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.”

Early on the Friday morning of the long weekend when some two hundred of his ministry’s volunteers will visit Connally and four nearby prisons, Bill Glass is standing in the Beeville First Baptist Church in an Adidas warm-up suit, his thick gray hair tucked into a baseball cap. The volunteers, who have come to Beeville from all over the country and booked every hotel room in town, are arriving for the Spiritual Enrichment service—which Glass likens to “a coach giving a pep talk before his players leave the locker room.”

Next to the pulpit stands Cindy McMullen, the winner of Texas’ 1995 Mrs. Harley-Davidson crown, in snug red Wranglers, white spike heels, and a sequined top, singing “Amazing Grace” as latecomers file into the pews. The Christian Motorcycle Association, known as God’s Riders, reverently remove their leather caps as they enter the chapel. Jack Murphy plays the fiddle, then Glass gets the audience fired up (“Let’s introduce these men to their new head coach!”). Finally, Johnny Ray Watson, a six-foot-nine former basketball player with a rich baritone, sings a few gospel songs, closing the service by saying, to a chorus of amens, “Today we’re going to make the devil’s kingdom mad!”

After Spiritual Enrichment, the ministry’s motivational speakers and volunteers fan out across the countryside in yellow school buses to the five area prisons. At the Connally unit, Harvey Glass gets things rolling by skydiving into the yard, followed by the roar of ten Harleys. Wearing chaps, bandannas, dark sunglasses, and black leather jackets that say “Riding for the Son,” the bikers weave in and out of the assembled crowd as the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” blares over the public-address system, and the inmates look alternately elated and bewildered by the frenetic activity that has replaced the monotony of prison life.

Throughout the afternoon and the next day, the prisoners hear speakers’ personal testimonies, such as the jaw-dropping story of Harold Thompson, a compulsive gambler who started robbing banks in 1949 to support his craps habit. (“When they named that dice game ‘crap,’ they sure named it right,” he likes to say.) Thompson tells of living the high life robbing banks in the Midwest and landing himself on the FBI’s Most Wanted list before being caught and sentenced to Alcatraz for 105 years. After Alcatraz closed, he wound up serving time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he was “saved” by a prison chaplain. Thompson in turn saved 350 fellow inmates—a feat that got the attention of President Nixon, who granted him an unconditional pardon in 1974.

The inmates are mesmerized by Thompson’s story, but Jack Murphy is the real star of the show. When Murphy walks into the yard, they crowd around him, yelling “Murph!” and asking him to sign their Bibles, ministry pamphlets, or any old scrap of paper they can find. “How you doing, brother?” Murphy asks one inmate, slapping him on the back as the man breaks into a huge smile. “How you feeling?” he asks another, who looks surprised that anyone bothered to ask.

Most of them are familiar with Murphy, a professional violinist and champion surfer, because he pulled off one of the biggest jewel robberies in American history. After serving time for the Star of India theft, he and an accomplice brutally murdered two women in Florida in 1967, and the following year he attempted to rob a Miami Beach socialite. In 1974, while Murphy was serving time for those crimes, Bill Glass visited him in prison and turned his life around, he says; he was released in 1986—although he is on parole until November 11, 2244. Asked why he continues to cross the country spreading the gospel when he has to return to Florida every week for his parole meeting, he replies, “If you were a scientist with the cure for cancer, would you sit at home twiddling your thumbs?”

Addressing the assembled inmates, Murphy says, “I put in a lot of time for the devil. Anything that leads a man to the joint is counterfeit. It isn’t God’s plan.” The crowd is cheering. There are more testimonies of being saved: from Sandi Fatow, a former Jimi Hendrix groupie who tells a wrenching story of heroin addiction  and boyfriends lost to the electric chair; from Tom “Hammer” Hughes, a potbellied biker who “lived in the bottom of a longneck for ten years” after fighting in Vietnam; and from former pro-wrestling star Tully Blanchard, decked out in his old black velvet World Wrestling Federation robe, who tells of losing his career to cocaine addiction. And there are performances: from Tanya Crevier, who spins ten basketballs on her body simultaneously; Bunny Martin, the “yo-yo champion of the world”; and country singers Johnny Ray Watson and Clifton Jansky, who sings his prison hit “They May Know Your Number, But Jesus Knows Your Name.”

Inside Connally, Mike McInerney is at work speaking with inmates one-on-one. He walks down one of the prison’s long, concrete corridors, past the riot gear and tear gas canisters, to the area known as lock down. Inmates in lock down have been known to fling razor-sharp homemade spears and even feces, but McInerney ignores the sign instructing all personnel to wear protective goggles and walks up to cell 12A.

“Good morning,” McInerney says cheerfully through the small wire grill on the cell’s metal door. “What’s your name?”

A bare-chested man with the name of his gang, Barrio Azteca, tattooed across his stomach peers warily at McInerney. “Who wants to know?”

McInerney introduces himself, explaining that he was a New Orleans drug dealer for ten years before he was saved and that he’s come to Connally at his own expense to introduce the inmates to Jesus. “Have you ever read this before?” he asks, pulling a worn red-leather-bound Bible out of his back pocket.

“No, man,” the inmate says, laughing at McInerney’s earnestness. “The only book I read is Playboy.

“Well, I’ll tell you something. God isn’t like a SWAT team. He’s not going to kick down the door and force his way in. You’ve got to invite him.”

“What has God done for me, man? Nothing.”

“Have you ever seen someone who’s sick take medicine?” McInerney asks. “At first they don’t look any better, but the medicine is working. That’s what it’s like when you pray.”

They talk in this vein for close to an hour, and then the inmate—who has slowly grown more receptive to his visitor—tells McInerney that he’d like to pray. They bow their heads and touch fingertips through the grate. “Repeat after me,” McInerney says, “Lord Jesus, I need you . . .”

On average, the ministry has a 20 percent success rate, meaning that roughly 20 percent of any given prison population will make a “commitment to Christ” by the end of a Weekend of Champions. Are these meaningful spiritual transformations or only temporary jailhouse conversions? “It’s debatable if their commitments are real,” says Bill Glass, “but that’s true of people in any church.” (The ministry doesn’t keep track of how many “saved” inmates stay out of trouble.) The seriousness of an inmate’s commitment, Glass says, becomes clear in the months following the ministry’s visit; if the inmate corresponds with one of the ministry’s volunteers, regularly reads the Bible, and stays nonviolent, there’s a good chance that he has been saved.

 At the close of this Weekend of Champions, an extraordinary thing happens: The assembled inmates, many of whom are involved in deep gang rivalries or bitter racial feuds, spontaneously begin to hug one another. Some stand in clusters, laughing, while others sit on the concrete floor and talk. A few stand to the side of the crowd, praying with ministry volunteers. And some walk out of the yard arm-in-arm.

Pamela Colloff has written for Details and OnPatrol magazines.