INNERCHANGE FREEDOM INITIATIVE
By Pat Curry
Gilbert Garcia was happy to help build a home with LaTonia Stephenson and her three children because of the way God has blessed his life. "I've been changed," he says, "in the ways I used to have, in my way of thinking. This makes me feel real good. I'm giving something back to society instead of hurting."
Garcia understands now how much he hurt other people when he was selling crack cocaine. He understands why he lost his three children when he went to prison nine years ago, and why it's such a miracle to get them back.
Garcia is part of the inaugural group of InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based program in the Texas prison system that combines Bible study, vocational training, mentoring and community service. Together, they are designed to change the attitudes--and ultimately the behavior--of inmates before they are released.
Eligibility is limited to those inmates who have less than 18 months to serve on their sentences, whose crimes did not involve sexual offenses, and have no major disciplinary actions pending.
"The Bible is the main thing in their lives," says E.G. Macias, a guard assigned to the crew. "They're up at about 4 a.m. They have devotions at 5 or 5:30, do morning work at the prison, then have classes from 12:30 to 9 p.m. It's really helped my unit. At first, we had them segregated. Now they're helping other prisoners. You've got to be there to see it."
After completing 12 months of training, the inmates were permitted to leave the prison for community service. With JCWP, that included pre-building walls at the affiliate warehouse, and then building the house during the blitz. Mark Castellana, a commercial contractor from Dallas, was house leader for the week, and admitted to being somewhat unsettled when he learned his crew would be made up of inmates.
"I was a little nervous," he says, "but within 90 minutes I abandoned that. It's an honor and a pleasure. The guys are great. They're incredibly polite. I've never met a harder working group of volunteers in my six years with Habitat. We had to drag them off the roof in the rain and lightning."
Tom Owens is a real estate developer who coordinates the program at the Jester II Unit and provided the funds to sponsor the house. To him, Habitat and InnerChange are a perfect partnership. Now that the men are trained in various phases of construction, they want to expand their efforts to build cabinets, which are a significant expense for Habitat houses.
"Inmates have to do things for nonprofits," he says. "They can't make money. The state is willing to provide vocational training, the men give back to the community and Habitat provides for needy families."
Owens and his wife, Patti, spent a day working with the crew on the site. "This has been our pet project," she says. "You're getting more for your money because you're doing something for a family and the prisoners. It's been such a blessing. You don't hear any swear words at this site, even when they had to take down the siding three times."
That's because the crew members know why they're working and who they're working for. "This isn't for restitution. It's for God," says Gregory Stewart, an inmate nearing the end of a five-year sentence for delivering drugs. "He's in the plans."
John and Belvin Richard
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