RICHMOND, Texas – Killer-turned-artist Manny Hernandez on the prison where he's finishing an eight-year term: "It's a blessing to be here."
Fellow murderer and inmate Raymond Hall likens it to heaven.
"I love this place," says their warden, Cynthia Tilley. "It's so calm."
They're praising the Carol Vance Unit, founded in 1997 on the outskirts of Houston. It's the oldest of a rapidly growing number of faith-based prison facilities across the nation.
Even as they proliferate, fueled by the fervor of devout volunteers, these programs are often criticized. Evidence that they reduce recidivism is inconclusive, and skeptics question whether the prevailing evangelical tone of the units discriminates against inmates who don't share their conservative Christian outlook.
However, evidence is strong that violence and trouble-making drop sharply in these programs, and they often are the only vibrant rehabilitation option at a time when taxpayer-funded alternatives have been cut back.
Inmates at Vance offer another compelling argument. Unlike many of America's 2 million prisoners, they feel they are treated with respect. They have hope.
"A bunch of cats in prison, they never had anyone show them love — even their mother and father," said Anzetta Smith, who served 18 years for attempted murder before graduating from Vance this year. "You get in the program, and everybody shows you love."
Impressed by the Vance operation, Texas officials have opened a dozen faith-based dorms elsewhere in the state, accommodating some 1,300 inmates. At one dorm, at the maximum-security Allred prison near Wichita Falls, infractions by the inmates dropped more than 90 percent once they entered the program.
At Vance, a minimum-security prison, fights among inmates are rare, said Tommie Dorsett, a former parole officer who has directed the unit's Christian-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative since its inception.
He could recall only one incident in those 10 years when a correctional officer used force. "And that officer overreacted," Dorsett said.
Security at Vance is the state's responsibility. But the intensive, daylong programming is entirely in the hands of InnerChange, a project of the Prison Fellowship ministry founded by Chuck Colson, the former Nixon aide imprisoned because of the Watergate scandal.
Vance and eight other InnerChange programs — in the Midwestern states of Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa, and the southern state of Arkansas — operate on the strength of Prison Fellowship's private financial resources and legions of volunteers.
In Florida, by contrast, the Department of Corrections has taken a more direct role, transforming three prisons — two for men, one for women — into "faith and character-based institutions" which it runs itself. The department says inmates at the three prisons committed 30 percent fewer infractions than comparable inmates elsewhere. A state task force recommended creating five more faith-based facilities.
The InnerChange program at Vance is open, on a voluntary basis, to men with less than two years left on their sentences. Sex offenders and inmates with bad disciplinary records are excluded. The days are filled with spiritual and academic classes, community meetings and work duties.
Bibles are a common sight on the bedside tables in the inmates' cubicles. Religious paintings, including eye-catching works by self-taught artist Manny Hernandez, decorate the walls.
Tilley, the warden, said the security staff is asked to treat the inmates politely. The atmosphere can be a pleasant shock to men arriving from tougher prisons.
"In my other prison, on a daily basis there was rape, drugs," said Raymond Hall, who was convicted at 16 of murder and hopes to complete his 15-year sentence in early 2009. "When you come to Carol Vance, it's like a load is lifted. It's like heaven."
Hall had just completed a class where readings included Bible passages and pastor Rick Warren's best-seller, "The Purpose Driven Life."
The instructor, Doug Jeffrey, urged the men to focus on using their resources — family, faith, education — to plan for succeeding when they go free.
"When you got accepted for this program, maybe that was the first time you realized God has a plan for you," Jeffrey said. "You guys are a chosen nation. You go out from prison with a different mind-set from guys not in this program."
Each inmate is assigned a volunteer mentor who provides counseling before and after release, assisting with job hunting and housing. Outgoing inmates are feted at a graduation ceremony, then leave the prison with their mentor — a sharp contrast to most Texas inmates, who exit with no assistance beyond $50 and directions to the bus station.
Florida's program also welcomes help from a wide range of volunteers, mostly but not exclusively from Christian organizations. Among them is Allison DeFoor, a former sheriff and judge who volunteers at the Lawtey prison near Jacksonville.
"It didn't feel like any prison I'd been to in my life," DeFoor said. "It felt more like a college."
However, the department's chaplaincy director, Alex Taylor, sees possible problems ahead if well-motivated inmates are concentrated in a few facilities.
"These type of inmates have a calming effect — they help maintain good work levels and good behavior," Taylor said. "If we put them all in one institution, it could have a bad effect on the bad guys elsewhere."
Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, has qualms about whether the faith-based programs are fair to non-Christian inmates but hesitates to criticize them because they fill a void. Two decades of tough-on-crime policies have sharply reduced the number of rehabilitative prison programs, she said, and volunteer-driven religious initiatives offer states a low-cost way to meet some of the demand.
In all, at least 10 states now have faith-based prison dorms. The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates private prisons, has separate "faith pods" housing about 1,660 inmates at 24 prisons in 13 states.
"The inmates have far fewer discipline issues," said CCA's John Lanz.
While disciplinary trends have been easy to track, it's been harder to compile data proving that faith-based programs succeed at their core mission — reducing recidivism.
Nationally, federal experts estimate that two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are re-arrested for serious offenses within three years, and 52 percent go back behind bars. Proponents of faith-based programs insist they can achieve lower rates. But supportive data remains scarce, and some skeptics say the programs "cherry-pick" motivated inmates who would be less likely to re-offend under any circumstances.
Only about 10 percent of the inmates released from Florida's faith-based prisons have been reincarcerated. But an independent study last year also found very low recidivism among Florida inmates with similar characteristics who didn't go through the faith program.
Similarly, proponents of the InnerChange program at Vance have touted a 2003 study asserting that only 8 percent of its graduates returned to prison. But critics belittled that finding, saying it measured recidivism only for inmates who completed the program and got jobs, not for the larger number who dropped out and had a high recidivism rate.
"It's not that these programs are a bad idea," said Dan Mears, a Florida State University criminologist. "But there's no good evidence that they work."
To some graduates, like Anzetta Smith, their own positive experience is evidence enough.
He now works for a tent manufacturer and dates a nurse who shares his newly deepened faith.
"There's a team of support that's willing to help with any problem you have," said Smith, 47, after a weekly self-help meeting in Houston. "Our chances of staying out are way better because of it."
Leaders of InnerChange and other faith-based programs say they don't tolerate coercive proselytizing and welcome inmates of all faiths, as well as nonbelievers.
At Vance, the inmates include Quan Pham, 28, a Buddhist whose family came from Vietnam to Texas when he was 2. He's now in the eighth year of a 10-year sentence for aggravated robbery committed while he was attending the University of Houston.
Pham said he was comfortable with the volunteers who teach Christian principles at Vance.
"They say, 'Try it, you might like it,' but they don't try to impose it on you," he said. "They don't expect anything from you except to participate."
However, the InnerChange program in Iowa is the target of a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which contends that state funds were used for religious indoctrination. It alleges that cooperative inmates received preferential treatment, while some Roman Catholic inmates — not embracing the evangelical approach — were denigrated.
A federal judge agreed with Americans United. He ordered the program be shut down, and said InnerChange must reimburse its $1.5 million (euro1 million) payment from the state. The case could have ramifications for faith-based programs across the United States. It's now under appeal, and the program has been allowed to continue temporarily using only private funds, as is the policy at Vance and other InnerChange programs.
Alex Luchenitser, an Americans United attorney, said his group's primary concern is equal treatment of all inmates, regardless of their faith or lack of one.
"Legally, it's not relevant whether these programs are effective or not," he said.
InnerChange officials have repudiated the anti-Catholic attitudes recounted during the Iowa trial and insist they welcome a diversity of inmates.
Nonetheless, participation by Muslim and Catholic inmates in some of the programs has been modest. At Vance, only 16 of the more than 270 inmates are Catholic — far from the overall 20 percent that Catholics constitute throughout the Texas prison system.
Sam Dunning, a deacon overseeing Catholic social-justice programs in Houston, suggested that InnerChange's evangelical flavor could unsettle Catholic inmates even if they encountered no overt pressure.
"For us to go to Bible study, to hymn sings — that's not complete," Dunning said. "We need the Mass, we need a priest present."
Prison Fellowship's president, former Virginia attorney general Mark Earley, said any move to curtail evangelicals' volunteer work in prisons would undermine the prospects for greater nationwide emphasis on rehabilitation.
"If you excluded faith-based groups, you're excluding the largest number of people willing to be involved," he said. "There's not a whole lot of other people lining up at the prison doors."
Lloyd Knapp, a retired corporate executive who volunteers at Vance, is among those who pitches in.
As a mentor, Knapp, 76, tries to keep in touch with his proteges after their release. At the prison, he counsels inmates who come into a tiny office to share their troubles.
"Some just need someone to listen," Knapp said. "I'm not telling them how to live their life. Everything in life God has given them, and it's up to them how to use it."