As a prisoner walks the hot and humid prison halls on his way to his home cell, with most others doors open, fellow inmates slowly come out and surround him. The only sound is from electric fans trying to keep the intense heat and humidity under control. The prisoner looks around into the intense faces of his fellow inmates and can hardly control the overwhelming emotions on his face. Still wet from being shoved fully underwater for what seemed like an eternity, he clenches both hands into a set of tight hard fists. The circle of inmates surrounding him respond in-kind, also forming their hands into firm fists. They all rejoice together, shoving their fists heavenward and shouting “Hallelujah.” Jonsey has just been baptized in prison by Prison Fellowship volunteers in response to his embracing the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.
Prisons are overflowing worldwide, especially in the United States. Many in prison are there because of drug possession or dealing. Others, for stealing or other crimes of desperation. Many also serve time for murder, manslaughter and DWI’s. In prison, all nearly struggle with hopelessness.
Prisons are often populated by people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, but not always. One exception was Chuck Colson, former special counsel to President Richard Nixon. Colson was caught up in the Watergate scandal and facing potential prison time when he experienced a religious conversion of his own. Critics were skeptical of his new Christian faith, accusing Colson of a claiming a conversion as a ploy to reduce his prison sentence. But when Colson emerged from a stint in prison, he founded a new ministry, Prison Fellowship, and spent the rest of his life seeking to give lasting hope to people in prison.
The Innerchange Freedom Initiative is a privately funded program launched by Prison Fellowship in 1997. Under the voluntary program, inmates live in the same housing unit and are taught values and life skills based on the teaching of Jesus Christ. The program is open to inmates of all faiths or of no faith. Studies indicate that inmates who graduate from the program are 60 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated than the prison population at large.
When a new prisoner enters the Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, other prisoners do not threaten them. They are not spit upon. Gang signs don’t exist. For participants of the program, love, acceptance and forgiveness flows from the inhabitants of their new home, instead of the violence and turmoil too often seen inside of prison walls.
The following are just three of many testimonies coming from the work inside these Christ-centered program:
David pushed the needle into his arm and filled his system with heroin and from there life fell into a deep pit. He was only 15 years old. He lost count of his arrests for robbery, trafficking and eventually manslaughter. At the end of his second prison term, he met the volunteers of Prison Fellowship and his life was changed for good.
Bryan loved to run. He didn’t know it, but God had gifted him with the ability to run fast. Fast enough to land a college track scholarship. The only thing that slowed him down were rocks in his shoes, rocks of cocaine. Bryan lasted just one semester before dropping out to pursue his addiction. A drug-filled spiral ended with a knife fight for drugs, which led to a sentence in a Texas prison. Then one day, he experienced Christian love, acceptance and forgiveness. By the time he was halfway through the Innerchange program, he was offered parole, but he convinced the board to allow him to stay in prison for one more year so he could finish the program. He walked out of prison in 2014, firmly grounded in his Christian faith.
Jonsey was a good boy growing up, but soon found a gang to replace his fractured family. One fight ended in a death that ultimately sent Jonsey to prison. The next several years allowed him to reassess his life and future. The Innerchange program showed him a new way.
The Christian gospel offers freedom from all kinds of bondage. For Jonsey and many others, the Innerchange program it offers a different kind of freedom—even for those facing many years of incarceration. After receiving Christ as his Lord and Savior, he was baptized in a makeshift baptismal inside the prison walls. As Jonsey rose from the water, his joy reflected a kind of freedom that prison walls could not contain.