But it's OK, though. I want you to know you're not my enemy. I love you but I will defend myself. I will try to stop you from harming me because the devil is my enemy.'"

        One dropped his shank and took off. The others then did the same thing. Eventually he was accepted for the new Michael Kelly.

        In the ensuing years, Kelly immersed himself in the Bible, six to eight hours daily. He took courses from Dallas Theological Seminary, Rhema Bible College and Liberty University. He became an elder in the Clements Chapel.

        He shared the word with inmates and waited for the day he could share with the outside world. It finally came last summer, the end of 30 years of incarceration.

        Skeptics will say it won't last, that Kelly will be among the 83 percent who return to prison. But it's now been 14 years, and he's endured the worst.

        "He's not perfect," Fletcher said. "He'll have his ups and downs in the real world. He already has. But he's doing good and I'm proud of him."

        Faith City has provided him with assistance, support and a place to preach.

        What more does a changed man need?

        "I tell guys on the street that God can use anybody," he said. "We throw away broken things, but he fixes broken things. It's not unusual for lives to be changed. I expect it every day. Look what he did for me...

        From criminal to chaplain


        Nov. 6, 2007

        Reaching salvation through incarceration

        By PEGGY O'HARE
        Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

        The prison hallway is lined with large paintings of Jesus.

        In a nearby classroom, one inmate is teaching another to read, while another prisoner tutors his comrade in math.

        And in a nearby office, an inmate edits the recorded voices of his fellow prisoners reading fairy tales, which will be mailed home as gifts to their children.

        Welcome to the Carol Vance prison unit in Fort Bend County, where the atmosphere is more like a Christian university than the usual cell blocks of hardened criminals.

        All of the 315 inmates confined here have chosen to participate in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based prisoner rehabilitation program that emphasizes spiritual teachings and prepares them for life outside the prison walls.

        The program is open to inmates who are eligible to stay at a minimum-security prison, such as the Vance unit. Even inmates with convictions for the most serious crimes, including murder, can participate — but sex offenders are excluded because they cannot be housed at minimum-security prisons.

        Inmates are provided mentors for at least six months after their release to help them transition into the outside world. Former inmates are also put in touch with a local faith community.

        Graduates have gone on to become pastors, successful salespeople and industrial plant workers. Some have started their own businesses, one earning in excess of $1 million last year, said Tommie Dorsett, director of InnerChange Freedom Initiative Texas. Many have pursued higher education.

        Their lives outside the prison walls offer hope to those still incarcerated who want to make a fresh start.

        "I have seen when the offender population leaves, they want to come back and participate in the program and show the ones who remain here that you can make it," said Cynthia Tilley, assistant warden at the Vance and Jester I prison units, both located near Richmond.

        At the Vance unit last week, inmates and volunteers celebrated InnerChange' s 10th anniversary, even as the program fights for its survival.

        A lawsuit, filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against an Iowa prison unit, alleges the faith-based prisoner program is unconstitutional. That case is still pending before the 8th Circuit Court.

        But litigation was far from the minds of those celebrating the program's success — including former inmates who have forged successful lives in the outside world.

        "This has been one of the biggest blessings of my life," said Gerald Kovaly of Houston, one of the program's graduates. Set free in 1999, Kovaly recently married and now works for Habitat for Humanity. "This has really taught me what it means to be a Christian."

        Another inmate still enrolled in the program agrees.

        "We all have a great opportunity, but we have to be willing to take it," said Angel Tello, 25, of Channelview, who expects to be released in May after serving a five-year sentence for aggravated robbery and aggravated assault of a public servant.

        The InnerChange program was launched in Texas in 1997. Since then, it has expanded not only to Iowa, but also Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas and Missouri.

        The inmates' days at the Vance prison unit are filled with helping others, learning and working at state-assigned jobs. Those who qualify also participate in community service projects with Habitat for Humanity outside the prison.

        Tello's day begins at 6 a.m., when he wakes up to read the Bible and pray. After morning devotions, he spends his day volunteering his services at the prison's computer lab and tutoring other inmates. At night, he takes college courses.

        The program offers a Toastmasters public speaking class, a résumé writing course, a commercial driver's license course, a Day With Dad program that reunites children with their incarcerated fathers and a Story Book Dad program, which allows inmates to send their children recordings of stories they read aloud.

        "Pretty much everything we do here is not generated toward life in prison, but life outside of prison," Dorsett said.

        The program's supporters say the Vance unit has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the state — just 8 percent of the inmates here will return to prison.

        That compares favorably with a statewide recidivism rate of 68 percent, said Dorsett, a former parole officer.

        And the program offers encouragement to those who truly want to change their lives.

        "It gives men hope that they can live a life crime-free," Dorsett said. "It gives them a sense of community and accountability, which the men have with one another after their release."

        And it shows them a better way of living.

        "Most of the time, what we find is offenders who are in the system have missed these opportunities as they grew up as children," said Debbie Simmons, the South Texas executive director for Prison Fellowship, which started the InnerChange program and helps fund it.

        Reaching salvation

        Prison program puts faces on criminals, victims

        Web Posted: 09/16/2007

        Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje
        Express-News Staff Writer

        KYLE — The men file into the meeting room clutching thick white binders, all of them dressed in identical beige khaki scrubs.

        If it weren't for the heavy locked door just outside, they could be mistaken for a group of doctors here to discuss the newest medical regimen. But the agenda is far more serious than that. The goal of the night is nothing less than redemption.

        They're taking part in a program called Bridges to Life, a prison ministry that seeks to heal victims and reform criminals by bringing them together to tell their stories and listen to one another. Part of a movement called restorative justice, it's designed to prompt offenders to accept responsibility for their crimes as it gives victims an outlet for their pain.

        In place in more than 20 prisons across Texas, the program has shown to drastically reduce the rate at which inmates return to prison, especially when it comes to committing violent crime.

        First, the 45 men, many with arms emblazoned with dark prison tattoos, stand to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Amazing Grace." Then they sit, and the speaker for the night, a short, dark- haired woman, walks to the front to tell her story.

        It's a harrowing one. Her name is Julie Thomas and she has spent much of her adult life tethered to abusive, alcoholic men. It was 1996 when her ex-husband took her 17-month-old son for his visitation day.

        He didn't bring him back. When Thomas rushed home from work, she found a message telling her to go to the hospital.

        There, a police officer said her son had suffered a massive head injury. Doctors told her there was little hope for survival. After her son died, she gathered him in her arms.

        "I just wanted to hold him one more time," she tells the men.

        In the throes of a drunken fog when the child was injured, her ex- husband wasn't able to tell Thomas what happened that day.

        Later, he was charged with injury to a child with a deadly weapon and sent to prison.

        "I don't know about reconciliation, "she tells the men, who listen raptly, the only sound in the room the occasional clanging of the metal door. "Maybe somewhere down the road I can think about forgiveness. It's not healthy for me to hold onto these feelings. I need to let go of it for myself."

        When she's through, the men give her a standing ovation. Some hug her.

        It seems simple — a victim telling her story to offenders, imparting how crime has wounded her — but what's happening inside this minimum- security prison is nothing short of revolutionary.

        This program "makes inmates face reality and get out of denial," says John Sage, a lanky, folksy man who started it in 1998. "The whole system says deny, deny: Don't admit to anything. We're going contrary to that. They have to own up to what they've done, put it out there in the light. In the process, we create empathy where there was little or none."

        The inmates sit down in small groups with victim-surrogates — not the actual victims of their crimes — to talk about the "ripple effect" of their actions, not just on their victims but on their own family members and society at large. They hear how victims were hurt.

        But in the victim-volunteers they find an open, nonjudgmental ear.

        "We don't judge them or condemn them," Sage says. "We do challenge them."

        But the inmates do more than that. Under strict rules of confidence, they tell the stories of their own broken lives — narratives typically pockmarked with abuse, abandonment and neglect. They do the one thing that is verboten in prison society: They become vulnerable.

        Washing off the blood

        On a recent rainy night, thunder boomed outside the Kyle Correctional Center, a therapeutic community prison made up of drab, low-slung barracks and fences not topped with barbed wire. All the men here have drug or alcohol abuse in their pasts and go through 12-step programs; their crimes range from DWI to burglary to murder.

        All the men sent here are within six months of being released to halfway houses. A majority of inmates are African American.

        Participation in Bridges to Life is strictly voluntary; most inmates hear of it through word-of-mouth. At some prisons, there are waiting lists of up to 200. Joining the program has no effect on an inmate's sentence. Only sex offenders are barred.

        After Thomas finishes her speech, the victim-volunteers — around 20 of them — split up into small groups with five to seven inmates.

        Each group has a trained facilitator and two victim-volunteers.

        It's week nine in the 12-week program and the topic tonight is reconciliation. In facilitator Leslie Perry's group, the men discuss several verses of Scripture related to forgiveness.

        Though Bridges to Life is a spiritually- based program, it's ecumenical — open to all, non-believers included — without preaching or proselytizing.

        "How can you reconcile if the other person doesn't want to?" Perry asks the group.

        The men listen as Thomas talks about her struggle to forgive her ex- spouse in the death of her son.

        "Just this last year I stopped wanting him to suffer for the rest of his life," she says. "But as far as having our relationship restored?

        No, that's a Grand Canyon step for me."

        The men murmur their understanding. Those who kill children are targeted in prison, one says.

        "I would love to restore my relationship with my wife," says Kurt Maloy, in on a drug charge, "but she's heard it all before. I've cheated, I've lied, I've took from her. She don't believe me. This is my third time in treatment. Words won't do it no more. I'm gonna have to show that I've changed."

        Perry, the program manual open on her lap, says you can't "wind back the clock." But you can break fresh ground to build a new life.

        The men nod, take it in. They speak about the difficulty in overcoming their crimes.

        "If you're not making amends it stops you from going to the next level spiritually, " Eric Marks says.

        Then, as is done each week, one man tells his story. Tonight the floor belongs to David Morales, a distinguished- looking inmate with silvering temples and a wooden cross around his neck. Sent to prison for armed robbery, he talks of being a "terrible rotten kid" who started stealing early.

        Once in prison he joined the infamous Mexican Mafia, shooting dope and ordering hits on other inmates. In 2000 he gave his life to God through a prison ministry program.

        "But it was Bridges to Life that made me really realize the people that I've hurt," he says. "I've got lots of blood to wash off my hands."

        "But you do realize that even if you're just robbing someone, you're hurting them," Thomas challenges.

        "Oh yes," Morales responds.

        As part of the program, each inmate has to write two letters: one to his victim and one to his family members or society. It's optional whether the letters are sent. Deborah Hartman, a regional coordinator, provides one, exactly as it was written:

        To My Society:

        I realize I've hurt you. I've hurt you by being an addict. All the crimes I've committed to fuel my addiction. I've not only been a determen to my family and community but thru all the drugs I've manufactured and sold. The police and special task forces that you've financed thru your tax dollars to stop me, the jail space I've occupied and correctional staff you've once again had to finance. The children of the addict parents I've preyed on in my selfish and dishonorable trade I've pried on with no regard for others I'm sorry.

        To the police who've spent untold amounts of time and energy working to stop my lawlessness, I'm sorry. ... I ask you for your forgiveness for the strain I've put on our community and all of my criminal behavior and felonious activity. I'm sorry, please forgive me.

        Get out, stay out

        It started with a murder.

        In 1993, the 43-year-old sister of John Sage, a Houston businessman, was slain. Two 19-year-old strangers out to steal her car — which they got, along with $13 — put a plastic bag over her head and stuck a butcher knife in her throat. She begged for her life. The two later told police her last words were: "Please don't kill me. I've got two kids."

        Sage was very close to his sister Marilyn; she even introduced him to his wife. Her death plunged him into a deep, intractable depression.

        The former defensive captain of the 1970 Louisiana State University football team lost 30 pounds. He couldn't function.

        Then he took part in a prison ministry called the Sycamore Tree, sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministry. It gave him the idea to start Bridges to Life. That first year, 30 inmates at a Beaumont prison took part.

        Today, almost 4,500 inmates have graduated. In addition to the Texas prisons — both male and female — the program curriculum has spread to one prison in Louisiana and two in Colorado.

        Prison officials are interested in Bridges to Life because an ongoing, three-year study suggests the program has a dramatic impact on recidivism rates.

        Of those in the study, only 14 percent have returned to prison — compared with about 67 percent nationally — and, most startling, only 1 percent have returned for violent crime. One-third of those who go through Bridges to Life are serving time for violent crime.

        Many graduates who return to prison have committed technical parole violations, Sage says.

        One could argue that recidivism rates for graduates would be lower because the program is voluntary, and thus draws a better grade of inmate. But Sage says his program includes some of the hardest cases.

        Experts who study the program believe a true cognitive change takes place in offenders.

        "You can't continue to hurt people once you care about those people," says Dr. Marilyn Armour, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. "Those two worlds don't fit together anymore. You can't fit caring and hurting in the same space."

        Armour did research that analyzed 1,000 inmate responses to Bridges to Life and found a remarkable consistency across prisons. Inmates reported that hearing victim stories affected them dramatically.

        "Now we know Bridges to Life is effective," she says. "The question now becomes: What are the mechanisms that make it work, and how can we help other groups that are trying to develop prison programs?"

        Hartman, the regional coordinator, thinks she knows why the program is successful.

        "Inmates see that the people who have the most reason to hate them and blame them instead are forgiving and accepting and caring," she says, noting that only 2 to 5 percent drop out of the program.

        But restorative justice isn't simply about lowering reoffense rates.

        In fact, the primary focus is on elevating the status of the victim in the criminal justice system. And it's the victim-volunteers, drawn from churches and other community groups, who say Bridges to Life has changed their lives as well.

        "I don't believe there's any such thing as closure, but (Bridges to Life) helps you let go of the negative power of the anger and bitterness that harms you," says Linda White, who was one of the first volunteers. Her daughter was raped and murdered by two 15-year- old boys in Brazoria County in 1986. They shot her in the head and left her body under some brush.

        White says the program enabled her to see offenders as "fully-fleshed- out, three-dimensional human beings, who are just as wounded as we are. It cures some of that resentment and softens some of those hard places."

        Terrie Reagan was shot three times during a carjacking 12 years ago. The incident left her with post-traumatic stress syndrome, broke up her marriage and sent one of her sons into a spiral of alcohol and drugs.

        "For me, this program puts a face on my offender," she says. "I hear them, I listen to them. I don't condone what they've done, but over the 12-week program you actually grow to love them. You start to understand how they got to where they are and that understanding helps me."

        "This is a more hopeful vision of the future, as opposed to just locking people up," says Ellen Halberd, who was raped and beaten by a man dressed like a ninja who hammered a knife into her skull. "You actually get to tell your story again to people who want to hear it." And in the telling, there is healing, she says.

        Tears and more tears

        It's another rainy night when the graduates of Bridges to Life receive their completion certificates and get to say a few words into the microphone.

        One by one, the men describe how Bridges to Life has changed their lives, some of them tearing up and choking on raw emotion. What they have to say overturns stereotypes of the unreachable, hardened criminal.

        "This program has made me realize my actions have consequences, " says Richard Baker, 39, serving time for his third DWI conviction. "Even though I didn't hit anyone, I still hurt someone. I hurt my family. Bridges to Life really opens your eyes. It opens you up."

        William Meyer, 53, serving time for robbery, says the program helped him for the first time confront and deal with abuse he suffered as a child.

        "We got real close in my group, there were a lot of tears," he says. "It helped me to open up and trust other people, to have confidence in other people. I'm just about positive I'm not going to reoffend.

        This program gave me the tools to help me face myself and see the harm I was doing."

        Whether the graduates will go on to live law-abiding lives once on the outside is anyone's guess, but tonight the light inside the meeting room is hopeful and warm, as inmates hug the victim- volunteers and say goodbye.

        Kurt Maloy, the repeat drug offender who is convinced he's going to win back his wife, has one more observation.

        "A group leader told me something that stuck with me," he says. "She said tears are what happens when the ice around the heart melts.

        That's what Bridges to Life does: It melts the ice. This program should be in every prison in Texas."

        Criminals and Victims

        In restorative justice, victims and offenders have active roles


        Bridges to Life is an example of restorative justice, a philosophy that focuses on restitution over retribution and elevates the role of the victim over the state.

        It may sound revolutionary, but victim-centered justice dates to ancient times, experts say.

        You can find references to it in the Bible, the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi, according to a report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

        In ancient times, wrongs done to a person or property were regarded as private affairs, with justice meted out by consensus and tribal elders. Indigenous peoples in North America practiced restorative justice.

        With the rise of monarchy in the West, things flipped and wrongdoing became an act against the state rather than an individual. Punishment replaced restitution and reconciliation.

        But with the rise of the victims' rights movement in the 1970s, restorative justice reappeared, although it still is far from mainstream. The bedrock idea is that crime stems from a broken relationship between the victim, the offender and the community. The goal is to return the criminal to a contributing member to society.

        "The underlying premise is that people are actually happier, more cooperative and more likely to change if those in authority do things with them rather than to them or for them," says Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, who brings restorative practices to group homes and schools.

        In traditional criminal justice, victims and offenders become passive players in a system dominated by the courts, lawyers and judges. In restorative justice, they take center stage.

        "In the process of focusing on the victim, you end up providing a way for the offender to make amends and be re-accepted back into society," says Mike Gilbert, associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio Downtown Campus who teaches a course on restorative justice.

        Critics no doubt will say restorative justice is so much pie-in-the-sky bleeding heart liberalism, out of touch with the realities of criminal behavior, but Gilbert counters that traditional justice hasn't proven very effective.

        "It really doesn't work very well," he says. "If it did, the nation that punishes the most people for the most crime should have the lowest crime rate. That's us, and we don't."

        Coddling offenders, he says, "is letting them sit on their bunk all day and watch TV. It's not coddling when you have to sit face-to-face and talk to people you've harmed. That's tough accountability."

        Gilbert and other experts say restorative justice shouldn't be seen as a wholesale replacement for traditional justice some people should definitely be locked up, he says but rather as an alternative and added layer when appropriate.

        Restorative justice has been used to great effect with juvenile offenders and with lesser crimes such as vandalism and property crime, although some experts say it's fitting even for more serious crimes like rape and murder.

        Gilbert's focus is on empowering neighborhoods to become grass-roots communities where bottom-up restorative justice can take root. Some countries like New Zealand have largely replaced traditional justice with restorative practices, he says.

        Today there are more than 300 victim-offender reconciliation groups across the nation. In Texas, a victim-offender mediation/dialogue program has operated since 1994 through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Victim Services Division. In it, victims meet with their actual offenders after going through a lengthy preparation process. John Sage, founder of Bridges to Life, says his program uses victim-surrogates because more inmates can be reached that way.

        "It's more efficient," he says.

        (source for both: San Antonio Express-News)

        Nonprofit donates clothes to inmates

        Found hopes new outfits help
        offenders shed prison scrubs,
        criminal lifestyle

        By Katie Humphrey
        Thursday, January 04, 2007

        Amid the stacks of jeans and cluttered racks of blouses and sweaters, Linda Ann White sees hope.

        The donated clothes will be washed, ironed and packaged for women of all shapes and sizes who have one thing in common: They are inmates about to leave prison.

        Larry Kolvoord

        In a building behind the Leander Assembly of God, Linda Ann White, founder of the Lost Closet minis- try, collects and organizes donations of clothing to give to women who are being released from prison.

        "They're in prison, but when they get out, they deserve to feel beautiful about themselves," said White, who founded a nonprofit ministry called the Lost Closet to collect clothes for inmates.

        "I'm giving them hope, telling them, 'There are people who'll help you.'" Even one new outfit could give an inmate the confidence she needs to shed not only prison scrubs but also her former criminal lifestyle, she said.

        White, 49, of Liberty Hill said she became active in prison ministry through her church, Leander Assembly of God, about eight years ago, when she volunteered with a friend at the Halbert Unit, a prison that houses about 600 female inmates in Burnet.

        The unit holds women undergoing treatment for substance abuse while serving time for felony offenses. White, who said she overcame substance abuse when she was younger, felt a need to reach out to the women.

        She founded the Lost Closet in October 2004 after being inspired by biblical verses in the Book of Isaiah.

        White spoke with the Halbert Unit chaplain and developed an order form for inmates to fill out before they are discharged.

        The orders came slowly at first, only five or 10 a month, but quickly picked up.

        Now, White estimates that she delivers 40 to 50 outfits to the prison each month.

        In the summer, she bundles together capri pants and tops for the exiting inmates.

        In the winter, they get pants and a shirt, along with a jacket or sweater.

        Donations have been steady at the Lost Closet's home base, a small building behind the Leander Assembly of God, but plus-size clothing and jeans are always needed, White said.

        Many inmates' families bring clothes for them when they are released from prison, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. For others, the department purchases clothing in bulk from thrift stores such as the Salvation Army, she said.

        "She really is providing a service, not just for the inmates, but for the State of Texas," Lyons said about White's program.

        The department recognized White in March 2005 for founding the Lost Closet by awarding her the Governor's 2005 Criminal Justice Religious Service Volunteer Award.

        White has never heard from any inmates after they have been released from prison, but she said she did not start the organization to garner recognition. "The rewarding part is when I get up in the morning and I'm able to put on my clothes; those ladies should be able to do the same," White said.

        "Everyone should have a chance."


        How to donate:
        The Lost Closet, a nonprofit ministry that gives outfits to women preparing to leave prison, welcomes donations of new and gently used women's clothing, especially jeans and plus-size items.

        It also accepts monetary donations.

        For more information,
        contact founder Linda Ann White
        at 512-336-1174 or
        the Leander Assembly of God
        at 512-259-4131.

        Learn more at
        Source: The Lost Closet

        The Lost Closet


        Grace of Giving: Group helps people who have made bad decisions start their lives anew

        Web Posted: 12/12/2006
        Brian Chasnoff

        Johnny Ibarra, 73, has spent more than half of his life behind bars. A lifelong heroin abuser and seller, his sins did not cease in the 40 years in prison.

        "I stabbed a few people," the San Antonio native recalled. "I did what I had to do to survive."

        The problem, he says, was a complete contempt for authority. Faced with a lifetime of guards and parole officers, Ibarra always hated being told what to do. Released from prison for the eighth time in 2003, he finally met someone worth listening to.

        "I would say he's the ultimate authority," Ibarra said of God.

        The man who made their introduction, Cipriano Martinez, is a program coordinator and chaplain for Bexar County Detention Ministries Inc., a nonprofit group devoted to renewing the lives of people like Ibarra.

        The ministry is one of the nonprofit organizations the San Antonio Express-News is featuring in its annual Grace of Giving series, which runs daily through Christmas.

        It serves about 3,000 people every year, offering Christian guidance alongside programs in substance abuse prevention and anger management. The goal is to turn clients in Bexar County jails toward the Lord and thus the law.

        Funded primarily by local churches, the ministry needs about $100,000 this year to continue its level of care. Beyond money for its programs, the group also is collecting gifts for 70 children of its clients.

        The ministry also seeks to provide food, shelter and employment to those like Ibarra who are thrust from prison walls into the free world. According to program director Brother Charles Fucik, the numbers are heartening: Only about 15 percent of the group's clients return to jail.

        "Society doesn't open its doors very well to them. We may not be able to open the door all the way, but at least we can crack it so they can get their foot in," Fucik said.

        Martinez, 55, the chaplain who opened Ibarra's ears, is a man with his own dark past.

        Locked for years in a cycle of anger and addiction, he saw an unexpected opening in 1988 while imprisoned for possessing drugs.

        Another inmate pestered him to attend a Bible study given by a chaplain from BCDM, and Martinez finally relented. He says he was floored by the sermon's effect on him.

        "All of a sudden, there was a peace," he said. "It was a spiritual thing. I just felt like a feather."

        Released from prison in 1990, Martinez went to work for BCDM four years later. Today, the only trace that remains of the old darkness runs down Martinez's forearm in the faded green ink of a dragon — an ancient tattoo he once paid someone in drugs to etch.

        Ibarra speaks of serenity as well, manifested these days in the freedom to sit by the San Antonio River and look up at the foliage instead of over his shoulder for police officers.

        He suffered a relapse with heroin in August, but since then, Ibarra says, he has returned to listening to something other than his cravings.

        "I just feel his presence," Ibarra said of God. "I've done quite a few bad things in my life. I feel he forgave me for that. He took all those things away from me. He gave me peace."

        BCDM may be contacted at (210) 299-4540 or
        by mail at 503 San Pedro, San Antonio, 78212.

        Online at:
        Grace of Giving

        Dianne Thole: Angel Tree Angel
        An All-Year Ministry

        by Linda Owen

        Dianne Thole is passionate about Angel Tree Ministry. She believes in the effectiveness of the Prison Fellowship program, which strives to break the cycle of crime by tending to those most likely to turn to crime and violence — the children of prisoners. That's why Thole trains volunteers from all over the city. She also decided that her Angel Tree ministry would not end at Christmas.

        For years Thole has put up the Angel Tree at Shepherd King Lutheran Church. When names are channeled to her and other participating churches from the Angel Tree offices, names are printed on paper angels that are placed as ornaments on a Christmas tree. In her congregation and those all over the city, people who pick a name donate the gift or the $20-25 to pay for it.

        "Before putting up the tree, we contact the families and ask for a list of possible gifts," Thole explains. "At Shepherd King Lutheran we invite the family to a Christmas party at our church -- a smorgasbord with lots of food. There's usually so much they get to take leftovers home."

        The rest of the gifts are delivered by church members shortly before Christmas. In San Antonio, nearly 4,000 children will be receiving gifts this year. Each child will be given two gifts — a toy and an article of clothing. Older kids request cosmetics, aftershave, CDs, hair ornaments, or Walkman-type players.

        Along with the gifts, Angel Tree volunteers deliver the message of God's unconditional love.

        "The children are told, "This is a present from your father or mother in prison — in the name of Jesus. They wanted to buy you a Christmas present but couldn't, so they asked us to get you something from them,'" Thole says. "Then we remind them that God thinks they're special."

        Many of the gifts come with a personal note from the incarcerated parent, helping to reunite the parent and child. Sometimes these gifts are the only ones the children get all year.

        "We consider this as a way of getting our foot in the door," Thole explains. "The recipients are invited to church. We also hand out gospel booklets that are age appropriate, each telling about Jesus and why we celebrate Christmas. Ages 2-6 get coloring books depicting Bible stories. The caregiver is also given a little booklet of spiritual quotes, prayers, and stories of comfort."

        Angel Tree All Year

        Not only has Thole been delivering Christmas gifts to at-risk kids for over a decade, she also ministers to the families on her list throughout the year.

        Thole was the first Angel Tree representative to begin a year-round ministry. After she trained members of other churches for other projects besides Christmas gifts, the national Prison Fellowship headquarters called her for her suggestions in developing their own yearlong program, which includes summer camps and mentors for the children.

        Today many of the 42 Angel Tree ministries in San Antonio continue throughout the year. Thole trains her volunteers to develop a relationship with the families. They provide school supplies, backpacks, and school uniforms. In case of emergency, a needy family is taken to the grocery store. Many, like Thole, write to the prisoners every six weeks and send them daily devotionals and magazines like Guidepost. They send cards to family members on special occasions. Monetary donations are used to buy gift certificates at Wal-Mart and HEB, which are given to each family on Mother's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas — and kept on hand for emergencies through the year.

        "If you're going to do God's work and if you really want to minister to these people, you have to let them know that you're going to be there for them all the time," she says adamantly. " When I call to ask for Christmas wishes, I give them my telephone number and tell them to call me if they need anything. And they do. Sometimes it"s a little thing — but if you don"t come through, they learn that they can"t count on Christians. We're representing Christianity; We're representing Jesus. We mustn't ever forget that."

        This year the Angel Tree volunteers at Shepherd King Lutheran Church will care for 22-26 families, while groups at other churches will minister to the rest.

        "About 25 families is manageable for one group," Thole says. "Some of these families have six children. We want to get to know all the kids and the mothers. In fact, I try to give my volunteers the same families every year, so they can maintain a rapport with them."

        Thole feels that she has been blessed abundantly by her work with Angel Tree. "I come home from visiting these families and literally get on my knees and thank God for everything He's given me," she says. Her involvement has helped her to realize God's concern and provision for each of us and has taught her to give her worries over to the Lord.

        This year Thole's biggest challenge is finding more churches to participate in the program. At present there are still hundreds of children whose names have not been claimed by a church, which means they may spend Christmas without a present.

        "There's still time for me to train the volunteers from new churches," Thole says. "We also need people to donate Christmas gifts, put things together, wrap the gifts, and load and unload cars, too. I believe that God will provide," she adds. "He always does."

        As always, Throle is waiting for the telephone to ring. "God always sends me what I need," she says.

        For donations and information, telephone Dianne Thole at 545-4426. Read about the Prison Fellowship at

        Linda Owen Contributing Writer/Online Editor

        Linda Owen is a regular writer on faith, retirement, travel, and general interest subjects for a variety of newspapers and magazines, both secular and Christian. She received her B.S. in Education and Journalism from SWTSC and a Master of Divinity Degree from Perkins School of Theology (SMU). Before seminary, she taught English and Media Communications at Churchill High School. After seminary, she worked on staff at churches in Dallas, Cotulla, and San Antonio. Linda teaches a weekly Bible study at University United Methodist Church.

        See Linda's web site: Linda's Web Site

        Dianne Throle & Angel Tree child
        All-Year Ministry

        'Brother Bill' eases transition for ex-cons

        Web Posted: 07/23/2006
        Isadora Vail
        Express-News Austin Bureau

        HUNTSVILLE — Bill Kleiber, "Brother Bill" to most, waited quietly at the Greyhound bus station, puffing his menthol cigarettes, eager to tell his story to whomever would listen.

        "Welcome back, brother," he told the first man, a just-released felon walking to the bus stop only two blocks from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Huntsville Unit.

        The man had a red potato sack slung over his shoulder filled with his only belongings: a bus ticket, a check from the state for pocket change, letters and paperwork. He was taken aback for a moment, wondering who the balding, skinny man shaking his hand was.

        The ex-con, who didn't want to reveal his name, had never seen Kleiber and was obviously uncomfortable with their closeness. Kleiber understood the reaction: "All they want to do is stay out of trouble, and they don't know if I am trouble."

        Kleiber pressed on: "I am Bill and I just got out five years ago."

        The mood changed instantly. The free man smiled, more relaxed to know that Kleiber, who has served two sentences, his last one for cocaine possession, knows what it's like to be locked up, and they began to talk about what the next step is for a new life.

        Slowly the man opened up to Kleiber, and a first contact was made.

        It's a scene that occurs often for Kleiber and Emmett Solomon, a retired Texas Department of Criminal Justice chaplain. The men run the Huntsville chapter of the Restorative Justice Ministries Network, a national interfaith organization that helps ex-offenders return to society.

        As part of the 12-year-old organization, Kleiber goes to the bus stop to be the released inmates' first contact and gives them phone numbers of places across the state where they can find work, clothing, food or just a compassionate ear.

        Many of the men question Kleiber, who has been meeting inmates for four years, about things the prison didn't answer: When does the bus leave? Can I leave to get something to eat? Will the phone numbers of these people really help or just give me a religious pitch? When do I have to meet my parole officer? How can I call my family?

        The ex-cons wait for hours at the bus stop, looking scared to be out, too afraid to leave, even though the stop faces restaurants and shops. Even though they are free.

        "I feel nervous. It's weird," said Keith Erick Ayala, 27, who served five years for burglary. "This is something I never want to experience again."

        The Brownsville resident looked awkward in the oversized clothes the prison gave him. He stuttered, something he said he had never done and blamed on the prison system.

        "It's the penitentiary getting to me," Ayala said.

        The men admitted the nervousness began long before the prison doors opened, and said the prison system offered no extra help in how to cope with their fear.

        That's where Kleiber and others from the network step in.

        Volunteers go inside the prison unit the night before release to answer some of their many questions about where they can go and who will be waiting for them.

        Not all questions were answered, but the prisoners were able to get a better idea of what to expect and get advice on how to avoid ending up behind bars again. Unfortunately, statistics show six out of 10 will return to prison within two years.

        Kleiber said under his breath, "I have seen some of them three or four times before."

        The main idea of the organization, Solomon said, is to do what the state of Texas doesn't. The re-entry process can be shocking to someone who has been in prison more than a decade.

        Solomon called the Texas prison system a "monstrosity" and said the prisons' only purpose was to give temporary relief to county prisons.

        "We set prisoners up for failure when they are put on probation," Solomon said. "It is close to impossible for someone to complete 10 years of probation with no trouble."

        A prison spokeswoman declined to respond to the complaints from the network and prisoners, but praised the group for its work.

        "The services provided to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by the Restorative Justice Ministries Network are invaluable," said Michelle Lyons, public information officer for TDCJ. "These volunteers provide a true service to the inmates, encouraging them to get on the right track after their release and, hopefully, strengthening their resolve to stay out of prison."

        One of the groups the network links felons to is Barabbas Ministries in San Antonio. Charley Mann, a former police officer, is part of Barabbas and meets with the former inmates when they call.

        "There is a huge need and a lot of ministries in the prisons but not a whole lot outside," Mann said, adding that the network seems to be cutting the recidivism rate. "The first RJMN I went to was sort of humbling because they (the inmates) treated me like a special guest."

        Rueben Martinez of San Antonio was in Huntsville a second time to pick up his brother who violated his probation. He said this trip was better because of the restorative justice network's connections inside the prison. The group helped set up a visitors center across the street from the unit, and was able to give him a time when his brother would be released. Last time he had to wait for hours outside with no information.

        For those whose families didn't come, they walked to the Greyhound station, where Brother Bill waited for them.

        Kleiber recited many verses from memory to the men and told them how he found his calling.

        He began reading the Bible while he was incarcerated the second time. He completed a Bible course and the network sent him a new Bible. When he got out, he asked Solomon how he could be a part of the network.

        Jose Luis de la Garza spent 10 years in prison for arson. Using broken Spanish, Kleiber was able to communicate with him, learning that de la Garza wanted to go home to Laredo, get a job and lead a normal life. He didn't know that more than 250 occupations in Texas will reject him because he now carries the felon label.

        Kleiber didn't sugarcoat the harsh reality de la Garza faces. He told de la Garza that for the first five days he is out, he will be "on a high," and then reality will set in: "Nobody's going to hire you and nobody's going to let you live in their apartments because they are scared of you."

        He handed de la Garza a list of phone numbers in Laredo where he might be able to find work. Without looking, de la Garza slipped the paper in his red potato sack.

        Afterward Brother Bill gathered everyone for a prayer and then the ex- cons filled the waiting buses, not waiting for further directions. Many of them were emotional, noticeably trying to control their feelings.

        "Praise the Lord I'm free, I've got no more chains holding me down. Thank the Lord I'm free," Brother Bill, knowing all too well what lies ahead, sang and waved as the buses rolled away.

        Brother Bill

        Chaplain serves Muslims and growing number of converts in 23 Texas prisons

        Web Posted: 07/16/2006 10:52 PM CDT
        Lisa Marie Gómez
        Express-News Staff Writer

        BURNET — Imam Omar Shakir walks into a white cinderblock room and greets a group of women wearing matching white jumpsuits.

        "As-salaamu-alaikum" — Peace be on you, he says in a gentle Arabic voice. "As-salaamu-alaikum," they reply.

        The women are glad to see him and are eager to talk to him about their faith. Shakir, 47, is one of four chaplains who oversee the Islamic faith program for the 110 prisons in the Texas prison system.

        Shakir traveled more than 100 miles north on U.S. 281 out of San Antonio to the all-female Halbert Unit in Burnet, northwest of Austin, where the eight women were incarcerated.

        Four were Muslim, and the others were considering converting to Islam — a trend that Shakir and others say is on the rise inside the prison system — a trend consistent with what's going on outside the prison walls.

        It is estimated that every fifth person in the world is a Muslim, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States — with approximately 8 million living here.

        In the Texas prison system, there are approximately 7,500 Muslims, prison officials say. It is believed most of them converted to Islam after they were incarcerated.

        For some, being behind bars can be like a refuge — an ideal time for spiritual reflection, a perfect place for finding religion and appreciating its value. "We have social diseases that I think religion has an answer for," said Shakir, referring to problems in society such as broken homes, child molestation or child abuse.

        Without having religious fundamental principles, he said, people "shut down emotionally," lose their moral compass and are able to commit crimes without remorse.

        As Shakir sees it, in a world filled with those who have both lost their moral compass and are beginning down a road of spiritual examination, he fits right in.

        "I love to teach the religion and see the lights go off in their eyes," Shakir said.

        The conversion

        Kirk Spencer was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1958, but his family moved to Schenectady, N.Y., before his first birthday. It was there in 1974, at the age of 15, that he became curious about Islam through his martial arts teacher, who was Muslim.

        So he went against his parents' wishes and made the conversion, which in his case, meant changing his name to Omar Quadir Adib Shakir.

        Changing his name was symbolic of the restoration of a new person, he said, and is common among people who convert to Islam.

        "Whether we like to talk about this or not, we do have the ugly past of slavery in this nation, and Kirk Spencer is not my original name," he said. "That's the name that I embraced from my slave master."

        As a first-generation Muslim, he has the opportunity to "start a legacy" and choose his own name.

        Omar means surviving or long-living. Quadir means one who is patient and steadfast. Adib means literary man, refined and serious-minded. And Shakir means one who is grateful and who gives thanks.

        "I'm still growing into my name," said Shakir, who is married with three children, ages 23, 21 and 16.

        The conversion, he said, changed his life.

        "Islam is not just a set of rituals, but a complete and total way of life that reconciles the human being with their original nature," he said.

        Shakir puts up to 2,000 miles on his car every month even when he stays within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio. But some of the 23 prisons he's responsible for are in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, so when he travels there, which is about two or three times a year, his mileage goes way up.

        His ministry doesn't stop there.

        He also is the imam — the leader of prayer — at a Muslim congregation for 19 families called Masjid Bilal.

        It's easy for him to understand why someone would become a Muslim. "The human being has a basic fundamental nature and Islam appeals to that because the human being is not just physical, but he's spiritual and intellectual, as well," he said.

        The people he touches

        Still, it isn't easy being a Muslim in prison. Curtis Elliott, 29, was raised a Baptist but never really felt that his religion fit him.

        In 1994, he was convicted for possession of a controlled substance and served 10 months in prison in Cotulla.

        There, he met a Muslim inmate who explained the religion, which made a lot of sense to him. "I thought, 'This is the truth, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is the truth,'" said Elliott. "Right then and there, I thought, 'This is for me.'"

        He prayed five times a day, which is standard for Muslims, and he even participated in the fasting ritual during Ramadan.

        And he felt no hunger pains.

        "I wanted (to convert) so badly that I didn't even notice it (hunger)," he said. "I didn't even feel any fatigue."

        When he was released at 19, he was ready for his second chance at life. He moved in with a cousin and eventually strayed from his Islamic beliefs. "I allowed the influences of the environment to make me go astray, and I strayed badly," he said.

        Eventually, he got in trouble again with the law — this time for dealing with counterfeit money. Now, he's serving a six-year sentence.

        He feels strongly that, had he stayed on track with his new religion, he wouldn't be in prison today. "There are distractions in here, too, but you do have a little more time to think and do some re-evaluation on your life and see where you went wrong," he said.

        There are times that fellow inmates hassle him and poke fun at the way he prays, usually on a rug that he stands and bends down on while reciting his prayers in Arabic.

        But the hardest part is the diet.

        Pork isn't allowed, and in prison, it's served sometimes as often as four times a week. "The substitute is peanut butter, and I'm not talking about peanut butter with jelly and a tall glass of cold milk," he said. "After a while you get real tired of peanut butter."

        He and the 11 other Muslim men at the Dominguez unit look forward to visits from Shakir. "He's a patient man who knows his stuff," Elliott said. "He does his best to answer any questions I have about my faith."

        Back at the Halbert unit in Burnet, the women wait to listen and learn from Shakir.

        Shakir treats the inmates with great respect and answers their questions patiently.

        For those who aren't Muslim, the meeting serves as a sort of basic training for all things Muslim.

        "It's very gratifying to see men and women under your tutelage evolve and grow and change internally," he said. "When they leave the system and marry and buy homes and have a much more healthy and productive life live, you know you've done your job."

        Muslim Inmates


        Prayer in Prisons Now Unconstitutional

        Rebekah Montgomery
        Contributing Writer

        Evangelical? If you run a soup kitchen, prison ministry, or a home for the mentally disabled, to stay operational youll need to rethink or hide that label if U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratts ruling against Prison Fellowship Ministries InnerChange is allowed to stand. Otherwise, it could very well cost your ministry a lot of money in punitive damages, or even completely shut down your outreach.

        A great deal of Judge Pratts negative ruling centers on his own concocted definition of evangelical Christianity, said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship (PFM). His (Pratts) definition will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, because of the erroneous nature of his definition and its caricature-like quality.

        According to Judge Pratts definition, you'll be surprised to learn that.

        Tend to be anti-sacramental, which means it downplays the traditional sacramental Christian events baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, ordination, etc. as appropriate ways to interact or meet with God Whereas traditional, organized religious groups, such as Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, and Lutherans, employ a structured, highly liturgical style of worship, Evangelical Christian worship is free form with individual pastors given authority to determine how services are planned. For instance, Evangelical Christians have embraced contemporary music forms and multi-media presentations (Case 4:03-cv-90074- RP-TJS Document 367). Does that mean contemporary music and multi-media presentations may threaten the constitutionality of charitable programs? It appears so, if Judge Pratt s ruling is allowed to stand.

        Pratt also ruled:
        The Prison Fellowship and InnerChange belief in the substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus, which reflects a legalistic understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus, likewise, is not shared by many Christians Belief in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is also not shared by many other, non-Evangelical Christians Belief in an imminent, personal, and visible second coming of Jesus Christ, as held by Prison Fellowship and InnerChange, does not comport with the belief held by other non-Evangelical Christians that, if a second coming of Christ occurs, its nature is unknown, or is more spiritualized (Case 4:03-cv-90074- RP-TJS Document 367). And possibly most egregious of all Evangelical activities, Pratt ruled - by definition of what is believed - everything they do is construed to convert someone and is therefore unconstitutional.

        Pratts ruling came about because of a suit filed in U. S. District Court in Iowa by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a self-proclaimed Washington D.C. liberty watchdog group, against PFM and InnerChange specifically.

        InnerChange is a highly structured program run by PFM in ten states that receives tax dollars to educate prisoners academically as well as help with job placement and life skills. It is proven by a study (2004 University of Pennsylvania Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society) to dramatically reduce recidivism. While tax monies are used for non-sectarian purposes, 60 percent of InnerChanges budget is made up of donations. But the heart of the suit is InnerChanges bedrock principal that real change comes through the teachings of Jesus Christ, which is now ruled to be a disqualifier for faith-based initiative dollars.

        Said Earley: If this definition is allowed to stand, others lawyers and courts can define Evangelical Christianity in an erroneous and caricature-ish way as trying to convert someone, and set the stage for any evangelical ministry in any setting connected with the government -- whether a soup kitchen or a home for the mentally disabled, Salvation Army, or the services provided by Catholic Charities to adults in public institutions that have requested religious services -- to be ruled against anytime there is a challenge to the established cause.

        In a groundbreaking move, to add more teeth to his ruling and further discourage Evangelical- faith-based partnerships, Pratt has ruled that InnerChange must reimburse $1.7 million to the state of Iowa and that the program be discontinued.

        But the use of tax money by an Evangelical group does not seem to be Pratts bedrock complaint that is religion et al.

        Even if this program in Iowa was fully funded by private dollars, said Earley, in Pratts opinion it would be unconstitutional. This has far-ranging ramifications for any religious group. Were providing religious services and ministry to prisoners. But his ruling means that no one can provide religious services to anyone in a governmental setting, even if it is fully funded by private dollars.

        In essence, the same federal courts that took religion out of the schools are now determined to take religion and hope out of prisons. There is hope that Pratts ruling will be reversed upon appeal. If it is, it will be the only way prisoners in America will have a prayer.

        Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women e- zine, a publisher at Jubilant Press, and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth.

        She can be contacted for comments or speaking engagements at

        Copyright 2002,
        All rights reserved.

        Push-Up Foundation offers hand up in life
        Group helps clients beat addictions and stay out of jail.

        By Virgil Dickson
        Monday, July 17, 2006

        As a teenager, Louis Holley had many role models for a life of crime. His parents were alcoholics, and the grandmother who raised him was a bootlegger. He has been in and out of jail most of his adult life for drug-related offenses.

        Now 58, Holley is getting help learning how to stay out of trouble.

        "I knew how to make it in the penitentiary, " said Holley, who has been out of jail since 2002. "I didn't know how to make it in the free world clean and sober."

        The Push-Up Foundation, a local transitional home and rehabilitation center, has helped Holley adjust to life outside jail. The nonprofit group helps its clients, not all of whom are felons, overcome their addictions.

        More than 85 percent of felons have substance abuse problems, which makes it difficult for them to find work and to live drug-free lives, said Ben Ogbodiegwu, the foundation's director. Ogbodiegwu, a former a social worker for Wackenhut Corrections Corp., co-founded Push-Up in March 1995.

        The foundation has licensed personnel to counsel clients about their addictions. They test clients twice a week to make sure they stay sober. The homeless get the same help finding housing, food and jobs that the felony clients receive.

        Push-Up operates on $600,000 a year money from the city, the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless and has contracts with organizations across the city to provide work for its clients.

        Currently, they clean the cars used by the Austin Housing Authority.

        "The situation has been win-win," said Jim Hargrove, the housing authority's chief executive officer. No matter the clients' background, "I always rely on the Push-Up Foundation."

        Having a job could be a key factor in a person not going back into a life of crime, the program's organizers said.

        Laura Smith, a caseworker at the Crime Prevention Institute, a nonprofit organization housed at the Travis County Jail, said there is a need for more programs like Push-Up.

        According to the Adult Probation Department, about 52 percent of the 6,054 felons on probation in Travis County have drug-related offenses.

        "If all the prisoners with substance abuse issues wanted treatment, I don't think the Austin community would have the capacity to do that," Smith said.

        Many ex-convicts such as Holley come from poor communities and have limited access to education and few work skills, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

        "If you grow up in an environment where all you know is doing wrong and breaking the law, it's going to be a miracle that you don't grow up breaking the law," Holley said.

        Part of Holley's probation required him to go to the Push-Up Foundation. He began working at the foundation's car wash and soon worked his way up to supervisor.

        "I ain't never supervised at nothing but how to break the law. But (this job) wasn't just given to me; I worked hard for it," Holley said. "Push-Up gave me a chance. Convicts don't get too many chances."

        Not all of Push-Up's clients started off poor. Austin McElroy was a lead salesman at a printing firm and a Little League basketball coach. But one day in 2004, he said, he walked out of his $250,000 house, away from his son and his wife of 22 years, and into a crack cocaine habit.

        McElroy said his addiction cost him everything, and he spent several months in jail. After seeing the same guys returning to jail for drug-related crimes, he realized he didn't want to suffer the same fate. He was referred to the Push-Up program after his release.

        "They really want you to make a change," McElroy said. "We got 20 brothers here trying to help each other out. They learn from me, and I also learn from them. This is heaven. This is a godsend. (Push-Up) gives you a chance to learn how to take care yourself."

        Holley agrees.

        "I don't make a lot of money, but it's honest money, and it stays with me longer than any money that I ever hustled for. And I owe it all to this place here."; 445-3629

        Barber prison ministry spreads
        the gospel and the wealth

        Charity pays for leader's top-tier salary,
        family jobs, high school football titles

        July 16, 2006

        By TIM MacMAHON and GARY JACOBSON / The Dallas Morning News

        Mike Barber Ministries tells the IRS that it is devoted to spreading the gospel in prisons throughout the United States and abroad. There's no question that it does a good deal of that.

        But there also seems to be no question that Mike Barber Ministries has been good to Mr. Barber, who started the tax-exempt organization after a solid NFL career.

        Two years ago, the high-profile charity paid its founder $236,500 in salary and benefits, one of the highest pay packages in the nation among similar religious charities. His wife, who worked part time, received $118,000. The ministry also pays three other members of Mr. Barber's family. Mr. Barber declined to discuss their salaries.

        In addition to saving souls, Mr. Barber's ministry is dedicated to winning high school football games. Over the years, Mr. Barber and his ministry lavishly supported athletic programs at Cedar Hill's Trinity Christian School and Arlington's Grace Prep Academy.

        Both relationships ended when Mr. Barber disagreed with administrators. "He gave a lot of money, and he wanted control over football," former Trinity Christian principal Ben Flores said.

        Each school discovered that there is a downside to Mr. Barber's support. When he leaves, so does his money. After Grace Prep's headmaster dismissed him in May, Mr. Barber took back equipment and said his support would go elsewhere.

        "Unfortunately, I'm not a part of Grace Prep anymore," he said.

        On the field, Mr. Barber created a private school powerhouse at Grace Prep that won five state titles and produced several Division I college players. He also received one of the sternest sanctions ever administered by the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, which said he gave athletes improper inducements.

        Off the field, he has been cited in two assault cases. One case is still pending; a grand jury declined to indict in the other.

        From 1997 to 2004, records show, Mr. Barber's ministry donated more than $460,000 to Trinity Christian and Grace Prep and related organizations. Mr. Barber says he also donated personal funds.

        Mr. Barber and several ministry employees volunteered as coaches. They used ministry offices for meetings and tutoring. The production crew for Mr. Barber's evangelistic TV program videotaped Grace Prep games and made highlight reels.

        Mr. Barber is proud of the football program's success. "We really had it going," he said. "We were probably, at the max, two years away from being able to play anybody in the country."

        But that all came to a nasty end in May, when he was dismissed.

        During recent interviews with The Dallas Morning News, Mr. Barber talked about his ministry, his football and coaching career and his private life.

        He talked about rebelling against religion during his early NFL days and moonlighting as a bouncer just so he could fight. He talked of becoming born again and hearing a voice that called him to prison ministry.

        But as questions started to focus on the ministry's finances, Mr. Barber stopped talking. He referred financial questions to John Heard Jr., a Houston attorney and member of the ministry's board.

        "We're not interested in going over that with you," Mr. Heard said when contacted by phone. Mr. Heard did say that the ministry's donors are aware of the resources going to high school football.

        The ministry's Web site has several links for donations but no mention of supporting high school football.

        Later, The News submitted a list of questions, mainly financial, to Mr. Barber. His assistant said Mr. Barber had no comment.

        As a tax-exempt charity, Mike Barber Ministries files an annual return with the IRS. The News reviewed returns since 1997, archived online by GuideStar, which collects information about nonprofit groups.

        At the request of The News, GuideStar ranked the compensation of all officers and directors of charities in Mr. Barber's category, Protestant religious organizations. Most of the information came from filings for 2003 and 2004, with a few from earlier years.

        Among officers at about 4,000 groups that filed returns, Mr. Barber's 2003 pay package ranked 13th highest; his wife, DeAnne's, was 93rd. Five people with higher compensation than Mr. Barber worked for smaller organizations. The average compensation of a chief executive of a religious charity is about $97,000, according to a 2005 study by Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities.

        Their 2004 return is not yet in GuideStar's digitized database. Using the compensation listed in that return, Mr. Barber would still be 13th, and his wife would move to 84th. Their 2005 return is not yet filed.

        The ministry provides a car for Mr. Barber. He drives a Mercedes.

        "I give so much of that away," Mr. Barber said of his pay. "If somebody wants to judge me for that [salary], go for it."

        From 1997 to 2004, the records show, annual ministry revenue ranged from about $1.7 million to $2.1 million. Most of the revenue went for salaries (there are 15 employees) and other expenses related to the ministry's prison programs. Some money was donated to other organizations.

        Football days
        The offices of Mr. Barber's ministry are in a DeSoto strip shopping center. Inmate artwork is displayed prominently. A hallway leading to private offices features poster-size photos of Grace Prep football.

        Brandon Barber quarterbacked his dad's first two Grace Prep teams and was offensive coordinator last season. He said he experienced his own religious calling in college and recently founded Faze 2, a branch of his father's ministry focusing on youths.

        Brandon said his father was "cut deep" by the Grace Prep breakup. "It's like you've taken a chunk of his heart from him, because he cares so much for that program and those kids," he said.

        Brandon's wife, Kristen, is also employed by the ministry, as is his sister, Brittany.

        Mr. Barber's players and their parents praise him for his football knowledge and his concern for them. He works hard to help his players get college scholarships.

        "He's their boss, but he's also their friend," said Dewayne Johnson, father of two starting linemen on last year's team.

        Mr. Barber's football career started in the small East Texas town of White Oak, where he was a star quarterback. He played wide receiver at Louisiana Tech and was a second-round pick of the Houston Oilers in the 1976 NFL draft.

        "The football part doesn't surprise me," ex-Oiler Carl Mauck said of Mr. Barber's post-NFL pursuits. "Now, the preaching ..."

        Mr. Barber married DeAnne, his college sweetheart, in 1975. They divorced in 1977 and remarried three years later after Mr. Barber said he reversed "a three-year spiral straight down" by dedicating his life to God.

        About that time, Mr. Barber said, he made his first prison visit. "I had to get honest with myself," he said. "The difference between them and me is they got caught."

        After he retired from the NFL in 1986, Mr. Barber went into prison ministry full time.

        He holds services and goes cell to cell. His wife sings. His TV program, PRO-Claim, is filmed at prisons and shown on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

        "I didn't realize how much good he was doing with those people until I went up there with him," said Bum Phillips, who coached Mr. Barber in Houston and has volunteered with the ministry.

        'Passion for his vision'
        Despite his growing ministry, football was never far from Mr. Barber's mind. In 1996, he accepted a volunteer position at Trinity Christian.

        Mr. Barber said he left Trinity Christian two years later after disagreements with administrators.

        Mr. Flores, the former Trinity Christian principal, filed an assault report against Mr. Barber with Cedar Hill police. He said Mr. Barber shoved him into bleachers in the school's gym in May 1998. Mr. Flores filed the report 13 months after the incident. A grand jury did not indict Mr. Barber.

        In an interview, Mr. Flores said Mr. Barber believed some teachers were too tough in grading athletes.

        Jim Hennesy, pastor of Trinity Church and chairman of the school's board, was present during the incident with Mr. Flores. In an interview, he said that Mr. Barber "was justified in his actions." Mr. Flores left the school soon after the incident.

        Mr. Barber did not respond to a written question about the incident.

        "Mr. Barber is a great leader," Mr. Hennesy said. "Like anyone who is a great leader, he has strong passion for his vision."

        In 1997 and 1998, Mike Barber Ministries donated $273,309 to Trinity, records show.

        Several Trinity players transferred to Grace Prep with Mr. Barber. Head football coach Buddy Timme also followed. Mr. Hennesy said the departures concerned him but called them a testament to Mr. Barber's "influence" and "quality of ministry."

        Mr. Hennesy said that, under the right circumstances, he would consider taking Mr. Barber back. "That's just speaking for me," Mr. Hennesy said, adding that he wasn't sure his board would agree.

        Barber's winning ways
        Grace Prep, which began playing 11-man football in 1996, won state titles in Mr. Barber's first two seasons. Chris Hall, his nephew, was athletic director.

        After leaving Trinity, Mr. Timme worked for the ministry and volunteered as Grace Prep's defensive coordinator. In 1999, he earned $50,127 from the ministry, records show. In 2000, as prison director, he earned $61,444. Mr. Timme also was head coach that year, while Mr. Barber was an assistant. The next season, Mr. Timme took another job.

        Winning wasn't the only reason Mr. Barber's teams attracted attention. TAPPS suspended him for the 2001 season and put the team on three years' probation, including a one-season playoff ban.

        When the penalties were announced, TAPPS said Grace Prep offered improper inducements to some athletes who transferred from Trinity, without specifying the inducements. TAPPS executive director Edd Burleson said recently that Mr. Barber violated rules by paying tuition for some transfers. TAPPS adopted what is known as the "Mike Barber Rule": Those who follow a coach to another school are ineligible for a year.

        Mr. Burleson also said he feared athletes would choose Grace Prep because of the expensive uniforms and equipment.

        "If you're a volunteer, and you're basically paying for everything, how much control does the school have over that individual?" Mr. Burleson said.

        Mr. Barber said that he did not violate TAPPS rules and that the organization targeted him because of Grace Prep's success. He said the publicity hurt his ministry.

        Mr. Barber originally linked his dismissal from Grace Prep to his desire to compete with the largest TAPPS schools. He said administrators did not want to hire more full-time coaches and make other changes to compete at that level.

        However, first-year headmaster Rick Allen said he supported the move to the higher classification. The real dispute that led to Mr. Barber's dismissal, Mr. Allen said, began after the school discovered that a player had cheated on a test. The school's governing board ruled that the student could not return to Grace Prep in the fall.

        Mr. Barber said Mr. Allen promised that the player could return to school. He acknowledged that he confronted Mr. Allen after the meeting and then was dismissed. Mr. Barber said he was upset because the athlete was wronged, not that his team lost a star.

        Mr. Allen would not discuss the confrontation. In his April newsletter, Mr. Allen wrote of Mr. Barber, "We are so blessed to have you at GPA!" The ministry donated $193,323 to Grace Prep from 1998 to 2004, records show.

        Second assault case
        The second assault complaint came just before Mr. Barber's dismissal.

        On April 23, DeSoto police responded to a 911 hang-up call from the Barber home. According to the police report, Mr. and Mrs. Barber argued in their car about " 'her place' in their business." As they got out of the car, she told police, she swung her purse at Mr. Barber.

        Initially, Mr. Barber told police that nothing had happened. Then he said he raised his hand in defense and got it caught in her hair, which apparently pulled out her earring.

        Mrs. Barber said she went inside and dialed 911 but then changed her mind and hung up.

        When police arrived, they noticed blood on her ear, eyebrow, forefinger, hand and chest. Mrs. Barber said she did not want to file charges. Mr. Barber told police he would never hurt his wife and never had. Police booked him for family violence misdemeanor assault.

        The case is still active.

        Neither Mr. Barber nor his wife responded to written questions about the incident.

        Supplying equipment
        Grace Prep, already struggling to repay large debts, is trying to replace football equipment. Mr. Barber said he would donate the equipment to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he helped start a football program.

        "We owned it as a ministry," Brandon Barber said of the equipment. "Grace Prep was a part of our ministry. We want to take what we've got and give it to something we can be a part of."

        Mr. Barber won't be coaching this fall. He said he would focus on his ministry, travel to watch his former players in college and work on a new business.

        He recently became a senior director for Ignite, a multilevel marketing company that sells electricity. He said he hopes to make enough money so he can forgo his ministry salary.

        As for high school football, Mr. Barber said, there will "probably be a day" when he returns. "But it will be somewhere where I know I'm on the same page with the administration, " he said.

        Is he considering founding his own school?

        "You could be getting warm," he said.


        Age: 53
        Hometown: White Oak, Texas

        College: Played at Louisiana Tech from 1972-75. Named Division II All-American as a junior and senior. Scored on five of his six catches as a sophomore and became a full-time starter the next season. Finished his career with 1,226 yards and 17 touchdowns on 57 receptions.

        Pro: Drafted in the second round with the 48th overall pick by the Houston Oilers in 1976. Moved from wide receiver to tight end and spent the first six years of his career in Houston. Led the Oilers with career-high 59 catches for 712 yards and five touchdowns in 1980. Played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1982-84 and for the final five games of the 1985 season. Played 10 games for the Denver Broncos in 1985. Retired with 222 catches for 2,788 yards and 17 touchdowns. Had another 24 catches for 422 yards and two touchdowns in playoff games.

        Online at:

        Imprisoned Ministry

        The future of Prison Fellowship's rehabilitation program,
        and other faith-based social services,
        are in the hands of an appeals court.

        by Jason Bailey
        posted 07/14/2006

        Last month's federal court decision declaring unconstitutional a prison ministry run by Prison Fellowship has placed the status of other faith-based initiatives in question.

        Fallout for other Christian social services is limited for now while Prison Fellowship appeals the ruling.

        The appeals process could reach the Supreme Court.

        In 1999, the state of Iowa partnered with InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a biblically based rehabilitation program designed by Prison Fellowship (PF), to reduce recidivism rates. Inmates from nine state prisons are eligible to apply for a transfer into the two- to three-year program.

        U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt issued his verdict in a 140-page decision following a three-year trial that included a personal visit to the facilities of the disputed program. He ordered InnerChange to disband within 60 days and return about $1.5 million in funding it had received from the state of Iowa.

        PF president Mark Earley said the organization is preparing to post bond and file an appeal with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he is confident the judgment will be overturned. PF says that advocates of InnerChange and its upcoming appeal include Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Ted Haggard, James Dobson, and Rick Warren.

        Earley said Pratt overstepped his constitutional bounds by ruling the program unconstitutional even if it accepted no state funds. Earley said the judge ignored the voluntary nature of InnerChange, which allows inmates to quit without punishment. "Based on this judge's ruling, the only way to improve this program is to move it out of the prison," said Earley. "And there are not many escapees that we can minister to."

        Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) filed the lawsuit in 2003 on behalf of inmates who said InnerChange discriminated against non-Christians. "It certainly makes sense that Christians want to help prisoners," said AU executive director Barry Lynn. "What does not make sense is for the state to pay.

        The government simply cannot support and promote programs that are essentially religious efforts to provide service and convert people to a particular religion at the same time."

        Secular service, faith-based approachInnerChange embraces a transformative "rather than therapeutic" model that was developed by Charles Colson.

        Inmates who participate in InnerChange can attend Bible studies and worship services along with non-religious classes such as substance abuse counseling, and academic and life skills training.

        In 1997, when President George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he oversaw the introduction of InnerChange in his home state.

        PF leaders met with President Bush in the White House in 2003 to discuss the results of a University of Pennsylvania study that concluded InnerChange graduates were half as likely as non- participants to be reincarcerated within two years of their release.

        But when the study sample was broadened to include both graduates and those who dropped out of the program, InnerChange participants were reincarcerated at the same rate as the control group that did not participate in any rehabilitation program.
        (The program has a 58 percent dropout rate.)

        After meeting with PF, Bush told then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to look into the possibility of implementing InnerChange in federal prisons. Bush also proposed a $400 million, four-year initiative to reduce recidivism in his 2004 State of the Union address.

        The Bureau of Prisons is currently running a multi-faith rehabilitation program in five federal prisons, but it has temporarily withdrawn its request to implement a single-faith rehabilitation program in six federal prisons, for which $3 million had been appropriated.

        Separating out the sectarian

        Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, believes the InnerChange case is "the most significant case to date" for faith-based initiatives, because it may lead to legislation in Congress that will mandate additional oversight. Haynes says state authorities should perform "audits" to make sure faith-based programs are not using state money for sectarian purposes.

        "Right now, there are a lot of religious organizations that fall into this gray area," Haynes said. "There are programs where it is really difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is the religious and what is the secular part of the program."

        The state of Iowa funded 40 percent of the InnerChange program.

        Those funds paid for InnerChange' s designated "non-sectarian" expenses such as office supplies, an employee appreciation dinner, and 82 percent of the program director's salary.

        InnerChange programs in Arkansas dedicated one day before the Iowa rulings and Texas are privately funded, while programs in Kansas and Minnesota receive some state funding. About 1,100 inmates are currently enrolled in InnerChange programs.

        Earley said that the recent ruling strikes a blow to the religious liberty of inmates and emphasized that Muslims, Wiccans, and Druids have all graduated from the program, which does not require inmates to convert to Christianity.

        "Governments don't have the money or the willpower to provide rehabilitative services for prisoners that work," Earley said. "By definition, their programs are secular. If they are denied the opportunity to partner with faith-based organizations, we are in for a darker future when it comes to the prison system in America.

        Imprisoned Ministry

        June 17, 2006
        All welcome to rumble in to Lubbock's Biker Church

        Ministry targets motorcyclists for its nontraditional weekly worship
        By BETH PRATT
        Lubbock Avalanche-journal

        LUBBOCK - A red concrete floor and multicolored disco lighting create atmosphere in the large room with a low stage in one corner.

        A dozen or more plastic round tables surrounded by plastic lawn chairs complete the cafe-style scene. A religious band sets up drums, including bongos, and tunes instruments.

        "Call us the Bike Church Band on Thursday nights," the musicians quip. On Sundays the band is the praise and worship team at Turning Point Community Church.

        As the players warm up, others put out snacks in a kitchen area and a small pail of unshelled peanuts on each table. Votive candles on the tables are lighted.

        Outside, a sign identifies the barn as The ROC, and a message-display board reads: "Biker Church, 7 p.m. Thursday."

        A cloud to the northeast indicates showers might be approaching. Will cloudy skies keep the bikers away? The minutes tick by. About 7:15 p.m., a few people straggle in, each greeted with a hug. Among them is Leman "Butch" Rushing.

        He heard about the Biker Church from a friend at the Rip Griffin truck stop, and this was his third visit to the fledgling ministry.

        "We have pretty good services out here," he says.

        Rushing is still getting his bike ready, and he is excited that in a few days he will be certified as a chaplain for the Unchained Prison Ministry, a group of bikers who travel to prisons throughout the state to give their testimonies and hold worship services for inmates.

        Occasionally, a member preparing for the service walks outside and peers down the road, willing the motorcyclists to appear.

        Finally, they hear the distinctive sounds of the bikes approaching. In just a few minutes a row of motorcycles red, yellow, black is parked in front of the building.

        Standing around the door, about a dozen bikers visit before going inside. Don Stroud and David Charlebois come from different backgrounds, but they have two things in common they ride motorcycles and do prison ministry throughout the state.

        Stroud started riding when he was 8 and for years raced motorcycles, according to his father, who is called Pop.

        "We used to bang heads," Stroud says, acknowledging that for many years he fit the tough-guy image of biking.

        He is tough now, too, in a different way. He wears a patch on his jacket that says "Outlaws for Jesus Stealing Souls from Satan."

        Pop has sported a cane since he survived an aneurysm. He can't ride a motorcycle now, but he counts it a miracle that he is alive and comes to the services to give thanks to God.

        Stroud has been home this year because of Pop's condition but is looking at getting back on the road soon.

        "We go all over the state to prisons," Stroud says. "I've run 34,000 miles going to prisons, traveling 30 to 39 weeks last year."

        Charlebois, pronounced "Charley boy," was 60 when he started riding. A young-looking 65, he's had to cut back on distance riding because he broke his shoulder in a motorcycle accident. "About an hour is all I ride now," he says, demonstrating that he can't lift his arm above shoulder level. "I have three churches," Charlebois says. He is a member of Heights Fellowship, a part of the praise team at Hope Lutheran Church and now, the Biker Church.

        Charlebois also is the father-in-law of Randy Daniel, founder with Don Kubica of the Biker Church.

        The church meets in a former workshop barn turned into a center for a variety of ministries at The ROC, or Refuge Outreach Center. Kubica and Daniel say they want to create a place where everyone feels welcome. "We try to find different ways of presenting the message sermon or a skit or whatever," Kubica says.

        Since the Biker Church started primarily with family and friends, "we never know who is going to be here," Kubica says.

        Roger Reno of Amarillo, president of Unchained Prison Ministry, recently spoke at the Biker Church. His topic was "Wheels of Grace." Kubica has a soft spot for prison ministries.

        "I've got a brother that has been in prison 10 years," he said, "and about two years ago he became a Christian."

        June 6, 2006
        Help Prison Fellowship defend religious freedom today

        Dear Friend,

        Your prayers and support are urgently needed today. In a surprising decision in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday, a federal judge ruled that the Iowa InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a holistic faith-based program, is unconstitutional.

        The courts took God out of America's schools, now they are on the path to take God out of America's prisons. In yet another example of a federal judge antagonistic to religion, this ruling could potentially restrict religious programming of all kinds in prison and have profound effects for the future of religious freedom in general in this country.

        And that's exactly the aim of Barry Lynn and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who initiated this suit against a program known for producing dramatic results in changing the lives of hardened criminals and stopping the revolving door of crime. Lynn, and others in his camp, do not care that if this decision holds it will take away one of the few programs that offers real hope for stemming the tide of habitual crime. Nor do they care that this is a program that works.

        Specifically, the judge ruled Friday that just because the IFI is Christ-centered that it had to be shut down in 60 days even though the vast majority of funds have been privately donated.

        The program can stay open pending appeal, however. And Prison Fellowship and IFI will appealall the way to the Supreme Court if we must. And believe me, Americans United is also prepared to continue this legal battle.

        Why are we prepared to battle all the way to the Supreme Court? It's simple: Prison Fellowship wants to see a level playing field for people of faith. We want prisoners to be able to take part in a programyes, even a religious onethat will help them change their lives for the better. Americans United, on the other hand, wants religion forced out of every aspect of public life, including prisonsregardless of the consequences for those prisoners who volunteer to participate.

        We're convinced that IFI is constitutional and well within the framework of the safeguards of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and so without delay this case will be appealed this week to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pray with us that the 8th Circuit will overturn this decision and protect the rights of all Americans, even those in prison.

        And help us today as Prison Fellowship supports IFI in this costly fight. I cannot overstate how deeply the cost of the lawsuit has already affected our ministry; this year alone expenses have reached one million dollars. Now as we face a prolonged fight, we must know that we have the financial support and prayers of partners like you as we face this additional burden and prepare for the long haul. This fight has ramifications not just for the future of religious freedom in prison, but the future of religious freedom in our country. And like the attack on faith in schools, this suit seeks to uproot faith from prisons as well. Now is the time to stand in the gap. Will you stand with us?

        Please join us by praying and giving financially. Click here to donate today.

        Now is the time we need you.

        In His grace,
        Mark L. Earley
        President, Prison Fellowship

        P.S. This battle may go all the way to the Supreme Court. We're going to need the committed prayers and financial backing of Christians like you who understand what is at stake here as we support IFI in this continued battle. Please pray and give while we have this urgent need.

        Court Rejects Evangelical Prison Plan Over State Aid

        Published: June 3, 2006
        WASHINGTON, June 2 — A federal judge in Iowa ruled Friday that a state-financed evangelical Christian program to help inmates re-enter society was "pervasively sectarian" and violated the separation of church and state.

        The decision has set the stage for an appeals process that is expected to explore more broadly the constitutionality of the Bush administration's religion-based initiative programs, according to plaintiffs, defendants and legal experts.

        Prison programs run by religious groups have increased over the last decade or so, as policy makers, prison and law enforcement officials and prisoner advocates have focused on the high rates of recidivism when inmates return to society, said Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University who is an expert on religion-based initiatives. Proponents of such programs in prisons have said that the transformative experience of religion can counter recidivism.

        In April, the Justice Department announced plans to begin a religious-based program, offered in a single faith, in at least a half-dozen federal prisons, according to legal analysts and critics of the program.

        The case was filed more than three years ago by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the Iowa Department of Corrections and InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an organization affiliated with Prison Fellowship Ministries. Prison Fellowship was founded by Charles W. Colson, a close ally of President Bush and an influential evangelical who went to prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up.

        In his ruling on Friday, Judge Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, said he was not ruling on the efficacy of religious programs in rehabilitating inmates or "the ultimate truthfulness about religion."

        Instead, Judge Pratt ruled that the InnerChange program had violated the separation of church and state by using money from taxpayers to pay for a religious program, one that gave special privileges to inmates who accepted its evangelical Christian teachings and terms.

        "What we had hoped to make clear was that InnerChange was pervasively religious, that it gave special benefits to inmates and that it sought to convert people to Christianity," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "InnerChange denied that, but the judge backed us on all three points. It shows that government-funded religious programs don't have a place in prisons."

        Judge Pratt said that the program had to be halted in 60 days and that InnerChange had to return about $1.5 million it had received from the State of Iowa.

        Those penalties, however, are pending an appeal, which InnerChange plans to file next week at the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, said Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia who is president of Prison Fellowship.

        "I think it is an extreme decision that if allowed to stand strikes a pretty serious blow at the religious freedom of prisoners," Mr. Earley said. "And it strikes an equally destructive blow to rehabilitation efforts in the prisons of America."

        Mr. Earley said he expected the decision to be reversed on appeal, either at the Eighth Circuit or in the Supreme Court.

        Both sides are banking on the possibility that this case could rise through levels of appeal and set precedent about religion-based initiatives, or more significantly, about the separation of church and state, legal experts said.

        Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas in Austin, said of InnerChange's strategy: "I think they're betting on getting to the Supreme Court and that Sam Alito and John Roberts will be there. And they're betting that they have five votes to win."

        Mr. Earley said in a phone interview that anyone of any faith could participate in the program. On its Web site, however, InnerChange explains that it is "anchored in biblical teaching" and "Christ-centered." It operates in six states, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas, Mr. Earley said. It is partly financed by the state in all but Texas and Arkansas, where it uses private money, he added.

        Religious programs in prisons once used to be chaplaincy efforts and occasional visits by volunteers, but they have now grown into ambitious programs like InnerChange, Professor Tuttle said. He estimated that about 15 states had such programs.

        America's Prisoners Targets for Transformation

        May 26, 2006
        Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

        Yesterday, I discussed how society, by way of our criminal justice system, has unintentionally waged a war on children of prisoners—children without a voice and with little hope of escaping the intergenerational cycle of crime. Today I'd like to tell you of another group of people who have joined the ranks of the voiceless, the marginalized, and the forgotten: prisoners themselves.

        Did you know that 2.3 million Americans spent last night behind prison walls? Did you know that the United States incarcerates more individuals per capita than any other industrialized country in the world? In fact, our incarceration rate is five times higher than the United Kingdom's and six times higher than Canada's. Yet we're doing little or nothing to prepare prisoners to become law-abiding citizens: Nearly two-thirds of the 630,000 men and women released from prison this year will be rearrested within three years.

        Before I came to Prison Fellowship, I couldn't have cared less about prisoners. I believed only that they deserved their time and merited none of my sympathy. Today, I realize that, while we must uphold justice and the rule of law, we must also see prisoners as God sees them—valuable, purposeful, and loved.

        Remarkably, God has reserved a special place in His kingdom for prisoners—the ones we have locked away and forgotten. He even equates visiting the prisoner with visiting the sick.

        Jesus says in Matthew 25, "I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me."

        What does this mean for us who follow Christ? It could mean taking a few minutes each week to write a letter to a prisoner. It could mean sacrificing an afternoon to visit an inmate without a family. It could mean praying with a prisoner who is struggling with loneliness. It could mean discipling prisoners behind bars and walking with them when they come out of prison.

        When we reach out to prisoners in Christ's love, I believe that we are participating in a great work that God is doing—because I believe God is raising up a new generation of leaders for the Church from behind prison walls. Throughout history, God has raised up the vilest of criminals—men like the Apostle Paul, a co-conspirator in murder, and Moses, a murderer and a fugitive—to serve His kingdom, to be vessels of noble use.

        I think of a man I have met and now count as a brother in Christ: Ron Gruber, an ex-leader of a notorious biker gang and a convicted murderer.

        Ron had enemies inside prison and out, including a warden he had attacked years before. But because of Christ's transforming power, Ron has repented. He has reconciled with the warden and others whom he had terrorized. And Ron now devotes his fifty-year prison sentence to preaching Christ and making disciples of other prisoners. What a stunning transformation!

        Yes, we do need prisons to protect our communities from violent, dangerous criminals. As a former attorney general of Virginia, I know that. But we can never forget that we must see prisoners as God sees them: men and women for whom Christ died.

        Oh, and there's one other prisoner I forgot to mention. He was transformed by the grace of Christ: a man named Chuck Colson. I think you and I have heard that name somewhere before.

        For printer-friendly version, simply visit and click on Today's Commentary. The printer-friendly link is on the left-hand column.

        Copyright (c) 2006 Prison Fellowship

        State group awards New Boston pastor for prison ministry work

        Texarkana Gazette

        NEW BOSTON, Texas—Telford Prison Ministries was recently recognized at the 11th Annual Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Awards ceremony held in Austin.

        The ministry was nominated by the chaplaincy department of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and was recognized for donating a visitation center at the Barry Telford State Prison in New Boston, which is used by the family and friends of offenders.

        The center is operated on weekends by ministry volunteers and TPMI has also helped fund Samaritan House, for overnight stays.

        Samaritan House is an old federal housing unit that TPMI remodeled to be used as overnight housing for the visitors of offenders.

        The center, located on prison property, was funded by the ministry and built to the state's specifications and inspected by the state. Once it was completed, the building was donated to the prison with the provision that it could be used by the ministry.

        Although fund-raising activities are held from time to time, the majority of the funds come from individual donors and churches.

        Before the center and Samaritan House were opened, those visiting inmates had to wait outside, no matter the weather, and many spent the night in their cars, said Cox.

        "Family and friends had to wait on the parking lot, sometimes for hours, before their turn to visit came up and some of them, who had driven several hours, would spend the night in their cars," he said.

        Now those visitors have a place to wait indoors that includes restrooms, showers and a place for children to play.

        "We try to be the one positive experience the families have when they come to visit and let people know this is a Christian ministry," said Cox, explaining that, because it is located on state property, the ministry cannot overtly evangelize those using the center.

        In addition, the ministry's outreach includes the distribution of flowers to the mothers of offenders each Mother's Day as well as a Bible if they want one. Also, a day is set aside in September to provide a meal and recognize the officers and staff at the Telford Unit.

        "We want the officers to realize that just because we offer this ministry to the families of the inmates, that doesn't mean we are against the officers. We want to help everyone," he said.

        The ministry has between 50 and 60 active volunteers coordinated by Edna Walker, hospitality director.

        "She is the key to it all and is the real heart of the organization," said Cox.

        As hospitality director, Walker performs many services for the ministry, including picking up people at the bus station or airport and helping the visitors get settled in for their overnight stay as well as coordinating the efforts at the visitor center.

        "We are just trying to make a difficult situation easier," she said.

        Those interested in learning more about the ministry may call Walker at 903-628-0923.

        Man volunteers his time to those doing time
        By: Dee Dixon , The Enterprise

        BEAUMONT - Some people seem too good to be true. But ask those who know Orange resident Leonard Davis, and they attest that he is well-respected by everyone for his tireless dedication to church and people.

        Even the Richard P. LeBlanc Unit inmates - whom the 75-year-old Davis, an assistant chaplain, has spent almost 2,000 hours ministering to - find him uplifting.

        When Davis, a retired engineer whom Gov. Rick Perry recently lauded as a Criminal Justice Volunteer Awards hero, sees inmate Larry St. Jules, a 36-year-old Houston man imprisoned for drug offenses, he smiles.

        "He is always in the hallway smiling," St. Jules said of Davis. "It's just a glow that lets you know you can talk to him and get some positive feedback from him."

        St. Jules, a former high school football star, ran a successful janitorial business but couldn't resist drugs' lure.

        He has been attending daily Bible lessons he hopes will serve as a foundation to stay on track when he is released soon.

        Of St. Jules, Davis said, "I hope he never comes back in here unless he comes in as a preacher."

        Indeed, St. Jules has expressed interest in pursuing just that.

        When asked why he got started in the ministry, Davis looked at St. Jules and, in a pregnant pause, cleared his throat and shifted in his seat before telling the story.

        Before Davis started working at the Stiles Unit in 1993, a friend asked him to serve as a lay missionary at an Arkansas prison when some unmarked graves were unearthed.

        While there, he started a prison ministry, and six months after his initial visit, he returned on a follow-up mission.

        The inmates were battered, bruised and in casts. They wouldn't tell Davis what had happened. He later learned the 30 men in this ministry took on the entire prison population to prevent them from escaping after a riot.

        He realized then the men had really made a decision to turn their lives around.

        "When you find someone willing to sit down and engage you as an individual, it is a precious thing," LeBlanc Unit Chaplain Hurley Clayton Jr. said.

        The Rev. David Berkheimer, pastor of Community Church in Orange, has known Davis more than 20 years.

        "When I came here, his house was open for young people ...who were on drugs or were in trouble," Berkheimer said. "He gave up everything to care for them. He lives with practically nothing."

        He's not kidding.

        About 15 years ago, some young men were staying at Davis' house, racking up $200 phone bills. One month the bill was more than $500, and the phone was turned off.

        "I told them I wasn't going to turn it back on until they paid the bill. It hasn't been on since," Davis said with a laugh.

        Nevertheless, he knows the people he helps are thankful.

        "People come from all over the country to see him because when they were in a real bind, he was there for them," the pastor said.

        Davis volunteers at the LeBlanc Unit from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. But his day begins well before he makes the 37-mile trip from his home to Beaumont.

        He opens up Community Church at 5:15 a.m. daily so parishioners can have their morning prayer.

        "He even makes coffee for anyone who wants it," Berkheimer said. "His whole life is dedicated to helping people. He loves God and people."

        Davis refuses to let bad experiences harden his heart.

        Years ago, a man who had been staying at his home conspired with some friends to steal $7,000 in coins from him.

        "They would be worth about $20,000 today," he said nonchalantly, shrugging his shoulders and turning his palms up. "I don't hold a grudge.

        "If they need it more than I do, I let them have it."
        (409) 880-0737
        ©The Beaumont Enterprise 2006


        The Galveston County Daily News
        Texas' Oldest Newspaper
        Copyright © 2005 The Galveston County Daily News

        Church continues Angel Tree tradition
        By Rick Cousins
        Published November 26, 2005

        FRIENDSWOOD — Anna Catherine Purcell and her friend Mary Ingram, both 8, are watching very closely as an adult explains how to create an angel Christmas tree ornament.

        They are gathered with some of their friends at Trinity Fellowship, a small church in Friendswood.

        Trinity is continuing its long tradition of meeting local needs through the annual Angel Tree Christmas program.

        Each year across Galveston County and nationwide, families in some 13,000 churches of many different denominations prepare gift packages for the children of prisoners. The official tag, provided by the organization says, "This gift is sent to you to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ."

        This evening, some 30 women and their daughters have gathered to make the ornaments that will represent each child and later accompany the wrapped gift to the family.

        “We have a special tradition at Trinity Fellowship," said Gail DeGray, the pastor’s wife. “We make two ornaments per child each year — one to go to the target children and one to go home with each donor family."

        Other churches may use the preprinted angel tags to organize the program.

        DeGray’s husband, the Rev. Bob DeGray, noted that the need was great for gifts each year. He said that he had been moved by the deprivation some families experience while a parent is in prison.

        Church member Rita Balciunas, who lives in the Clear Lake area, recalled delivering presents.

        "The grandmother met us at the door of the apartment complex," Balciunas said, describing a subsidized housing area that had seen better days. "There was a Christmas tree, but there were no lights on it nor any presents under it. There was very little furniture."

        She said the gifts are considered by the recipient family as having come from the parent in prison.

        Angel Tree and church members do not accept credit for their work.

        Balciunas said that delivering the presents was a positive and emotional experience. She hopes to take her daughter along this year on the deliveries.

        Joanna Rask of Taylor Lake Village recalls that her husband, Doug, an Air Force officer assigned to NASA, once cobbled together used bicycles for three delighted Angel Tree recipients, but now the program allows only new gifts. Each gift set contains an item of clothing, a toy and a book. Sometimes a Bible or other church-provided literature is also added. Elizabeth Hughes of League City said that delivering the gifts impressed her own children.

        "Most kids are all about what I want for Christmas," she said. "But it changed my kids, seeing the needs of the families we took gifts to."

        She noted that many families were in desperate need of underwear, socks and warm clothing for the prisoner’s children. Most are living with grandparents or in single-parent homes.

        "Some of the kids have never seen their parent," Hughes said. She recalls one child who had never met his father.

        "The boy had a wooden horse — his most treasured possession," she said. "We were able to give him a gift and a note in his father’s name."

        Bill Lloyd, field director of Angel Tree for Galveston County, said the University of Texas Medical Branch had "decided to bless some 380 children with a big Christmas party this year."

        His office is completing details on the date and times for this new event.

        Angel Tree is a nationwide program that has reached more than 7 million children. The ministry was founded in 1982 by Mary Kay Beard, a former prisoner.

        According to materials provided by the organization, Beard was struck by an annual ritual in the women’s prison.

        Before each Christmas, the female inmates would begin to collect soaps and other toiletries that charities were providing to them. Then they would send home these small items home as gifts to their children. They could not afford to send anything else.

        Now, the Angel Tree organization encourages those in prison to request gifts delivered in their name to their children.

        On the Web:

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