Building a faith-based prison?

Bill Robinson walked through prison doors many times in the 1960s, during the bad times when he bounced in and out of white-collar crime.

It was different the first time he did it as a free man.

"I didn't want to smell that smell, again, or hear that door slam," he said. "I only did it because I thought that's what God wanted me to do. ... Then I lead my first prisoner to Jesus and I've never been the same."

Scores of prison ministers across America can give the same testimony -- men and women who found God and then dedicated their lives to reaching other prisoners. But Robinson's story has taken a unique turn, in part because of a dream born during a series of prison revivals in the mid-1980s.

What would happen, he wondered, if prison reformers, converted convicts, criminologists and clergy got together and built a prison? What if they hired Christian guards and counselors and developed a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week rehabilitation program that offered prisoners a chance to repent of their sins and pay restitution to their victims?

The principalities and powers in Texas prisons didn't like that idea very much back then and, apparently, they still don't today.

But Robinson hasn't given up and the team behind his latest drive to build a faith-based corrections facility includes some unusual players -- from a former director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the former warden of Fort Leavenworth Prison. Their goal is to convince officials in Texas and nearby states to push the "go" button and assign qualified inmates to a 624-bed unit that's waiting to be built in Coleman, three hours west of Dallas.

It also doesn't hurt that many politicians, including both White House candidates, have been calling for more church-state cooperation of this kind. Meanwhile, journalists have been dedicating lots of ink and air time to Texas prisons -- for other reasons.

"We all know the system we have right now isn't getting the job done," said Charles Terrell, the former prison official whose effort to have his name removed from the dedication plaque at the East Texas death-row facility has made headlines. "I know this system inside-out. Look, I was chairman of the board of this system. ...

"We have to try something new. What this Coleman project can be is a tiny piece of frontier, a place where we can touch a few people right before they get out of prison. If you don't change a man's heart, then you haven't changed him. And if you don't teach him how to earn a living, then he's just going to go back to doing what he was doing before you locked him up."

Organizers stress that only medium- to low-security prisoners who are serving the last 12 to 30 months of their sentences and are eligible for release during that time can volunteer to be transferred to the prison managed by Born Again Incorporated. Inmates must agree to participate in intensive education, therapy and employment programs. This includes signing a contract to direct chunks of their salaries to pay some of their own room and board, support their families and pay restitution to their victims. Religious activities would be voluntary.

Hopefully, said Robinson, all kinds of religious leaders -- not just evangelicals -- will step forward to help meet today's prison crisis, in which more and more convicts, serving longer sentences, are being poured into a slowly growing pool of prison cells. While officials say the recidivism rate is about 50 percent, Robinson said insiders say it's 70 percent.

Believers must get involved, he said. Try to imagine America without all the hospitals that religious groups built after World War II. Now they should consider building prisons, even if this will unnerve all kinds of people.

"I don't know why this Coleman thing threatens some people so much," said Robinson.

Then he paused to think.

"Well, maybe I do. The other day a warden told me, 'If you guys are successful, we might have to close down some prisons.' I thought to myself, 'Dear Lord, now wouldn't that be something.' "