A look at an extraordinary prison in Texas
Houston, Texas — ‘Everyone he meets,” says a friend of Brent Johnson’s, “winds up going to prison.” Johnson is a Houston businessman. And he volunteers in a prison. Those he meets, he encourages to volunteer as well. They often do, and they wind up enjoying it. There are some 1,200 volunteers in this particular prison — and only 300 prisoners. That is an astonishing ratio.
The prison is the Carol S. Vance Unit, in Richmond, outside of Houston. The prison is dedicated to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which is part of the Prison Fellowship started by Chuck Colson in 1976. IFI began in 1997. It started with 25 prisoners and five volunteers. In a biography of Colson, Jonathan Aitken, the British politician and ex-con, makes a large claim: IFI is the most successful prisoner-rehabilitation program in America. It may well be true. The program has many components, and one of them is a Business Plan Expo: Inmates present plans for businesses they’d like to start once they’re on the outside. Pros like Brent Johnson serve as judges.
Colson got the idea for IFI when he visited a Christian-run prison, Humaitá, in Brazil. He thought there ought to be similar prisons in the United States. The governor of Texas, George W. Bush, accepted, and with alacrity. He ordered that such a prison be up and running in 90 days. It was. IFI is one of the “faith-based initiatives” associated with Bush. This particular initiative, in the words of Prison Fellowship’s website, “is a reentry program for prisoners based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.” Inmates begin the program 18 to 24 months before their release date, and they stay in it for a year afterward. IFI offers “a prison like no other,” says a brochure. Darrin Clifton, a “graduate” of the program, says it’s true. “I got culture shock when I went in there.” He had been in other prisons, but the atmosphere in this one was entirely different. Missing were the norms of prison life: deception, hostility, gambling, porn, and so on.
A big aim of IFI is to “break the cycle of criminality.” Tommie Dorsett, the director at the Vance Unit, has a memory. (By the way, he is considered a hero by some in Texas, but he is not to be confused with another hero, Tony Dorsett, the ex–Cowboy running back. But confused with him, he has often been.) He once saw three generations huddled together in prison: grandfather, father, and grandson. All were inmates, and “they thought it was kind of cool, which broke my heart.” The recidivism rate for IFI graduates is 10 percent. The rate for American prisoners in general is somewhere between 68 and 72 percent. There is one other IFI prison, located in Minnesota. There used to be one in Iowa, but it fell to its opponents: A group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State waged a political and legal battle against it.
The Carol S. Vance Unit, however, still stands, and tall. It is named for someone who was instrumental in the establishment of the prison. Though the first name may mislead, Carol Vance is a man, and a man and a half: In the 1960s and ’70s, he was the district attorney in Harris County, i.e., Houston, and he has since devoted himself to prison reform. He was chairman of the board of directors of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice when Colson had his idea. He sold Vance on it. Vance figured he could sell Bush on it, which of course he did. In 1999, the prison was named after Vance himself. He still volunteers there, and in other prisons.
Inmates have to apply to IFI, from elsewhere in the Texas system. They do not have to be a Christian, or a believer, before they enter or after. Or during. But they have to want what the program has to offer, and they have to want a “spiritual or moral transformation,” as the above-quoted brochure says. Many prisoners have no interest at all, says Dorsett. They just want to do their time and not be bothered. The IFI prisoners want to be bothered. They are willing to give up some things — not just the obvious vices, but television and recreation, too.
A person might assume that IFI prisoners are the cream of the crop, relatively upstanding gentlemen who committed minor crimes and are ready to put on a suit and tie and go back to work. It’s true that there are no sex offenders in the Vance Unit — Texas has a separate program for that. But everyone else is present, “from check-writers to murderers,” as Dorsett says. The average sentence of IFI prisoners is 19 years. There is a range of ages, from 21 to 58. The goal is rehabilitation, but as Dru Bennett, a volunteer, says, some of these men have never been “habilitated” in the first place. (There are no women in the Vance Unit.) She’s not really joking. They never had a foundation from which they could grow. Probably, they never knew a father, and if they had a mother, she might have been a drug addict or prostitute, or both.
They keep busy in the Vance Unit, engaged in the program from 6:30 in the morning till 9 at night. They study a variety of subjects. They learn to reconnect with their children, or connect with them for the first time. They hear from victims of crime, who explain how those crimes have affected their lives. In a steady stream, visitors, volunteers, mentors, come in from the outside. Darrin Clifton says that inmates in most prisons have little contact with “regular people,” or people in the “free world.” They may have forgotten how to relate to such people (or perhaps they never knew). It’s important to have these contacts, so that reentry into the free world is less shocking. Experts from Toastmasters come into the Vance Unit, to prep inmates on how to speak in public. Capital One, the banking corporation, comes in to tutor inmates in their business plans.
‘Business Leaders of Tomorrow,” is how the annual expo is billed. The entrepreneurial talents of inmates are called forth. As Clifton says, many of these guys have been entrepreneurs their whole lives: dealing drugs, which takes a certain amount of planning and energy. Dru Bennett helps to coordinate the expo. She got into prison work when she pondered the Biblical admonition to visit those in prison (as well as feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.). Her family is still not comfortable with her forays into prison, but she seems very comfortable. A financial officer in a company, she’s a natural for the Business Expo.
For five to eight months, those inmates who choose — this is an “elective” — work on their business plans. These plans are meticulous, nearly exhaustive. The inmates have been coached by Capital One. In addition to mentors, Capital One provides loans, once the prisoners are out. This year, the expo was held on October 23. There were 44 participants and 30 judges. Capital One paid for the lunch — a Texas barbecue, naturally. The participants proposed businesses of many sorts: lawn service, a tattoo studio, commercial refrigeration, barber shops, a bakery, a car wash, a pizzeria . . . Ads for these businesses are already made up, as if the businesses already existed: “If you don’t want to do it, call Snap 2 It!” (That’s a painting company.) All the ads identify who the owner is: “Alan Parker — Owner.” This suggests a certain pride or expectation. You can tell by the participants’ names alone that there is a mixture in the Carol Vance population — a mixture of races and ethnicities: David Buckingham, Jonzz Re’ Banks, Ernesto Aguilar, Success Nwosu, Nam Luong. (The last of these, in fine Vietnamese-American tradition, has proposed a nail salon.)
Judges come from the Houston business community. They fill out evaluations, ask questions of the presenters, and give them their advice. The judges are to be frank and honest. “They’re not supposed to be cheerleaders,” says Clifton. “The worst thing you can do to a con is lie to him. Don’t spare a con’s feelings.” Tony Masraff has served as an expo judge. Some of the presenters are off base, he says. Others propose businesses that he himself would like to invest in. Dru Bennett says that IFI grads have succeeded in leatherworking, plumbing, and landscaping, among other endeavors. They might have to do some day-laboring at first — but some will get their businesses off the ground.
Arriving in town a little late, I visit the Carol Vance Unit a week after the expo. From the outside, the prison looks to me like a lot of other prisons. (I’ve been in a few.) But inside, it is much different. I’d heard the praise for this unit — the hype, if you will — but I may not have believed it if I hadn’t come to see for myself. The prisoners are wearing white uniforms. Otherwise, as people have said, you might think you were in a Bible college. The prisoners do not have the usual demeanor: the shuffle, the swagger, the glower, the smirk. They look you in the eye, tell you their name, give you a firm handshake, and thank you for coming. I find it somewhat unnerving at first. Several of the inmates reprise their business-plan presentations for a group of us. They’ve already done it, but they welcome the practice. One or two seem nervous. All are eager to do their best. There seems to be no resentment of us outsiders, just genuine appreciation.
The presenters tend to be nicely theatrical, having a touch of showbiz about them. They say that they are “soon to be the owner-operator” of this or that business. Then they speak as if the businesses were already in operation: “We do this,” “We do that” — and by “we,” they may mean themselves alone. They think ambitiously.
One presenter is Benjamin Seawright, who proposes the Tejas Buckle Company — belt buckles depicting historical events and institutions in Texas. “Commemorating Texas History One Hand Made Buckle at a Time,” is the motto. Seawright has been making these buckles for many years: for wardens, police officers, and others. One of his buckles honors the Texas Rangers, not the baseball team but the “iconic law enforcement organization that represents Texas heritage at its finest.” (I’m quoting from his plan.) The Ranger buckle is on display in the Texas Ranger Museum. After his presentation, Seawright tells us that he has been in and out of prison since he was 17, and is now 55. Till now, he says, he has not been able to “shake the cycle” — the cycle of crime. But he is discovering that “you can teach an old dog new tricks.” He says that IFI has shown him “more grace and mercy than I deserve.”
While behind bars, and in IFI, Darrin Clifton learned about videography. (Incidentally, he was named after the character in Bewitched, the old sitcom.) He finds it amazing that he was able to “explore my passion,” namely videography, while in prison. The offense that landed him there was aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, plus kidnapping. He says of IFI, “They prayed for me when I couldn’t pray for myself.” These days, he is getting some videography gigs. Tommie Dorsett tells me that an IFI grad recently got married. Another IFI grad was the best man. Clifton shot the wedding. Dorsett attended. Clifton’s admiration of Dorsett is boundless, and this admiration is shared by everyone else, as far as I can tell. When I relate this to Dorsett, he will have none of it: “It’s not me, it’s God.”
The day after my visit to the prison, I see Dorsett at an event in Houston. I ask him about eruptions of violence. How many times has he himself been attacked (and he has been at the prison since it opened, 16 years ago)? Not once, is the answer. There have been no attacks at all, on anyone. When I express surprise at this, Dorsett says it’s the atmosphere: There is no need for a “game face,” an attitude, machismo. This makes perfect sense: Just as there is pressure to conform to the bad, there is pressure to conform to the good. Later, I ask Dorsett about a dog not barking: I have heard not one word about race, in connection with the Carol Vance Unit or IFI. This is very unusual, not just for prison but for this country. Is race an issue at Carol Vance? Is there tension? Almost none, says Dorsett: “We make a big push for unity, and we support each other.”
Not everyone is able to embrace a prisoner. One who can, literally, is George W. Bush. He attended the prison’s opening ceremony 16 years ago. The men started to sing “Amazing Grace,” and he joined in. He put his arm around one of them. As Dorsett tells me, someone muttered, “That guy will never get elected president. They’ll call him soft on crime. The headlines will read ‘Bush Hugs a Thug.’ He just put his arm around a murderer.” That murderer was George Mason, whom Bush later invited to the White House, three times. Mason would move in to hug the president; the Secret Service’s eyes would get wide.
The first thing Tony Masraff ever did at Carol Vance was attend a Christmas party. The men, surrounded by their families, seemed so normal: friendly, articulate, poised. What could they have done? Brent Johnson assured him he could go ahead and ask. So Masraff asked the first guy, “What are you in for?” Murder. The man had killed a drug dealer. That was one thing — but Masraff asked the second guy, “What are you in for?” Murder again — but this man had killed a cop. Naturally, this gave the visitor pause. Masraff had always believed that if you took a man’s life, you had to forfeit your own. His views have changed, though, in the course of his involvement with IFI.
Johnson has volunteered at Carol Vance for twelve years, and has had six “walkouts” — six opportunities to walk out of prison with an inmate on Release Day. These are exciting occasions, says Johnson: “to see them in their street clothes for the first time, to treat them to a meal of their choosing.” Condemned prisoners get to choose a last meal, he points out; released prisoners should be able to choose a first meal, on the outside.
Personally, I am not dewy-eyed about prisoners and prison reform. I feel sure I have more sympathy for prisoners than do most people; but, like most people, I have yet more sympathy for their victims. I know full well that cons are good at conning — the cleverest of them could persuade the warden to drive the getaway car. I have long harbored skepticism about prison reform. Years ago, I heard a weary criminologist say that the only thing that cured a criminal was the passage of time — old age. But the wild card of religion is a wild and fascinating card indeed. IFI prisoners can cite such criminals as Moses (who killed a man, though the man was a slave-whipper), David (who committed assorted crimes), and Paul (ditto). There is no question that some, or many, IFI prisoners are transformed.
To borrow language from the first Bush, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at the Carol S. Vance Unit is a “point of light.” To borrow language from the second Bush, it is a prize example of “compassionate conservatism” — a term much derided, especially by conservatives, but one with obvious substance. People have come up with various euphemisms for prisons. We call them rehabilitation centers, but no one is ever rehabilitated. We call them correctional facilities, but no one is ever corrected. We call them penitentiaries, but no one is ever penitent. IFI is something rare and good under the sun. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind investing in some of those proposed businesses myself.