ON A BALMY FRIDAY AFTERNOON in the South Texas town of Kenedy, 650 inmates in starched white prison uniforms stand in the yard of the maximum-security John Connally, Jr., unit, squinting at the sky. A propeller plane three thousand feet up has just dropped a parachute, a tiny balloon that floats downward and slowly materializes into modern-day missionary Harvey Glass. For a moment, it looks as though Glass will not be able to negotiate the yard’s razor-wire fences, but as if by divine intervention, a breeze blows him back on course, and he lands with a thud on his target: a white canvas cross with a dove at the center. “Praised be Jesus!” he shouts, throwing up his hands as the inmates go wild. “‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name!’ Psalms 142:7!”
Glass’s aerobatics kick off Weekend of Champions, a prison-outreach program put on by Bill Glass (no relation) and his Cedar Hill—based Bill Glass Ministries, one of the nation’s largest evangelical prison ministries. It’s a weekend of old-fashioned proselytizing with a twist: part revival meeting, part confessional talk show, part traveling circus. Over the past 25 years the ministry’s volunteers have worked with hundreds of thousands of inmates from New York’s Attica to Louisiana’s Angola, trying to save their souls from future damnation and them from more time spent in earthly incarceration. “We’re not a bunch of do-gooders wearing funeral clothes and carrying eighty-pound Bibles,” says one of Glass’s motivational speakers, Jack Murphy, who plotted the theft of the 563-carat Star of India sapphire from New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1964 and is also a convicted murderer. “We’re a frontline, hands-on ministry.”
Murphy is part of a motley crew of ex-cons, former junkies, leather-clad bikers, stock car drivers, weight lifters, sky divers, magicians, and gospel singers who attempts to draw often-reluctant inmates into the fold. They are joined from time to time by sports figures such as Mike Singletary, Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Michael Jordan, and Mean Joe Greene. “When you’re fishing, you need to use good bait,” says Bill Glass, a onetime All-American defensive end at Baylor University who went on to star for the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions before quitting the NFL in 1969 to start a Billy Graham—style crusade. While Glass’ speakers divert the inmates from the tedium of their everyday routine, his ministry’s thousands of volunteers—a group made up mostly of ranchers, salesmen, contractors, small-business owners, and retirees—talk to them one-on-one about bringing Jesus into their lives. “We’re not preaching from the pulpit or using the trappings of the church, because we don’t want to preach to the choir,” says the 62-year-old Glass. “We want to reach the most remote inmate; so instead of going into the prison chapel, we go into the yard.”
Although studies on religion’s ability to curb recidivism have been largely inconclusive, the notion that the solitude of prison can foster much-needed introspection—and that such soul-searching is a prerequisite for success on “the outside”—is gaining credence. In May 1996 Governor George W. Bush appointed a sixteen-member task force to study how state government could assist the work of faith-based groups. “Church and state should work together, with respect for our differences and reverence for our shared goals,” Bush said last December after receiving the task force’s recommendations. Last spring a Harris County prison unit was turned over to Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was founded by Watergate conspirator-turned-preacher Charles Colson, and interfaith churches are springing up on prison grounds, paid for with private donations but maintained by the state. In June the governor signed a bill encouraging the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, as well as other state law enforcement agencies, to use faith-based programs in state prisons.
This is heartening news for Bill Glass, who doesn’t dismiss the importance of rehabilitative programs but sees them as largely useless for people who haven’t changed themselves spiritually first. “More than any other factor, moral and spiritual fiber is needed for success after prison,” he says. “Crisis causes life-changing decisions, and everyone in prison is in crisis.”
Of course, this idea is not new. Inmates have been visited over the years by missionaries of every ilk. But few religious groups have taken on American prisons with such flamboyance, and in such numbers, as Glass’s ministry, which sent more than a thousand volunteers into Huntsville’s prison units during one weekend last year.
The ministry must be invited into prisons by the wardens, and it has been given unprecedented access; while family members are usually separated from inmates by the window of the prison visitation booth, its counselors are allowed to eat meals with inmates, lift weights with them, and even talk to them in lock down, where troublemakers are isolated in cramped, dank cells. And their ability to calm even the most incorrigible prisoners has impressed the wardens. At Connally, for example, which had experienced one murder and several violent confrontations in the month before the ministry’s visit, and where there were 112 disciplinary reports (DRs) written up during the week preceding the visit, there were only 52 DRs during the three-day weekend itself—a particularly low number of rule violations, considering how freely the inmates had mixed during the weekend. In the week following it, there were 72 DRs—not an astonishing change in behavior, but a significant one for a group that some people consider hopelessly unreformable.
“I’ve been in Texas prisons for twenty years, and I was extremely impressed,” says Connally’s assistant warden, Rudy Sanchez. “As far as the offenders go, this is a maximum-security prison, so they are not accustomed to getting along. They’re locked up because they’re chronic violators. But this seems to help quite a few of them. Like anything, some stick with it and others don’t.” Says Connally’s chaplain, Michael Mantooth: “The ministry fertilizes the ground so that your efforts afterward will be a lot more fruitful. It wakes up the inmates, so constructive change can take place.”